8. A tale of heroes

Feeling more than slightly nervous at the prospect of two more sites located along an increasingly unreliable road, we launched ourselves into the final stretch. All I needed was two weeks or so in which it didn’t rain too much or heavily enough to jeopardise those bridges that were only just hanging on in there. Our numbers were down to three, equating to a lot more running around for me, but it was eminently doable in the time remaining just so long as the road remained passable.

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Will I stay or will I go?

Although I love spending time there, Malua field station is in a sorry state. The road is only part of (or more accurately, a symptom of) the problem. A broken and seemingly irreparable (and irreplaceable?) generator means no electricity, and the buildings and other structures are in varying states of disrepair. In its heyday Malua must have been a truly magical place; vibrant, full of life, idyllically located, and functional. The magic is still there but now there’s a sadness too, a mournful sense of loss. The jungle doesn’t allow you to get complacent about maintenance, and uninvited visitors soon make their own homes, hastening the rot.

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Magical Malua

But for Peter and myself and countless other scientists it was and is a peaceful haven, inspiring fantasies of living off the land and off the grid. We dined on pakis (jungle fern), tapioca leaf, papaya, and jackfruit, swam in the river, and enjoyed the simplicity.

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Jackfruit hunting

Despite this tranquillity, the state of the road was a constant worry, and I was sure that certain parts wouldn’t survive the next big rain. Fortunately enough the contractors had finally arrived and were making steady progress along the road, but with so many repairs to make it wasn’t entirely reassuring! I became very invested in that road, and each journey along it revealed the progress of the contractors as they fixed bridge after bridge with ingenuity and remarkable efficiency* that was genuinely impressive.

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A parting gift from the jungle

Miraculously, and despite a major rebellion during this time on the part of my digestive system, we finished the first Malua site with the road in tact. At this point I had to make a decision. I had a back-up option that I could use in place of the second Malua site, and I truly agonised over whether to stick to the original plan, or go with the safer but less scientifically-good option**. Luckily (now that it’s done. Hindsight is wonderful) my nerves held. Luckily (again) so did the road. And luckily (yep) the long-disused logging road to the final site had recently been cleared and was passable, saving us a 4 – 5 km hike in. And very luckily (and this is the last one), I had an amazing pair of absolute heroes helping me, who were (more or less) happy to give it their all to get the work done.

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Jungle tortoise, anyone?

In the end we had 30 trees remaining and three days to get them done. Feasible in good weather and good forest. Crushingly, it rained early on the first day, after only seven trees. Not great. But the following day dawned with us all feeling motivated, and though rain threatened all day it miraculously held off, and somehow tree after tree fell (metaphorically speaking) before us. Unusually it was I that had to call it quits for the day, with Amat driving us on and on, apparently aiming to do all 23 trees in one day. We were in a delirium of arboreal fatigue, and it was only later that we realised we had tallied up 17 trees in one day! A truly unbeatable record.

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A very impressive repair job to the bridge in the first picture

So that left only six for the final day. The final day. I couldn’t believe it. I had doubted so many times that we would finish these last sites without something happening to throw it all off course, so I was happy and extremely relieved, but simultaneously dreading completion, because it meant the end, and goodbye. Maybe slightly melodramatic but I have spent so many months working in Sabah, and in particular with Amat, that I am genuinely wretched by this farewell. But I won’t harp on about it here. We finished!! The forest had a few parting gifts for us: another caterpillar for me, a river which had almost risen beyond even the capacities of a 4×4, and, terrifyingly, one last road collapse, which occurred as we drove over it. Yep. Better not to think about that one too much. But we survived, and to celebrate (finishing, rather than surviving) we went for cocktails and dinner at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge (5*!) down the road, where I had recently given a talk to some of their guests, for which I have been amply and generously paid in food and accommodation***.

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How deep is too deep? Testing the waters…

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Glad this didn’t happen ’til we were on our way out. And to think I had only been worried about the bridges I could see!

