Field Notes from Danum Valley, Borneo

Ancient rainforest of Danum Valley, Borneo
Ancient rainforest of Danum Valley

I have had my eye on Danum Valley for a number of years, ever since I first heard about it while living in Thailand. A field station surrounded by ancient rainforest, where Clouded leopards and Marbled cats are occasionally seen – what more could you possibly ask for?  Now I was finally on my way for a few days of wildlife watching in Danum Valley.

I met Jo at Kota Kinabalu airport, and Jens together with  Mike at Lahad Datu airport. The last team member – Jonas, our driver for the first part of the trip was waiting for us by the car.

Just as we were loading our luggage in Jonas truck, it started to rain. The forecast promised two weeks of solid rain ahead. This was going to be interesting.

I didn’t notice much of the surrounding landscape as we drove towards the Valley. My mind was a little hazy after the 3 flights over 20 hours that took me to get here. But once we drove through the first gate and entered the protected area, things became a lot more interesting. We started seeing animals almost straight away: first a Barking deer, then a small group of Borneo Pygmy Elephants, a Bearded pig, and a few Long-tailed macaques. We were off to a promising start.

Welcome to Danum Valley

The Danum Valley Field Centre (DVFC) is perched in a dreamy spot next to Segama River, amidst lush rainforest shrouded in mist. This rainforest is one of the most pristine environments on earth. There is no record of human habitation in the Valley prior to its protection.  It is thought, that the area was too remote and inaccessible and the soils were too poor to attract early human settlers.  While it appears, that humans did visit the area, and even died and were buried here over 300 years ago,  these were most likely brief visits or short-term migrations.

The accommodation at the field center is quite basic, but far from uncomfortable.  The restaurant backs out onto the forest and offers a good spot for watching birds and butterflies. There are a number of trails that lead into the jungle from the field center and two suspension bridges over the river that sometimes offer very close encounters with wildlife.

Danum Valley Field Center in Borneo
Danum Valley Field Center

Wildlife watching in Danum Valley

We arrived at DVFC almost in time for dinner and shortly afterwards headed out for a night drive that followed the 10km road from the field center to the first gate.

In the first 30 minutes, we spotted our first Red giant flying squirrel, Thomas’ giant flying squirrel, and Three-striped palm civet.

And then we almost missed the first cat of our trip – the dainty little Leopard cat. As there were 4 of us in the back of the truck, we had to take turns between standing at the front and sitting it out at the back. I was sitting when we left the field center, and ironically it was me, who had the best views of the cat. It was sitting on a log that was jutting out from the bush toward the road. I saw it just as we drove past it. By the time Jonas reversed the car, the cat was already disappearing into the thicket.

Brief as the sighting was, it was quite a big deal for me. While the leopard cats are common in some places in Asia, I managed to not have seen one before. So this sighting represented the 12th wild cat species that I have seen in its natural habitat. Now I just needed to see one for long enough to photograph it.

After this excitement, the rest of the night was rather quiet. In the next hour and a half, all we had to show for our efforts was a Lesser mouse deer, a distant Philippine slow loris, and a Large flying fox.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Three-striped civet
Three-striped palm civet

One of my favorite things to see in the forest at night is the sleeping birds. It feels like spying on nature, like witnessing something we are not meant to see. We saw some stunners this night: a Black-crowned pita and an Asian paradise flycatcher, as well as an unidentified ‘headless’ babbler.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Asian paradise flycatcher
Asian paradise flycatcher
Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - sleeping pita
Sleeping Black-crowned pita

Day 2 – Walking the muddy trails

The next day started with more rain. It basically rained for about an hour and then stopped for about an hour for most of the day.

We went on an early morning walk to the researchers’ quarters hoping to see some Maroon langurs, but they didn’t show.

After breakfast, we headed on a trail walk on the other side of the river. The air was very humid, the trails were very muddy and slippery and the leeches were out in force. It was such a characteristic rainforest experience, that it was fun.  At one point a giant tree had fallen down on the trail completely blocking it. By the time we walked around it and climbed over it, we had more leeches on us than I had ever seen at any one time.

Apart from leeches, we had a couple of mammal sightings on the walk: a Low’s squirrel and a Prevost’s squirrel and that was pretty much it.

