Flat-headed cat in captivity
Flat-headed cat in Khao Kheow zoo, Eastern Thialand

Searching for the Flat-headed Cat – Day 1

Deep in the ancient jungle of Malaysian Borneo, trapped in the narrow stretch of forest between the endless sea of oil-palm plantations and the Kinabatangan River, one of the world’s rarest and least known felines – the Flat-headed cat – clings to survival against all odds.

This small rusty-colored cat is one of the most unusual members of the feline family. Unlike most cats, it spends most of its waking time in or near water, hunting fish and other aquatic vertebrates.

It takes its name from its unusually long, sloping snout and flattened top of its skull. It has small ears, set low down the sides of its head, large eyes and long, narrow jaws that contain pointy backward-facing teeth.  Its feet are partially webbed and its claws do not fully retract into their sheaths. While it may look quite odd, the Flat-headed cat is well adapted for its semi-aquatic life style.

There is a record of a Flat-headed being accidentally trapped by a group of primate researchers in Borneo in 2005. The team released the cat in a forested area about 10 meters from the riverbank. When the cage door was opened the cat walked straight to the riverbank, entered the water and dived in. It then swam 25 meters across the river, emerged on the opposite bank and walked away.

Flat-headed cat, Khao Kheow Zoo, Thailand
Flat-headed cat, Khao Kheow Zoo, Thailand

Unfortunately, it is this unusually aquatic lifestyle that is proving to be the Flat-headed cat’s doom. The last remnants of its preferred lowland riverine habitat are being rapidly converted to oil palm plantations.  As a result, the Flat-headed cat is listed as endangered, with the entire population size of fewer than 2,500 mature individuals and no individual populations larger than 250 animals.

The Flat-headed cat is found only on the islands of Borneo, Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia.  Most sightings come from Kinabatangan River in Borneo. And this is why I am here, at Kinabatangan Jungle Camp. I have four days and four nights to try my luck at finding this unique cat. Even here the cats are rare and difficult to see and I am not at all certain that I will find what I came here for.

Bearded pigs family, Kinabatangan River
Bearded pigs family

Kinabatangan Jungle Camp

Kinabatangan Jungle Camp is set within a protected area on the bank of Kinabatangan River, surrounded by the secondary forest and all the wildlife it contains. When I arrived in late morning, two families of Bearded pigs, consisting of 2 sows and 7 piglets were peacefully browsing below the restaurant, accompanied by half a dozen of enormous monitor lizards. Slightly further out a troop of noisy Long tailed macaques was squabbling in the trees. A solitary Storm’s stork stood snoozing in the shade. There are no more than 500 of these birds left in the world and there was one of the 500 – a resident of KJC.

Storm's stork at Kinabatangan River
Storm’s stork

Once I dropped off my bags it was time for lunch, which is the best South East Asian tradition was served as a delicious buffet that would put to shame most of the Malaysian restaurants in Sydney.  As I was eating my way through the highlights of Malaysian cuisine, a cheeky Prevost’s squirrel abseiled from a nearby tree onto the railing of the restaurant. Hesitantly at first, it approached the table where the camp staff were sitting and was rewarded with a juicy slice of paw paw.

Prevost's squirrel at Kinabatangan River
Prevost’s squirrel

“One of the reasons there is a lot of wildlife around here is that the villages along this part of the river are Muslim and by virtue of their religion, Muslims do not eat wild animals”, -Robert, the camp owner was saying. “They also do not use any animal parts for fashion or medicine so the wildlife hasn’t been hunted much in these parts. In other parts of the river, there is much less wildlife, it has simply been eaten by the locals.”

As I listened to Robert, I was reminded of my life in rural Thailand, where the villagers have been systematically hunting down remaining wildlife to be fried up for a spicy snack or used as a slightly more exotic ingredient in the evening meal. Who would’ve thought that Islam is playing a hand in preserving our disappearing wildlife?

After lunch, I went for a walk around the property and as I was returning to the restaurant, a Crested Serpent eagle swooped to the ground just ahead of me and hurriedly returned to its perch caring a miserable looking frog in its beak. A few minutes later it raced past the restaurant again, this time being chased away by a tiny but a very determined Blue Malaysian flycatcher.