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One happy scientist!! Data collection: done. We didn’t even realise quite how much of a wonk the tree behind is on since recently losing its neighbours…

Sadness aside my last day at Danum was fantastic. The very recently discovered (March 2017) Tallest Tropical Tree in the world happens to be located about 8 km from the field centre, not far off an already established trail, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go a see it while it’s still the Tallest! So Peter and I, and a friendly Lithuanian called Boris, trooped out there to have a swim at the base of the Purut waterfall and gaze at the giant Shorea faguetiana. Stunning. Even the gibbons came out to say farewell.

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The Tallest Tropical Tree in the world!! Good effort…!

But I’ll be back, one way or another. Thank you Sabah, you’ve been amazing. And thank you to all of my long-suffering team! I couldn’t have done it without you.

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*Remarkable in that it’s not often you see any job in Malaysia carried out with speed and efficiency!

**I wanted to have two primary (pristine) forest sites and two logged forest sites, but the alternative site was also located in primary forest, unbalancing the design.

***You can’t say no when you’re being offered a room with a hot tub on the balcony, no matter what your stomach is up to. I’d happily forge some sort of career out of this kind of arrangement!

7. Getting high!

Back in January I arrived at Danum to discover a host of fern-fanciers fully immersed in their work. The ferns they so covet are collected from the lower reaches of the forest and re-located at the top of some of the beautiful tall dipterocarps that I spend so much time circling. Since the start of my PhD, prior even to setting eyes on a dipterocarp, I wanted to climb one. Over the last few years I’ve racked my brains for some justification, some aspect of my work that would require me to get up where I belong*, into the canopy, but alas seedlings are very much a terrestrial phenomenon, and tree climbing is enormously time-consuming (and therefore needs a bomb-proof excuse). Thus I have remained frustratingly earth-bound throughout my time here.

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The One.

But Finally, after almost three years of longing and thanks to the wonderful Josie, Asplenium queen (I am forever in your debt), it Happened! And the fieldwork stars had to align for it to do so, but Old Mother Forest must have been smiling on me because somehow I managed to be at Danum with a free day to offer up on Josie’s final climbing day.

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Packed and ready to go!

A day’s labour in exchange for a clamber up into the canopy is a no brainer, and it’s always great to help on other projects – not just because it’s so interesting to find out what everyone else here is doing, but also because the lack of responsibility is truly wonderful!

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Like a Pro…. Josie showing me how it’s done.

Josie is studying the effects of climate change and forest disturbance on the biodiversity found within bird’s nest ferns (Asplenium nidus), which are found throughout the canopy of the forest. Part of this work involves collecting accessible ferns from the lower canopy, processing them in the lab, and then returning them to either the upper or lower canopy where they’ll experience different environments. She’ll then collect them again in 6 or 12 months to see what changes have taken place. There’s a lot more complexity to the project which I have completely failed to communicate here, but I don’t want to do a bad job of it!

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Getting them ferns up in that there tree

Josie was at the stage of putting her remaining re-packed ferns up into the canopy, where they’ll stay for the next 6-12 months. Getting yourself up into the canopy of a 50 – 80 metre tree isn’t as easy as it sounds (if that sounds easy), and before anything else one has to get a line up and over a sturdy branch near the top – something that can take days of frustrating failure even if you’re a tree climber extraordinaire like Unding. Once you’ve done this you can pull up the ropes you use to climb, and think about getting yourself up there (more or less).

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Good luck little ferns!

Thankfully there was already a line up in the tree from previous visits to the forest attic, so the day was soon underway as Unding and co. got themselves into gear and up the ropes to strap ferns to the uppermost branches of a lovely Parashorea tomentella.

