Day 320: Creepy Crawlies, Caves, and Conservation

Noah finds himself in a mighty jungle teeming with life.

November 16, 2015: Sukau, Borneo — Cede, Gary, John and I were in a boat on the Kinabatangan River at dawn this morning, cruising for birds. The water ran brown, slow, and flat, with the occasional big crocodile breaking its surface, and the banks were lined with impenetrable-looking jungle. Every so often a group of proboscis monkeys or long-tailed macaques would clamber nearby; we watched two macaques start a tussle in the mid-canopy which ended with a broken branch and both monkeys plummeting unexpectedly into the understory—a fall which would have sent the average human to a hospital. “I bet when they hit bottom, they were sudden friends!” said Cede.

We turned into a small blackwater tributary called the Menanggol River where the water moved imperceptibly and, in places, the river was narrow enough for the canopy to close overhead. As our boat crept along, birds and other animals moved in the trees around us. I’ve visited a few such places this year, but still can’t shake the feeling that it’s some jungle set from a Disney movie.

In the early 1990s, when Cede was getting his start as a naturalist at a lodge in this area, the Menanggol was slated to be logged and converted to a large oil palm plantation. Oil palms have become a popular crop in tropical lowlands around the world—you get paid for lumber when you clear the forest, then get paid again each time you harvest the palm oil (used in commercial food products). But oil palm plantations are about as good as concrete in terms of wildlife habitat, and their proliferation has seen the disappearance of massive chunks of the world’s rainforests in recent years. Cede wanted to protect the Menanggol River from such a fate.

He called some friends and they managed to get a local newspaper to put a story about the proposed plantation on its front page. This caused enough of a fuss that the clearing was halted, and today the Menanggol is still enclosed by lush jungle, home to leopards, elephants, orangutans, hornbills, and other mega-wildlife. Around the same time, in response to environmental concerns about the expansion of oil palms, the Malaysian government pledged that half the country would be kept forested. It’s inspiring when regular people can make a difference!

After lunch, Gary, John and I visited the nearby Gomantong Cave, the largest cave in the state of Sabah, which is home to an estimated 275,000 bats and a large population of Black-nest and White-nest swiftlets. These swiftlets build their nest with hardened strands of saliva (the Black-nest includes body feathers, while the White-nest uses saliva alone) plastered to the high walls inside the cave. The nests are used in birds’ nest soup, an expensive delicacy, and they are harvested twice each year (once before the eggs are laid and once after the chicks fledge) by a daring group of cave climbers.

You need a license to harvest the nests, but, more than that, you must have courage and a tolerance of creepy crawlies. The cave’s interior, accessible by a slippery boardwalk, was disgusting: Massive numbers of cockroaches crawled over piles of guano and dead bats, with the acrid smells of ammonia and decomposition mixing in dead air. Everything dripped and scurried. Rats and venomous cave centipedes crept on the walls.

The swiftlets were there and so were their guardians. The birds’ nests are so valuable that someone lives inside the cave to watch over them. When it’s time to harvest, these people climb a hundred feet to the cave’s roof on ropes and bamboo poles, with no safety net, to reach the nests. I just hope they clean them before serving the nests in soup—I sure wouldn’t want to eat anything that had been in that cave!

New birds today: 14

Year list: 5257

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