The Bornean rainforest is an enchanting and mysterious place. It continues for miles across the island and contains a vast diversity of wildlife.
All pictures, video & content by Stefan Hunt (01/03/17)
Ask Stef about this turtally awesome photo story below!
Danau Girang is a research centre located on the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Borneo, that is managed by Sabah Wildlife Department and Cardiff University. Josh and I both visited the centre in 2013 while we were carrying out research work as part of our undergraduate degree. We travelled by bus from the capital of Malaysian Borneo, Kota Kinabalu, for 10 hours until we reached a small provincial town on the Kinabatangan River. We then had to catch a boat down river, slowly moving further and further away from civilisation, while the jungle steadily began to dominate the surrounding landscape. Eventually we arrived at some steps cut into the muddy river bank and lugged our bags up the slope before making the short walk into the rainforest to Danau Girang.
Green Turtle Nest Hatching
Nesting Green Turtle
On the journeys across Borneo, to and from the centre, it was easy to see the threats that the rainforest faces. The habitat is being fragmented and destroyed by the vast be and relentless expansion of palm oil plantations. The expansion of palm oil plantations is a huge threat to the rainforests of South East Asia.
Sooty Tern Colony
Nesting Masked Booby
In 2015 I went to Ascension for 6-months to work as a Marine Turtle Conservation Intern for the Ascension Island Government Conservation Department.
Seeing the variety and diversity of wildlife in the surrounding rainforest was incredible. Stepping out of the entrance to Danau Girang you emerge straight into the rainforest and just sat on the steps in the entrance we saw orangutans, long tailed macaques, civets and even a Sumatran cobra.
Getting out on the river was one of the best ways to see the jungle and its spectacular wildlife. Traveling by boat didn’t seem to spook the wildlife and we saw a real diversity of animals from crocodiles basking on the river banks to giant river otters.
During our evening treks through the forest we also saw a massive spider! I’m talking the stuff of nightmares, the kind of which should be censored for all arachnophobes, just to make sure they ever manage to sleep again. This spider was sat over its liar, which was a large hole in the side of a tree, with hundreds of its offspring pouring out behind it… It put Shelob to shame. The worst thing was walking past the lair, not seeing the spider and not knowing where it was.
One of the more exciting and challenging tasks with the conservation department was rescuing stranded sea turtles across the island. Many turtles would come onto the beach to lay their nests and get cut off from the sea by rocks or were trapped in rock pools. If they were left all day in the heat of the sun they would most likely not survive. In the 6-months of my internship the conservation team returned 309 turtles back to the sea. Some individuals simply needed to be guided back to sea, others had to be pulled across the beach on a purpose built ‘turtle sled’. On more than one occasion a group of burly builders, who were working near by, had to be called over to help lift a Green Turtle, weighing over 100kg, out of a rock pool in order to get them back to the sea.
Historically, the vast Green Turtle population that nested on the island were heavily exploited by passing British ships who would take the turtles as a source of fresh meat. The population crashed severely until the harvesting of meat finally stopped in the 1930s. In 1977 there were around 1,000 Green Turtle nests on Long Beach, the main nesting beach on Ascension. In 2015 when I was volunteering on the island, the Conservation Department recorded over 14,000 nests on the same beach! The population is now flourishing at a time when many sea turtle populations in other parts of the world are struggling due to beachfront development destroying nesting habitat and adult Sea Turtles becoming entangled in fishing nests etc.
With humans visiting the island so a population of feral cats became established that devastated the native sea bird colonies. Following a controversial eradication programme in 2003, the sea bird colonies have really bounced back. Species that had previously only nested on small islands off Ascension, that were cat free, returned to the main land to nest. Most notably the endemic frigate bird began nesting on the island, which was a great success for wildlife conservation.
It was an amazing experience to spend time on the island and help contribute to the conservation work being done there. It’s a really interesting time for Ascension as the waters around the island have been recently declared a marine protected area. Marine protected areas have often been accused of being paper parks and historically have had really mixed success. Hopefully in the case of Ascension, it will help to protect the spectacular wildlife found across the island and in the waters surrounding it.