Crested Serpent Eagle at Kinabatangan Jungle camp
Crested Serpent Eagle

Cruising Kinabatangan River

Later in the afternoon, I took my first cruise on the Kinabatangan River. At 560km long Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest river and the second longest river in Malaysia. Its water coloured light brown by the silt, the river winds its way across the flatlands of lower Kinabatangan, providing unique access to the wildlife-rich jungle of north-east Sabah.

The river was incredibly picturesque. Great white fluffy clouds hung low in the brilliantly blue sky, hugging the crowns of the mighty figs that towered over the wall of the lush green jungle that pushed towards the water from the banks.

Kinabatangan River
The mighty Kinabatangan

A troop of Long-tailed macaques welcomed me back to the jungle. I have seen these cheeky monkeys in every South East Asian country that I visited and I was glad to see their familiar faces here.    A giant Estuarine crocodile watched our boat pass from its layer on the bank where it was cooling itself down by keeping its mouth wide open, displaying rows of jagged dinosaur-like teeth.

Long tail macaques
Long tail macaques

The oddest-looking primate

On the opposite bank, a harem of endangered Proboscis monkeys was creating a racket as they crashed through the trees in search of edible fruit. Endemic to the island of Borneo, these monkeys are one of the oddest looking animals there are. Their perpetually surprised ‘old-woman’ faces with ridiculously long noses make them look like they belong in a children’s cartoon, rather than in the real world.

Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey (female)
Proboscis monkey
Proboscis monkey

The male of this species looks even more comical than the females. His nose is even longer and it hangs down his face like a misshaped vegetable. The king of his harem, he struts around with his white fluffy bottom which gives him the appearance of wearing tidy whities. Add to this a pot-belly and a bright red erect penis and you get an animal that looks more like a caricature than a real thing.

Proboscis monkey (male)
Proboscis monkey (male)

Birds of Kinabatangan

After travelling down Kinabatangan for some time we turned into a smaller tributary – the Tenneggang River. Almost at the mouth of Tenneggang, there are two lengths of cable strung across the river and anchored to big trees on each bank.  This is the monkey bridge. It provides the safe crossing for various animals away from the snapping jaws of hungry crocodiles waiting in the river below. 

Here we found another group of Proboscis monkeys and while we were watching them a Helmeted hornbill flew overhead. An endemic of Peninsular Malaysia and the largest of Borneo hornbills, this bird is becoming more and more difficult to see at Kinabatangan, so it was a very lucky catch.

The next bird we spotted was at the opposite end of the size scale – a tiny Blue-eared kingfisher perched on a low branch overhanging the river. It was so intent on watching the fish below, that we were able to manoeuvre the boat right underneath its perch without disturbing it.

We were so close I could’ve touched the bird, yet it was completely oblivious to our presence, frozen in concentration, tense as a coiled spring ready to plunge into the water to snatch an unwary fish. A few times it shot across out boat to dive into the river, quick and precise as a lightning strike. I felt like we were in one of David Attenborough’s documentaries, accepted by nature and allowed to watch it without affecting it by our presence.

 Blue-eared kingfisher
Blue-eared kingfisher

Kinabatangan River at night

Back at the camp, it was almost time for dinner, and afterwards my first night cruise in search of the elusive Flat-headed cat. I was allocated my own guide for the length of my stay – Razmir, and to my relief, he seemed as keen to find the cat as I was. We were also allocated a boat and a boat driver who we referred to simply as “the captain”.

Buffy fish owl
Buffy fish owl

The cruise started off quite slowly. We saw a few Estuarine crocodiles, a few Buffy fish owls and Black-Crowned Night herons.

Black-crowned night heron
Immature Black-crowned night heron

Things didn’t really pick up until we got to Tenneggang. There we spotted a Common Palm civet, its eyes reflecting brightly in the beam of a powerful spotlight Razmir was wielding. The captain nosed the boat into the muddy bank and Razmir and I walked into the forest for a closer look. I expected the civet to vanish into the night as soon as it realized that it has been discovered, but it was quite content to remain on its branch and let me take a few photos.