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Not a bad office

And then it was my turn! Josie gave me a crash course in ascenders/descenders and other vital info for getting up and down the rope without mishap, a few slurps of 100 plus for power and I was on my way. Feeling wonderfully serene I rose through the sub-canopy to gaze out across a leafy vista. Of course, it wasn’t quite that effortless and the sun beating down on me combined with the exertion of hauling my body weight up 45 vertical metres had an obvious effect, only slightly (but marvellously) alleviated by the sort of wonderful cool breeze that rarely visits the forest floor. It was exhilarating and magical and tranquillity itself. I found an awesome zen in being up amongst the epiphytes, and I would have stayed there all day given the chance. Just time to indulge in a few shameless selfies, and then the nerve-racking changeover from ascender to descender, following which you lower yourself down until the rope again holds your weight. All my past rock-climbing stood my nerves in good stead (thought it still gave me a bit of a rush!), and I could zip back down to ground-level, feeling on top of the world!

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Long way up!

I was high as a kite for the rest of the day (which turned out to be a very long one, ending in the forest at 7.30pm long after dark had fallen), and have a renewed resolve to get trained up in all things tree-climbing. English oaks may not be as tall as the canopy tree here, but I reckon they’ll be great fun to clamber around in and I can’t wait to get on it!

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So happy!!

*Belonging is a subjective feeling

6. Round and round the mother tree

More time has passed without breathing space to pen an update, but I’m determined to squeeze one in before my mind has finally upped and left me or I’m back in the UK.

Since my last post we’ve completed two more fragment sites, plus the one (long) day’s work we had left on one of my Danum sites, bringing our total up to six completed sites and 300 trees surveyed- just 100 to go! The road to Malua, where the final 100 trees are to be located, remains highly dubious, which is thoroughly unnerving as my time runs short…

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Hi Peter!!

But other than this (potentially epically problematic) issue, things have been going more or less to plan and we’ve made steady progress through the sites, ticking off enough trees each day to keep my blood pressure down, and enjoying the physicality of the work and spending so much time in the forest. I’m already dreading the return to desk life!

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An awesome construction of the stingless honey bee, who’s honey is very expensive!

The two forest fragments we’ve been working in lately were both to the north of Danum, the first near Sepilok, a popular tourist stop-off and home to the orang-utan rehabilitation centre and the apocryphally-named “tallest tree in Sabah”, which Peter and Rose went to visit and which I remember from my previous visit to be very average in comparison to many of the dipterocarps we eye up on a daily basis. These, I suppose, are not in such convenient walking distance from a B & B.

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Whatever spray is being sprayed it sure ain’t something you want to be working with…

The fragment, being located off of Labuk Road, is called Labuk Road VJR (it makes sense). It’s only about 120 ha (just over 1km2), but harbours some surprisingly good forest only a short distance from the edge, with towering, buttressed dipterocarps aplenty, and, at first glance (and in contrast to Materis VJR), abundant dipterocarp seedlings. After several days it became clear that, while in places there were so many dipterocarp seedlings that I inwardly wept at the prospect of counting my way through them, these were the progeny of only three species, which we soon renamed puki-ayam* II, III, and IV. The original puki-ayam, which you may or may not remember from my blog last year, was steadily making its presence felt, and this time it was I, as the main tree-feeler, who bore the brunt. Last year Amat really suffered after several days exposure to Semecarpus glaucus of the Anacardiaceae, a family of plants which gifts so much (mangos, cashews, pistachios) while simultaneously punishing us with highly poisonous sap. I’ve got a lot of neck to offer, and it’s really taken a beating this field season. Each passing day in Labuk Road added an extra level of intensity to the itchy rouge that was the gift of puki-ayam numero uno, meaning that, despite making friends (read: gaining admiring fans) with the lovely ladies of the nearby kedai, who fed us a quantity of vegetables each night that each Rose and myself were satisfied with**, I was very happy to move on.

