The island of Borneo is home to an astonishing abundance and diversity of wildlife. It is easily the best place in South East Asia to see the region’s wildlife. So when I planned my Borneo holiday, I included the three wildlife hotspots into the itinerary: Danum Valley, lower Kinabatangan River and Deramakot Forest Reserve.
Unlike Damum Valley and Kinabatangan, Deramakot Forest Reserve is not widely known outside of the wildlife-watching community. Yet it is one of the best places in Borneo for spotting the rarer species of Borneo wildlife. Of course, as with most wildlife trips, a lot depends on luck.
My main target species were the wild cats of Borneo: Sunda Clouded leopard, Marbled cat, Flat-headed cat and Sunda leopard cat. We’ve spotted two out of four on this trip (Marbled cat and Leopard cat) and I returned to Deramakot Forest Reserve the following year to finally track down the elusive Clouded leopard.
Arriving at Deramakot Forest Reserve
Another travel day across the countryside. A short boat ride after breakfast brought us to the jetty on the other side of the river, where we parked our car two days ago. There we said our goodbyes to Osman and headed to Telupid.
Once we got to town we had a quick lunch and picked up our new team member – Steve and our new driver Lang. Lang’s car was a true jungle beast, kitted out with giant tires and towering above most cars parked around it. The only downside was the rather small tray at the back. With four of us in the team and three of us being keen photographers, it was going to be a tight fit for the night drives.
From town, we headed straight to Deramakot Forest Reserve where we were surprised to discover almost luxurious living arrangements. The three of us: me, Jo and Jens were sharing a cottage on top of a hill, while Steve, who booked much later, was staying in one of the simpler buildings near the restaurant.
Luxury in the jungle
The cottage had tiled floors in typical Asian fashion, three bedrooms with on suite bathrooms, a large laundry room and a common area with couches and hot/cold water station. The bedrooms were equipped with air-conditioning and the bathroom with hot water showers. This was a completely unexpected level of comfort in a remote jungle location.
The only challenge that came with the hilltop cottage was the hilltop itself. The road from the restaurant (and everything else) to the cottage was so steep, that I personally wasn’t able to climb it without stopping halfway to catch my breath. As a result, we tended to spend most of our time at the restaurant, reluctant to exert ourselves more often than necessary.
First Night drive
We headed out at 9 pm eager to start exploring the wildlife of Deramakot. At first, we saw the same species we saw at Danum Valley: Three-striped civet, Malay civet, Red giant squirrel, Tomas’s flying squirrel, Sambar, Bearded pig and a Flying fox.
And then we found a Leopard Cat. Mike spotted it as it moved into the undergrowth by the side of the road. We climbed down from the car and using our newly honed stealth approach skills crept up towards it. It was smaller than I expected, dainty and surprisingly beautiful.
It stayed curled up in a very feline way, then got up, spent a bit of time grooming its vividly patterned coat and eventually slowly emerged onto the road and calmly walked away. I was on 7th heaven from such a close and relaxed encounter with a wild cat and plenty of photographs to show for it. Number 12 – tick!
Walking the trails in Deramakot
The following morning we ventured into the forest to set up some camera traps in hopes of catching a clouded leopard on film. We followed Mike up and down slippery trails to the secluded spots that he chose for the camera sites.
Despite the minor discomfort of muddy trails, the rainforest was at its best in the rain. The vegetation was incredibly lush and thick, the colors were oversaturated and the mist blanketing the treetops added an air of mystery to the landscape.
The ponds were full of water, their edges lost under a carpet of ancient ferns. The entire forest felt like a single living breathing organism.
On the way to one of the sites, we followed a logging track and were surprised to find numerous scat deposits on the road. Could it be a latrine site used by different species of wildlife of Deramakot, like those left by the ocelots in Costa Rica?
No self-respecting field biologist would pass an opportunity to examine a predator’s scat. Mike and I got down to business and teased a couple of pellets apart to see if we could get a sneaky look at who was eating whom at Deramakot Forest Reserve.
The only wildlife we spotted were a Hawk cuckoo and a troop of Maroon langurs who treated us to an acrobatics display as they launched themselves into giant leaps across the break in the canopy over the road.