Turtle Nest Excavation (ft. Turtle Team)
Hatching Green Turtle
Sally Lightfoot Crab
Spawning Land Crabs
Kenickie conducting bird surveys
Turtle Team (Holly, Jacqui, Bryony, Stefan)
Turtle team rescuing a stranded turtle
Nesting Green Turtle
It was an amazing experience to spend time at Danau Girang and to see the variety of wildlife in the rainforest. The research work being conducted by the centre into some of the key indicator species found in the rainforest will hopefully help to expand our knowledge and be vital in the protection of the rainforest in the future.
One of the highlights of our time at Dinau Girang was seeing a herd of over 100 elephants crossing the river. We spent over an hour traveling up river to see if we could spot a few elephants and amazingly as we caught up with the herd they began to swim across the river right in front of the boat. It was breath taking to see these animals up so close and in such great numbers. It is so unusual to see large animals, such as elephants, in these kinds of numbers in today’s day and age as habitats have become so fragmented and shrunk to such an extent that they cannot support populations of large animals. As is the way in the jungle, after this amazing experience the heavens opened… right on cue as we were as far away from the centre as possible. There was an almighty storm, just started to go dark, the sky was illuminated with forked lightning and claps of thunder so loud they made your whole body shake. We were stuck on an uncovered boat, getting absolutely soaked for the hour journey back to the centre, but it all seemed worth it after that amazing experience.
Danau Girang hosts a number of exciting research projects looking into a number of different species in the surrounding habitat. It was really interesting to meet the people working out there and to learn about the different and the research work being carried out. We spent time with the water monitor project, walking through the jungle trying to track radio collard individuals as well as catching and tagging new animals. Seeing these amazing animals close up was really interesting and watching the team sprinting through the forest to catch them was really impressive. Alongside the water monitor project there were projects looking into Sun Bears, clouded leopards, slow loris, oragangutans, crocodile, Tarsia, and Elephants. The data collected and research conducted by Danau Girang will hopefully be vital in protecting these key species and the rainforest as a result.
We spent time clearing and walking the trails that cut through the forest. The jungle seemed as though it was constantly buzzing with life, as butterflies floated around and small lizards rustled through the leaf litter. The larger animals were often much harder to spot on foot and seemed quite elusive.
Venturing into the forest at night was amazing and creepy experience all at the same time. It was a completely different world compared to the day with unusual and strange things to see and hear. There were birds roosting in the trees, giant poisonous centipedes crawling across the vegetation, colourful frogs chirping in the darkness, owls sitting in the trees, and fungi that glowed in the dark.
Alongside rescuing stranded sea turtles, excavating hatched turtle nests was always an interesting task. If you ever thought working in Turtle conservation was glamourous, try digging up a nest of over 100 unsuccessful turtle eggs that have been slowly rotting under the hot sand for 2-months! It’s not a pleasant experience. It is really important to excavate hatched nests to calculate hatching success, however it is definitely a particularly foul smelling task.
It was an incredible experience living and working on the island and it was amazing to see the conservation work being conducted. I worked primarily with the turtle population but also helped with the conservation of other species across the island. From planting small endemic plant species, monitoring land crab spawning events, and surveying seabird colonies. My main role was working alongside the Turtle Team* to count the number of Green Turtle tracks on the beaches, in order to calculate how many individuals came onto the beach the night before, and to count the number of nests. The population is closely monitored this way and the data is published in order to keep a track of the population trends.
Conducting bird surveys
Male Land Crab
Nesting green turtle at night
Ficus trees on Green Mountain
Sally Lightfoot Crab caught in the surf
Sally Lightfoot Crab with a turtle egg
Green turtle hatchling
Ascension island lily
Want to learn more about Ascension Island? Check these out!
Interesting Articles &Websites
http://www.ascension-island.gov.ac/government/conservation/ - Ascension Island Government Conservation Department Page
https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-projects/details.aspx?id=372957 - More information from the RSPB on the marine protected area
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10531-014-0759-6 - Recovery of the South Atlantic’s largest green turtle nesting population
https://vimeo.com/131105510 - Time-lapse of the conservation team clearing invasive plants
http://www.britainstreasureislands.com - Learn more about the British overseas territories from Stewart McPherson's great series
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oU0p1wB__2U - Don't believe crabs eat turtles..
https://vimeo.com/134964509 - 2015 green turtle season film