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So many seedlings…

On our last night there and in celebration of another site completed, we hit the town (so to speak). Sandakan is a dishevelled sort of city, like KK rebuilt after World War II without too much care for aesthetics. Its optimistic tagline is “City of Nature”, echoing KK’s claim to be the “Nature Resort City”. Maybe these are aspirational titles! And of course, we bumped into some of Amat’s friends – another travelling scientist and his RAs – and so of course lots of science chit-chat and gossip*** ensued over a surprising amount of food.

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Turns out even Sandakan can be beautiful!

And then on to Sapi, where we were once again guests at a Wilmar-owned palm oil estate. “So!”, I hear you cry, “you’re in bed with the enemy!”. Well, this is such a huge topic I almost regret raising it, but I’ll persevere… Oil palm is a great crop, and hugely important for developing economies. High yielding, easy to grow… the only problem is where it grows – ideally (for the oil palm) in the place of hyper-diverse lowland tropical rainforest. We in the UK have already replaced the majority of our valuable natural ecosystems with agriculture, and even our national parks represent a highly degraded environment prevented by sheep and deer from supporting much more than a smattering of their potential diversity****. So it’s hard to take any moral high ground. But what we can do is learn from our mistakes, and with today’s knowledge of the importance of native diversity we can work with oil palm (and other crop) producers to grow their product in a more ecologically sensitive way. Wilmar is a member of the RSPO (the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil), and is thus committed to conserving areas of High Conservation Value (HCV) within its concessions, be that social or environmental value. It must also provide at least a minimum level of social care for its workers, and so on. All of this is a step in the right direction, along with no-net-carbon-loss commitments (not sure of Wilmar’s stance on this) and (most importantly) free housing for scientists when they want to come and count seedlings within your concession.

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So many seedlings…

But enough of that. We managed to get Sapi VJR finished with some valuable help from Dr. Benny, who stopped by for a few days to aid us in the field and chat all things dipterocarps and fragmentation, explained some of the finer (and important) points of some of the stats I’ve been using, and left me with my mind whirling over seedling herbivory rates, drought stress, and gap dynamics. All incredibly helpful for my impending doom, I mean, return to paper writing.

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Thanks Dr. Benny!

And then it was back to Danum. But I’ll leave the rest for the next update…

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*A very rude (in a funny way) word which *sort of* translates to chicken bum.

**No mean feat. Although in fairness, restaurants in Sabah don’t serve much in the way of greenery, and when they do it’s sparse and fried until it’s lost any semblance of its former nutritional value. Being vegetarian in Malaysia really limits your culinary adventure!

***In the end, everyone knows everyone working in Sabah…

****This is a rant for another day perhaps…

5. Kerja kerja, main main

Suddenly I’m at the half-way point and I don’t know where the time has gone. We’ve been working long days and the first two forest fragment sites have yielded us 50 fine dipterocarp trees each. Each fragment gave us a very different experience. Materis VJR*, along the river Kinabatangan, is flattish, rising to a peak in the middle, while Kalumpang VJR, in the southeast of Sabah, is a steep-sided ridge abruptly protruding from the surrounding oil-palm-covered plain.


Difficult to capture just how steep-sided Kalumpang VJR is, but I think this photo illustrates it to some extent.


Unsurprisingly Materis, as the far more accessible of the two, is somewhat more degraded with evidence of very recent (and a lot of past) illegal logging, while Kalumpang has much better quality forest – less vicious rattan and unyielding tangles of lianas – though it boasts some precipitously sheer inclines to work on! It has clearly lost a lot of its large mature trees to intruders at some point in the past, but we didn’t see any recently deceased stumps.



So frustrating when all you can find are stumps and no trees!

To work in Materis we stayed in a riverside B&B well-frequented by tourists, offering boat rides, night walks, and familiarity with orang-putihs, while for Kalumpang we were limited to a road-side hotel in a strip of cafes and shops selling miscellaneous items, with not a lot else on offer until Kunak 5km away. Needless-to-say Mostyn isn’t somewhere that attracts many tourists, so we provided the locals with a great deal of entertainment while we were in the vicinity. I lose count of how many selfies I’ve been coerced into! The default reaction seems to be laughter whenever we appear. Could definitely be worse, though it’s giving me the (dangerously false) impression that I must be quite the comedian!