The rain continued throughout the day but thankfully subsided by night time. We stayed out from 9 pm to 3.30 am, but things were very quiet. The most exciting sighting of the night was a Pen-tailed shrew, but Mike was the only one who saw it. The rest of us saw all the usual suspects: Mouse deer, Sambar, Flying squirrels, Palm civets and a Malay civet.
After 10 days in the jungle, we were no longer impressed by the common civets, flying squirrels, deer, wild pigs, and incredibly distant slow lorises. We were aching to see new animals: sun bears, binturongs, otters, and of course the cats.
Facing the elements
To improve our chances of spotting nocturnal species we changed to a nocturnal mode of activity: out all night, sleep till mid-morning and then head out again after dinner. Today, we decided to have an even longer spotlighting session. We packed our dinner (and our cook!) and decided to have dinner at a ranger station on Kinabatangan River about 35 km from the field center. We left the field center at 4.30pm and did not return until 3 am.
The drive to the ranger station in fading light was quite uneventful. We saw some Maroon langurs of course, and some snoozing birds: Helmeted hornbills and a Chestnut-naped forktail. We arrived at the river minutes before it was engulfed by the darkness of the moonless night. The ranger station was spartan but felt comfortable in the context of where it was – miles away from anywhere.
As we were driving off, the rain started to sprinkle, but since the entire back seat was taken up by our food and cooking gear and the front seat by our little cook, we decided to brave the elements in the back of the car.
Over the next 10 minutes, the sprinkle turned into a torrential downpour and within seconds we were completely soaked. Huddling in the back of the car desperately trying to shield our camera gear from the solid wall of rain we had no options but to wait for Lang to turn the car around and race it back to the rangers house.
Deramakot Wildlife in the rain
The rain stopped as we pulled in at the house. We successfully caught the only 10 minutes of it. Having wrung out our saturated clothes as best we could we set out again and got off to a good start. Just a couple of kilometres from the house we came across a Leopard cat, sitting contentedly on the road. We watched it for quite a while until it slowly got up, stretched and lazily walked away.
Despite the promising start, the rest of the night did not bring any rare or unusual sightings. We’ve seen the usual Bearded pigs, Sambar, Common Palm civet, Three-striped palm civet and Slow loris.
We did, however, see and identify our first and only rodent – Ranee mouse. It sat on a stalk of grass as we drove past and then promptly dashed away into the undergrowth. We had enough time to notice an exceptionally long tail and after carefully examining the field guide we were able to identify it as one of the two Ranee mouse species.
At about 2.30am it started raining again and we decided to head back, picking up two Malay civets and 3 Buffy fish owls on the way home.
The excitement of the unknown
Another uneventful night drive. The only quality sighting we had was a Colugo – a female with a young clinging to her belly.
Not finding much to look at for hours on end, we channelled some of our energy into identifying obscure sightings with endless determination. Mike found tiny eye-shine coming from the trunk of a mighty tree on the side of the road. The trunk was covered with a thick layer of some kind of climbing plant and the animal was hidden amongst the leaves, inside a hole.
Mike couldn’t tell what it was and the excitement of the chase took over. Jens managed to take a single distant and poorly exposed shot of it that at first looked like nothing at all. Steve thought it was a tree mouse, but we just couldn’t see it well enough.
And then it decided it had enough of the bright light shining on its face, emerged from its hollow and bolted down the tree trunk. Both Mike and Steve had enough time to see that it was a flying squirrel and with the help of Jens’s image, we identified it as Temminsk’s flying squirrel. Not a rarity, but rarely seen due to its small size.
A few hundred meters from the flying squirrel tree we came across a sleeping Prinia that was perched on a stalk of grass.
Marbled cat and Otters
We had dinner on the road again, on one of the side roads to be precise and managed to identify some Wooly bats that were flying around us.
The first hour of spotlighting was uneventful, as usual. And then things just started to happen. First Mike urgently signalled Lang to stop. Right in front of the vehicle, a group of three or four dark animals were slinking across the road and then quickly disappeared into the grass on the side of the road. Otters! My first ever otters in the wild. We could see their white throats and were able to easily identify them as Oriental Small-clawed Otters!