By mid-morning, I was completely exhausted and decided to try to catch some sleep. Of course by then, I was too tired to fall asleep, caught in that cycle of waking up sleepy and going to bed wide awake. Luckily, a troop of Maroon langurs decided to visit the camp and facilitated an impromptu photo shoot.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Maroon langur with a bean pod
Maroon langur

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - young Maroon langur Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Maroon langur

Co-operating fish

Later in the afternoon, we went on another walk, across the long suspension bridge this time. From the bridge, we spotted a large Monitor lizard submerged near the bank. While we were watching the lizard, we noticed that something interesting was going on. A number of little fish were all lined up in a row along the river bank. Mike noticed that as a fig fell from the tree onto the bank, it would roll down into the river and the fishes would catch it and feed on it. Amazingly, it appeared that the fish were working together to net the figs as they rolled into the river.

The rain continued in the ‘on-again, off-again’ pattern throughout the day and into the night drive. Things were pretty quiet again, but interestingly, the animals we did see were different and less common than the ones we spotted the night before. On the road between the field center and the gate, we saw a Black flying squirrel, a Common Palm civet and a Malay civet.

When we got to the gate, we decided to venture out for 15 min, before the rangers lock it 9 pm. That was a good call as we spotted a Colugo and a pair of Malayan porcupines lumbering across the road.

Cloudy sunrise at Danum Valley, Borneo
Misty ambiance

Day 3 – Sunrise in the valley

Day 3 started mercilessly early and with a bit of a bang. As we all loaded into the car in the pre-dawn darkness, Mike turned on the spotlight and it died in his hand with a crackle. We had a spare light, but it wasn’t as powerful and as it was battery operated it had a rather limited lifespan. And of course it was the weekend, so another one couldn’t be purchased even if someone did go to town. For now, we could use the spare light, but for the night drives, we would have to wait for the Rangers to come back from their night drive and borrow their spotlight.

The reason we had the 6 am start was to go to the sunrise tower to watch the sun rise over the valley. Off course it has been raining so much, that instead of sunrise views we got, what Mike called ‘Misty ambience’. It was still a dramatic sight with thick layers of mist hanging over the valley.

On the pre-dawn drive, we spotted half of the civet family of Danum: Common civet, Three-striped civet, Malay civet and the handsome Banded civet. The drive back was quiet, as expected.

At breakfast, we heard Borneo Gibbons calling not far from the restaurant and went to investigate. We walked to the best spot to view the tree they were in, but the view was obstructed and the animals were quite far away. Meanwhile, Mike waded across the river and managed to get a few decent shots of them. The rest of us had to make do with looking at his pictures later at the restaurant.

While I was trying to find a better view of the gibbons I spotted a female Scarlet-rumped trogon perched on the railing of the suspension bridge.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - scarlet-rumped trogon
Female Scarlet-rumped trogon
Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - flowerpecker

Later Jo & I went for a walk to the campsite to look for pitas. Not surprisingly, we didn’t find any. On the way back a strange noise started to grow in the jungle. Jo thought it was the sound of the river. But it was the sound of approaching rain. It was quite dramatic.

Like the sound of inevitability growing louder as it approached closer. And eventually, it reached us. We were almost at the dorms, so I managed to drop off my camera gear and then went out into the rain and let it soak me completely. It was such a relief after hours of steadily increasing heat and humidity.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Whiskered treeswift on the suspension bridge
Whiskered treeswift on the railing of the suspension bridge

Walking the trails at night

In the evening, while we were waiting for the rangers to return, so we could borrow their spotlight, we went on a walk up the same trail we took early on our first morning. Walking a muddy trail at night was a fun exercise. We saw a couple of green lizards sleeping on wet leaves, an impressively large gecko, a Mouse deer and then an adorable and very uncommon Pen-tailed tree shrew. We all had good views of the animal, but none of us managed to photograph it.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Sleeping lizard

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - green lizard
Sleeping lizards

Running into poachers

We continued our search on the night drive, but as it sometimes happens, the forest was exceptionally quiet tonight. In the two hours that we spend on the road, we only managed to spot a single Wood owl. Not willing to give up we ventured outside of the gate along the access road.

Suddenly the stillness of the night was broken by the revving of an engine and the glare of bright headlights approaching us from around the bend. Concerned, we waited to see who it is. Only rangers are allowed to drive on this road and all the Rangers were back at the field center.

Minutes later we were blinded by the powerful spotlights mounted on the roof of a mud-encrusted 4WD truck flying past us without slowing down. There were no number plates on the truck. “Poachers!” Mike cursed in outrage and disgust. Immediately, we turned around and chased after them back towards the field center gate.

Our chase was short-lived, however. A few minutes later the poachers’ truck speeded up past us in the opposite direction. They realized they had nowhere to go now that they have been seen and decided to make a run for it.