Everyone wants a selfie with the freakishly tall, blonde orang-putih. Sometimes I get my own back and add my camera to the fray. Note that I’m bending my knees considerably for this photo.


Materis VJR, as the first fragment site, was exciting and nerve-racking. I didn’t know if the protocol would work as well here as in primary forest, and I wasn’t sure I’d find enough dipterocarps, or enough different species of dipterocarp. In the end the protocol worked a treat, we found enough trees (though they were generally a lot smaller than those at Danum), and many more species and genera than we’d found in the previous sites. What we didn’t find were many seedlings – dipterocarps or otherwise. The majority of trees didn’t seem to have produced any seedlings at all. This was in keeping, though far more extreme, with the situation I was anticipating, and shaped my expectations for Kalumpang and the other fragment sites. But Kalumpang was different again, and this time we found abundant seedlings of some dipterocarp species, and very few of others. The plot is thickening and the story is definitely becoming more interesting as I gather more data…!



Team photo! Difficult to resist a good set of lianas.

We worked pretty long days, always expecting rain that never came to stop us, so when it was time to return to Danum we were all ready for a few days off! It’s been a great few weeks though, and my fears from week one of being rained out of the forest at 2pm every day and not having time to find enough trees have been assuaged to some extent**. We did (of course!) manage to fit in some fun though (aside from general monkeying around in the forest. Junior in particular seems to have connected with his inner macaque). You can’t visit the Kinabantan without going on a couple of boat trips! Aside from a lot of tourists*** we saw the iconic, descriptively-named proboscis monkeys (even the scientific name is fantastic – Nasalis larvatus) doing their thing, nimbly(ish) launching themselves from tree to tree despite their enormous belly, an obliging orang, tons of wrinkled hornbills, and some silver leaf monkeys. Nothing new to add to my list but it’s always a thrill to see these spectacular creatures!


This out-of-focus photo (sorry) gives you an idea of the dramatic leaps of faith the proboscis monkeys take to move between trees.

We were also befriended by some incredible ladies in a café on the way to our field site, who were determined to feed us delicious (vegetarian!!) traditional dishes for free. It is so humbling when people who (in a monetary sense) have so little are so happily generous. In Malay there is a word for this: ikhlas, meaning to give without ego or expecting anything in return.


Makanan sedap! Delicious food cooked by Amat’s mother-in-law.

In Kunak we experienced further ikhlas from Amat’s extensive family, met his new daughter (adorable!) who met orang putihs for the first time and found the initial experience quite unsettling, but got over her shock by our second meeting. We even popped in to the wedding celebrations of the daughter of a friend of Amat’s: always an interesting experience!


The happy couple being happy for everyone for 12 hours straight.

Back at Danum it’s been great to have some days to reflect on the last month and a half of work, and prepare for round two. It’s been challenging in ways I hadn’t expected, and I’ve learnt a lot of lessons as a team leader. Organising a team of people that are working, eating, and living together is an incredibly full-on experience. Sadly Junior is leaving us now to go and work amongst his own kind at the zoo, but Rose is staying with me and in a few days we’ll be joined by Peter. So I’m looking forward to chapter two!



*Virgin Jungle Reserve. I think I have explained what these are before but in case you’ve (understandably) not retained that information, these are areas of “pristine” rainforest which have been afforded a high level of protection against logging, hunting etc., and which, for the most part, are now islands of forest within an ocean of oil palm plantation. They are in varying states of degradation depending on accessibility and the level of enforcement, but it can be difficult to persuade local people that they are not allowed to use their local patch of forest to supplement their diet or income, or to build a house, when historically the forest was a resource and there wasn’t any legal issue with them using it. There was also an awful lot more forest. Very difficult moral issues to navigate, but education is always part of the answer, and also ecotourism- to provide an alternate income that places value on intact forest.