Common Palm civet
Common Palm civet

Back on the river, Razmir spotted a Silvered langur that was so well camouflaged that I could only locate it after I took a photo of the patch of canopy Razmir was pointing at and zoomed in on the image. To be fair, the animal was barely visible through the gaps in the canopy and the parts of it that were exposed were the colour of the night.

Silvered langur
Silvered langur

Nocturnal  wildlife of Kinabatangan River

Slightly further downstream we spotted a Malay civet and another Common Palm civet. As we walked onto the bank, Malay civet ran off, but its Common cousin let us approach within a couple of meters. I could not believe how tame the animals were here and I wistfully wondered if the cats would be the same.

The next pair of shining eyes turned out to belong to a dainty Lesser Mouse deer. By the time we climbed out of the boat and walked up the bank, the deer was already walking away from us. But as it wasn’t in a great hurry, we still had a reasonably good look at it. Being the smallest known hoofed animal, it had an odd but cute appearance of an overgrown rodent on skinny legs.

We followed Tenneggang for another 30 minutes or so, scanning the banks for a cat, but as nothing else was happening we decided to turn around. Back on the main river, we spotted some Large flying foxes. Caught in the beam of a spotlight they looked like ghostly-white vampires floating in the sky. Down by the river little Myotis bats were hunting just above the surface of the water looking for small fish and other aquatic prey. Watching them race and turn faster than my eyes could follow, I understood where the term ‘run like a bat out of hell’ originated from.

Further downstream we turned into another tributary and entered a completely different world. Here the river was much narrower and the banks were high and very steep. Everything felt very close together. Tree trunks rose out of the dark water, making the navigable part of the river even narrower. In places the canopy closed above our heads, cutting out the rest of the world. The mystical atmosphere was enhanced by a curtain of white steam rising off the still and dark surface of the water. I half expected to see a band of pirates lying in wait behind the next bend in the river.

For all its mystique this tributary did not turn up any mammals, but it did produce quite a few birds: White-chested babbler, White-crowned shama, Blue-eared kingfisher and even an Oriental pied hornbill. All of these birds were peacefully snoozing on low branches overhanging the river.

Sleeping Shama
Sleeping White-crowned shama

‘Do you know why birds sleep here?’ – asked Razmir as we were passing a very cosy-looking babbler.

‘To avoid predators?’ I ventured a guess.

‘Yes, but also because it’s warmer above the water.’ I remembered the steam. Off course, it’s practically a natural sauna for the birds.

White-chested babbler
Oriental pied hornbill sleeping
Oriental pied hornbill sleeping

The otherworldly tributary brought us to the oxbow lake. The lake is said to be a good place to look for otters in the mornings and at nights it has been known to turn up Flat-headed cats. Our search, however, turned out to be fruitless. We saw a few crocodiles, but nothing else. Since it was already past 1 am – we’ve been on the river for almost five hours, and the captain was getting tired, we decided to head back.

An exciting encounter

We were powering along the main river and I could already see the lights of our jetty when the captain suddenly turned the boat around and headed for the bank. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word, I could sense Razmir’s excitement as he gave instructions to the captain.

I turned on my dying torch and immediately spotted the eye-shine in the canopy. As the captain steered the boat under the tree I saw a pair of Black and red broadbills snoozing comfortably on one of the lower branches. One of my favourite birds! They were perfectly composed for a ‘once in a lifetime’ photo opportunity, but we were on the hunt for the mammal up in the canopy and had to crash right through the birds’ impromptu bedroom, flushing them out. Amazingly, just a few branches away there was another feathery snoozer – a Blue-eared kingfisher. He managed to stay on his branch throughout most of our manoeuvring.

I was so intent on the birds that Razmir had to grab my head, thankfully quite gently, and point it in the direction he wanted me to look, whispering excitedly:  ‘Slow loris! Slow loris!’

Slow loris
Slow loris

At first, all I could see was a retreating back end of something light, fluffy and not all that slow. But eventually the animal’s curiosity won and it stopped in the middle of its unhurried stride and stared back at us hanging upside down at a fairly awkward angle. Razmir was beside himself at such a rare find. I was happy too. This – the jungle, the wildlife, the tropical night – is my happy place.  Yet I felt a tinge of disappointment at not having seen a Flat-headed cat.

Next: Days 2 & 3 on the river

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