Mike tried to raise the Rangers’ Head Office on the phone, but no one was there to answer his call in the middle of the night. There was a general sense of bracing for the storm among the rangers. The poachers were inside the protected area, someone at the park’s gate had let them in and the foreigners had busted them. Nobody wanted to get involved in fear of becoming collateral damage.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - brown wood owl
Brown wood owl

Day 4 – Birds and lizards

The following morning we went for a walk along the road to see what we will see.  And what we did see was a variety of brightly-coloured birds in the same patch of forest. There was a blue Black-crowned monarch, a green Lesser green leaf bird, and a vibrantly red Scarlet minivet, as well as some babblers that were largely lost on me. While photographing birds, we spotted a Crested green lizard and a little later a flying lizard.

There are so many flying creatures in Borneo that do not usually fly: squirrels, lemurs a.k.a. colugos, lizards, and even frogs! While none of them actually fly, they do glide rather well. The scientific jury is still out on the reasons for Borneo’s diversity of gliding animals. The scientific jury is still out on the reasons for the unusual diversity of gliding animals in Borneo.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - flying lizard
Flying lizard
Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - mushrooms in elephant dung
Mushrooms growing in elephant dung

On the way back we came across a troop of Maroon langurs up in the canopy near the road. As we hoped they decided to get across by leaping over the road. The only downside was the glary washed out sky behind them, which was hardly conducive to photography.

For our last night drive in Danum, we decided to do something a little different. We drove, quite uneventfully, to the spot where the side road shoots off towards the sunrise tower and decided to go for a walk to the tower, hoping to spot a leopard. The last time Mike saw a Clouded leopard at Danum was right at that junction.

We left Jonas with instructions to pick us up in an hour and a half and set off up the rocky road. About 10 minutes later we were startled by a car approaching from the direction of the main road. What was it with the cars popping out of the darkness, messing up our plans second day in a row?

This time it was Jonas though. He was told by the rangers in a passing car, that there were elephants just outside of the gate. He was virtually beaming with excitement. I would’ve still preferred to keep walking, but Jo wanted to see the elephants since we saw them retreating into the forest on our way into the valley. Reasoning that the leopard was a very big ‘maybe’, while the elephants were almost certainly there, we abandoned the walk, jumped back in the car and headed towards the gate.

On the trail of the Pygmy elephants

As usual, we were working against time. Today it was more delicate than ever, considering that Mike has just caused the Rangers a world of trouble for not closing the gate the night before which almost allowed the poachers to drive in. It would be a really bad idea to get locked out tonight.

Jonas drove fast. We passed through the gate with no more than 20 minutes left until lockdown. We kept driving through the night, but there was no sign of the elephants. Either they were much further out than the rangers said or they have moved fast during the time it took us to get here. Finally, large grey shapes appeared on the road.

Borneo Pygmy elephants are not the same as their full-sized cousins. They do not like being approached, not by vehicles at any rate. At the sight of us, the group of about 4 elephants hastily moved into the forest, trumpeting as they went along. A little disappointed we drove on and immediately came across another group. A few meters further the third group was moving into the forest and yet another group was just visible ahead.

It would have been good to stay and see if they return to the road, but we were far from the gate and had virtually no time left to make it back before closure. Plus, now we were surrounded by four groups of grumpy elephants. Pygmy or not they were still large animals and we had to go back past all of them. It was a few minutes to 9 and it would take at least 10 minutes to drive back.

We decided to turn around and raced back. As we pulled in, the Rangers were already closing the gate. Feeling quite guilty we drove through and stopped for a polite chat.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Malay civet
Malay civet

The road back was very quiet. The only interesting encounter we had was with a curious Malay civet. Initially, it ran across the road and disappeared into the grass. But we stopped and Mike called it out (he makes this unusual sound, that many animals find irresistible and come out to investigate). The civet couldn’t resist his curiosity and carefully poked his cute little face out to see what was making the sound. For a change, I was able to take some close-up images of its face through the grass.

Wildlife watching in Danum Vally - Malay civet face
Malay civet

Next stop: Kinabatangan River

4 thoughts on “Field Notes from Danum Valley, Borneo”

  1. Oh wow you took some amazing pictures! Especially the one with the monkey in the air! I will definitely check it Danum Valley when i’m in Malaysia :)

    • Thank you, Tessa! Yes, I couldn’t recommend Danum Valley highly enough. It is an absolutely magical place. It feels ancient. I am sure you will love it.

  2. Looks like you had an amazing trip with lots of wildlife encounters. How did you go about booking your trip and making arrangements to go to Danum Valley?


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