**I’m not going to get complacent though. This could all change!

***The problem with ecotourism is that too many nature lovers in one place can put a lot of pressure on the habitat and creatures they want to see. In the case of the Kinabatangan, the river, already polluted by run-off of fertilizer and pesticides from the surrounding oil palm plantations and invasion by non-native species like the very pervasive water hyacinth, has added disturbance from the high number of boats zipping up and down, carting tourists (ourselves included) around to gaze at the animals that have appeared in various places along the banks.

4. Danum Valley biodiversity bonanza

It’s been a long week since our failed attempt to reach Malua, but in that time we’ve managed to (finally) finish the first site and almost complete the second. I’m finding my mood is increasingly tied to the quantity of trees we manage to get done in a day, which is a fickle thing indeed to rely on for ones happiness. In the end, it generally relates to one thing: Rain. This is a new experience for me- when I was here in 2015 rainy days were few and far between: we were hotter and stickier but generally didn’t have to worry about whether we would only be able to work until 12pm, 2pm, or not at all, because I was working during one long period of drought. There were also very few leeches.


This lovely lady was thinking about throwing a branch at us (luckily she thought again). Definitely the most thrilling orang-encounter I’ve had to date. 

That situation has changed.


In less than 5 minutes a dung-beetle arrived to harvest this fresh orang-utan poop!

I’m yet to experience the belly-button leech (proving quite popular), but I’m rather prone to an armpit or, more unfortunately, a groin leech*. But I would endure many leech bites over an encounter with a caterpillar.


Caterpillars don’t know how to play. But they are stunning! 

In four months of slogging through the rainforest last year I only once managed to brush bare skin against a caterpillar. This year, however, I was destined to two encounters in two days. And not in a good way. The first must have fallen on my neck, and left me looking like I had a bad case of measles/scabies. The second caused such intense pain that it brought a tear to the eye and a definite quiver to my voice. Caterpillars are beautiful, but they Ruthless**.


A lovely little Malay civet we managed to find on a night walk.

But to counter this bad luck I’ve seen orang-utans on four separate occasions (eight individuals in total!), as well as elephants, some stunning birds (including a female blue-headed pitta, a rufous-backed kingfisher, and hornbills of various species), red leaf monkeys, gibbons, malay civets, a pygmy squirrel, a flying lemur, countless incredible insects and spiders, geckos, scorpions and a pit viper. And that’s just off the top of my head. Still no sign of the otters- I’m going to rethink my strategy on my next return.


Probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen. A pygmy squirrel harvesting moss to line its nest. They move incredibly fast, and bounce from tree to tree at light-speed!

Today we’re off to my next site along the river Kinabatangan, and I’m looking forward to the change of scenery, and for getting the first of my forest fragment sites done. After the next few weeks I should be able to see some patterns emerging, illustrating the differences between mother trees in continuous forest (like that at Danum) and those in forest fragments. I never realised how exciting data could be… Can’t wait!


Scorpions are pretty cool. This fella was a bit bigger than my hand, and not best pleased at being disturbed in the middle of the night.


*Too close for comfort! Certain members of my supervisory team would not cope very well in the rainforest in non-drought conditions…

**to continue the sentence: little [insert any four-letter-word].

3. A long and winding road

Best laid plans are sometimes washed away, rather like roads. This week I had planned to spend three days at Malua, which I have previously described as Danum’s rebellious younger brother (or something similar). I was looking forward to the tranquillity, psyched up for the lack of electricity (the generator is playing up) and phone signal, and excited to see how logged forest would differ from the pristine forest near the Danum field centre in terms of what trees were producing seedlings. But we don’t always get what we want!


If you’ve ever wondered what the underside of a giant grasshopper looks like,  wonder no more!