The cat of the trip
No more than 10 minutes later, Mike made Lang stop the car again. As we followed the beam of his spotlight into the forest, he calmly announced: Marbled cat. I think my heart had skipped a beat. I expected almost anything but a Marbled cat. It was sitting on a tree branch quite high up from the ground about 35-40 meters away from the road. Apart from a small twig that was blocking part of its body we had a sensationally clear view of it.
It was a magical sight. A patch of forest illuminated by the warm light of the spotlight stood out sharply against the darkness of the night. The trunk of the tree and the branch leading away from it provided the perfect frame for the resting cat. The forest was absolutely quiet. And so were we.
After a while, the cat got up, arched its back in a typically feline stretch, moved a couple of paces and settled back down. We stared at it in mute awe. It was stunning. Smaller than I expected, its thick coat was patterned in beautiful blotches as if painted by an inspired artist. It’s incredibly long bushy tail was draped behind the branch but we still could see the tip of it.
We watched it snooze for about 10 minutes, until it got up again, turned around on the branch and proceeded to clean itself. As impossibly exotic as a Marbled cat is, it looked for all the world like a suburban moggie grooming itself. So achingly feline.
Half an hour or so later, the cat decided that it was time to go. Marbled cats are known for their ability to descend from trees head first – a skill they owe to very flexible wrists. But our cat went down in a conventional manner as if showing its annoyance at being disturbed.
My lucky number 13. Even though I came looking predominantly for the Clouded leopard, the Marbled cat was even more of a catch. They do occasionally see them in Deramakot, but not as frequently as the Clouded leopards. It is one of the hardest cats to find in the wild. What a stroke of luck!
As soon as we started driving again, a stunning Banded Palm civet walked across the road giving all of us pretty good views.
This was by far the most exciting hour of our Borneo adventure so far. The rest of the night was quiet again with the only species added to the list being File-eared frogs and a Bay owl that we spotted at the field center – Mike’s first at Deramakot.
Up close and personal with a Sunda skunk
Another mostly uneventful night drive from 6 pm to 12 am. We spent some time ‘ambushing’ the elephants, but they did not come our way. In the end, we kept driving along the road towards them and managed to see some large disappearing back ends as they hastily retreated into the forest.
After the elephants, we had a chance to watch a Common Palm civet hunting on the side of the road. It looked like he was trying to catch an earthworm. In any case, this is what he did catch in the end.
The bird of the night was the Bushy-crested hornbill. We came across an entire family sleeping on the branches overhanging the road.
On the way home, we didn’t expect to see much. We were getting used to the very low frequency of unusual sightings. But we were thrilled to be proven wrong.
We spotted a Malay stink badger as it was lumbering across the road a few meters in front of our car. It then crossed the road, turned around and started walking towards us along the grassy side of the road. We got down from the car and crouched on the road waiting for it to emerge from the grass.
The cute guy popped out 2 or so meters away from us. It was so close that I was struggling to fit the entire animal in the frame through my telephoto lens. Completely unphased it crossed the road again as if it couldn’t decide which way it wanted to go. We watched it until it finally disappeared into the darkness, only then realizing how close we came to being sprayed by its foul-smelling secretion had it felt threatened by us.
Close encounters like this are the reason we come to wild places. A glimpse at a rare creature is incredibly exciting, but having an experience with an animal is unforgettable.
Stalking the Otter civets
To break the monotony of driving the same roads for hours, Mike took us to a small pond in the forest to check out the frogs. To my shame, I am not at all familiar with Bornean amphibian fauna and apart from Wallace’s flying frog, I wouldn’t be able to recognize a single species. We did find some tree frogs at the ponds but had no way of identifying them.
Back on the road, Mike spotted a Green vine snake spread out across a few branches of the understory. I am well familiar with this cute little snake from my days of living in Thailand, and it was nice to see a ‘familiar face’.
The drive was livelier than usual tonight. It started with a Long-tailed porcupine sighting, then a few civets, Mike briefly spotted a Leopard cat and then we hit gold.
