My partner Jools and I went on a NatureArt Lab tour to Sabah several months ago. I have been on twelve other photo tours or workshops in the last eight years and organised a couple myself. This one stood out not merely for the magic of the rainforest wildlife but also as socially harmonious and stimulating.
We started off with a few days in Kota Kinabalu to acclimatise us to the hot and humid tropical climate. Sabah is in general quite safe and has the advantage that most people speak English. In the next couple of weeks we visited Mt Kinabalu, Poring Hot Springs, Sabah Tea Plantation, Sepilok, Kinabatangan River and Tabin.
The highlights for me were seeing giant flying squirrels, bearded pigs, orangutans and sun bears in Sepilok, pig tailed macaques, proboscis monkeys and a slow loris at the Kinabatangan River and gibbons, hornbills, a clouded leopard and a tarsier in Tabin. We also saw butterflies and giant rafflesia flowers in Poring Hot Springs and different varieties of exotic insects and birds everywhere we stopped.
The trip was disconcerting as well because as magnificent as the Bornean rainforest and animals are, it brings home how little is left and how fast it has disappeared. As recently as 1980, Borneo was covered in rainforest. Now the proportion of primary forest is very small and most of the secondary (logged) forest has been converted to palm oil plantations. This has implications for both the wildlife and for the climate crisis. We nearly saw the last male Bornean Rhinoceros but he fell sick shortly before we arrived and died soon after. These are more closely related to the European woolly rhinoceros of the Ice Age than African or Asian rhinos. A few closely related rhinos hang on in Sumatra but their future is uncertain. This is also the case for many of the species of Borneo.
An important factor in our planet’s continuing survival as a place congenial to humans and wildlife is the lungs of the rainforests. While palm oil plantations are better than concrete and produce income for the local population, they emit much less carbon dioxide than rainforest. Of course the developed countries of the West have a large share of the responsibility for the climate crisis and in Australia we have already destroyed most of our rainforest, albeit over a much longer period.
It is important to turn this situation around as much as is still possible. The surviving rainforest and wildlife are still magnificent. Tourism can be a two-edged sword but by visiting Sabah (or Borneo) to see its rainforest and wildlife and thereby spending money to support the local economy, perhaps we can encourage the region’s governments to protect their rainforests and wildlife, and expand the protected areas.
Photographic images: Murray Foote