We were now four: Rose had joined us over the weekend and was raring to get into the field. We had a good start and managed to get on the road by 8.30am. The plan was to go straight to the site (about 1 hour and a half’s drive away), do as much as we could with the day, and then on to Malua to cook, relax, and sleep. After an hour’s drive we arrived at the gate leading to Malua forest reserve, and after a quick chat with the guys manning the gate Amat came back saying that there was a problem with the road ahead, but that they were going to fix it. We went to have a look, overtaking the digger that was already en route, and indeed there was a bit of a Problem.




No matter, we thought, we’ll wait. And so we waited for about an hour for the ancient digger to cover a distance that had taken us 10 minutes in the jeep. But it was just a small hole and Mr Suzuki was able to create a makeshift bridge for us in a jiffy so that we could be on our way. Hooray! Only an hour lost: we could still get plenty done with the day.


Diggers are fun!


However, we celebrated Far Too Soon. Before long we can across a much more serious rift that would require a hefty amount of earth and logs to mend. There was no quick fix for this gaping orifice and there was nothing for it but to turn around and head home. We later found out that another few kilometres on from this was an even more serious collapse*. I’ve decided to leave Malua until March.



At the moment I’m still able to be pragmatic about these lost days (I’m sure that’ll change as I run increasingly short of time) but anyway we decided to make a day of it and went for lunch on top of the sunrise viewing hill. I even managed a cheeky trip to the highest point for many, many miles around, and was rewarded with the most breath-taking view. I’m already planning a return.



*What with the rains of last night I’m happy not to have made it, because I’m certain more bridges have been lost by now. It would be incredibly inconvenient to be trapped there (and hungry!).**

**UPDATE: Being so tardy in posting this has allowed sufficient time for the new bridges to be washed away again.

2. Dipt or non-dipt, that is the question

Here’s some background to what I’m hoping to achieve this year. Based on my data from my last field season I’m taking a slightly different approach which should (hopefully) allow us to dig a little deeper into what causes certain tree species to thrive in forest fragments* while others fail, and how these patterns of regeneration vary between these isolated forest patches and intact forest. Our measure of success or failure is in the number of seedlings of the same species surrounding a mother tree, and I’ve chosen to target 25 species in one family – the Dipterocarpaceae. Dipterocarps are a very important group in these forests, and are unusual in dominating the rainforest canopy – the canopy in most rainforest is formed by species from multiple families. The majority of species in the Dipterocarpaceae produce flowers and then fruit in response to the droughts caused by El Niño events**, so I’m hoping to have lots of seedlings to count after this most recent El Niño, which, judging by the volume of rain we are currently enjoying, is well and truly over.


#dipterocarp #treeporn

We have to take into account a number of other things – one of the most important being competition from other species, so we’re also measuring the density of other dipterocarps and the density of species in other families (both in terms of the numbers of seedlings and that of mature trees) in the vicinity of each mother tree. Fortunately we already have soil data (and a number of other measures) from all of these sites from last year, so there’ll be no more laborious soil coring, drying and grinding for me to worry about this year. In fact with only 8 sites to visit (compared to 19 last year), I am revelling in the relative simplicity this Plan. Let’s hope it pans out!


High pressure job: a lot of concentration required.

For the next three months my days will generally be measured in Trees. My first week back in the jungle has flown by, and after a slow start where heavy rain forced a rapid exodus from the forest after only three trees, we have consistently topped the previous day’s record to finally manage nine trees in one day, something that I gloomily thought impossible on three-tree-Tuesday. The rain Arrives punctually at 2pm almost every day, so we just have to work around that!


First tree tagged!

It’s amazing how quickly everyone in the team settled into their roles, making each day more efficient than the previous. This week there were just three of us: Amat, the lynchpin, doing the initial IDing of mother trees to pick out individuals that we want to survey (and identifying and measuring the other mature trees in the vicinity), myself, able to identify seedlings to the level of conspecific (the same species as the mother trees), dipterocarp, or non-dipterocarp (I’m pretty happy with this, despite the comparative straightforwardness), and Junior, coping admirably with the numbers being shouted at him to scribble down, sometimes by both me and Amat at the same time. Next week we will be joined by Rose, and I already have plans for greater efficiency!