The torrential rain over the last few days created a multitude of roadside pools in the forest. We were driving past one such pool when Mike suddenly had Lang stop the car and whispered: Otter civet young! I could see a bundle of small furry animals semi-waddle semi-race from the road into the tall grass.
We had another brief look at them as they traversed a more open patch of grass before they disappeared from view behind a thick patch of grass right on the bank of the pond. I managed to snap a single image of them, as did Jens. Neither of our photos was much to look at, but they did show two animals.
Having just spotted one of the most rarely seen mammals in the world, we were too excited to simply drive away. We decided to stake them out. For a long time, nothing happened. Mike crept a little closer to the pond and was able to confirm that the youngsters were still there. They must be waiting for their mom. So were we; holding our breath.
Eventually, Mike spotted a pair of orange eyes peering from the forest along the far bank of the pond. The mother returned. But the eye-shine disappeared before any of us could see it. We kept waiting, unsure of the best course of action. The last thing we wanted to do is to disturb the young. So we did nothing, just kept waiting.
When nothing happened for some time Mike crept up to have another look and discovered that the young were already gone. They must’ve slipped out as soon as their mom approached and we missed them in the dark.
Despite not being able to have a good look at the young and not having seen their mom, this was perhaps the most exciting encounter of our trip!
The rest of the night was uneventful with the only surprise being a Leopard cat sighting at the field center.
Carnivorous plants and flying frogs
Our trip was coming to an end, and Mike decided it was time to collect the cameras from the forest and start to return to the diurnal mode of activity. For expedience sake, we didn’t follow Mike to the trap sites, but either stayed in the car or went for a walk. I opted to walk along the road, as I wanted to find the carnivorous Pitcher plant that according to Mike grew around here. In the end, it was Mike who pointed the plants out to us.
These pitcher plants have an interesting relationship with Tree shrews. The plant produces copious amounts of nectar that attract the shrew, but the only way the shrew can access the nectar is by standing on the rim of the pitcher.
Shrews often mark valuable resources with feces, and the pitcher plant provides the shrews with a toilet in the form of the pitcher. As a result, the shrew gets a nutritious meal of nectar and the pitcher plant gets valuable nitrates and other nutrients from the shrew’s poop – a win-win scenario.
At breakfast this morning we were chatting with Deramakot’s resident herpetologist and learned that the frogs we saw last night were Harlequin flying frogs. If only I knew I was looking at the flying frogs, I would’ve paid much closer attention to them!
Last night at Deramakot
To distract myself from my regrets I went to have another look at the Orangutan that has been hanging out at the field center, in a tree next to the generator. A big boy, he looked entirely content to sit in the shade melancholically chewing the fruit.
My last night drive at Deramakot Forest Reserve was exceptionally quiet. We saw some civets, some Sambar, and a Slow loris high up in the canopy. Everyone was painfully aware of the fact that our chances of spotting a Clouded leopard were next to none now.
Desperate for any kind of sightings, Mike brought us back to the flying frogs’ pond. It was much more interesting checking out the frogs now that I knew what they were. I nudged one of them gently on the bum and it launched itself into the air in a wide arch. Once it reached the highest point of his jump and started to descend, it spread out all four of its legs and its webbed fingers and toes allowing itself to gently glide down and land delicately on the surface of the pond.
We drove past the leopard hot spots around 11 pm as usual, and just after midnight headed back to camp. I had an early start the next morning and a plane to catch in the afternoon. And while our spirits were quite low for failing to find the leopard, I felt more than compensated by the sighting of Marbled cat and a glimpse at the Otter civet babies.
Thoughts on being part of a group adventure
The one thing that I thought was lacking on this trip was the sense of discovery, the sense of adventure that usually accompanies any trip into a wild place.
Perhaps it was due to the group dynamic and quite specific goals as opposed to hopes and wishes. We didn’t seem to be enjoying the ride, just over-focused on the desired outcome that none of us could influence. So even though we saw some of the most unique species of wildlife of Deramakot, some of us left feeling disappointed.
Update: I returned to Deramakot Forest Reserve in October 2018 and had a brief encounter with a Clouded leopard, as well as two Marbled cats and some war-dancing Pygmy elephants