August 2015 vs January 2017. Cometh the rains!


*I call them forest fragments because they are patches of forest that only remain because they were formally protected before oil palm plantations spread across the landscape, thus they are isolated within a sea of oil palms, which are an effective barrier to many forest dwelling species and prevent many species from moving between fragments, or between fragments and continuous forest.

**rather than in response to the seasons, as in the UK. Borneo is more or less aseasonal, with a slightly more rainy period from November to March that doesn’t seem to be strong enough to provide cues which would trigger plants to flower or fruit.

1. In it for the trees, too!*

Yes, I have finally returned to Borneo to hug more trees, and it feels GOOD. After a gruelling journey of well over 24 hours I arrived in KK to run the gauntlet once again, this time alone. So it was off to the offices of the Sabah Biodiversity Council to collect my Access Licence, the Yayasan Sabah building for the Danum Valley Management Committee offices and my Research permit to work in the Danum Valley Conservation Area, then the immigration office multiple times to collect forms (which I and my ‘local collaborator’ have to fill out) and return them, along with a magistrate for one signature and another official to pay stamp duty on something else- and none of these places or my local collaborator (bar one) are in the city centre, and neither are they in the same place! The upside is that I worked out how to use the buses (2 ringgit for a journey rather than 30 ringgit in a taxi), and ultimately managed to submit my application for a working visa- which I can collect on my next visit to KK (groan).


On the way to a nice spot for sunset viewing. It really tickled me that the first sign allowed you over 3 minutes to walk 100 metres, and the next a slightly less conservative 5 mins to walk the next 200 m. This was probably the jet lag.


Sunset over the bright lights of KK.


Christmas meets Chinese New Year in KK.

Aside from these sweaty shenanigans I did manage to locate and eat some of my favourite Malay dishes (or a veggie variant therein), acclimatise a little to the heat and humidity, and see two beautiful sunsets- though these were nothing on the ones I saw on my first ever visit to KK. All in all I was more than ready to wave goodbye to KK and hello to Lahad Datu. Sat on a battered leather seat in a very small propeller-driven plane, I could only hope that the mournful ballads playing throughout the journey weren’t in any way portentous, but happily we landed without mishap and at last I was greeted by my good friend and research assistant, Amat.


Mount Kinabalu.


Roti chanai, kelapa muda, and Amat!

Roti chanai and kelapa muda fuelled our next mission to buy a few bits of equipment, some very essential kampongs, and supplies for the next week in Danum. And then finally we left the very congested Lahad Datu behind to drive to Lembah Danum once again!

You should always keep your eyes peeled once you’re on the forest road, and sure enough we soon saw my first mammal (except for a few rats in KK) of the trip- one of the many species of squirrel. Next, a classic, was a long-tailed macaque, and then, wonderfully, 3 grey leviathans happily guzzling on some roadside ginger**! After that it started raining pretty heavily and the animals hid themselves away, but I was satisfied with a solid start to my wildlife gazing.

Being back at Danum and immersing myself in fieldwork again is wonderful! I had almost forgotten how much I loved it, and with the benefit of last year’s experience and a year in which to gain confidence and ownership of my project, I think that this field season is shaping up to be an even more enjoyable one.


Ginger-guzzling leviathans

*Credit to Papa Stride for the puntastic title

**Thomas (2017), pers. comm.



Back to reality


The mighty Kinabatangan

I can barely bring myself to write this last chapter. In large part this is due to the activities of my last eight hours in Sabah- a solid six and a half of which were spent frantically grinding and sieving each and every one of my 93 soil samples with a pestle and mortar, resulting in an arm like a slinky. My last hour and a half in Sabah was enough for me to finalise arrangements for the soil analyses, run back to my B&B, grab a snack and get a taxi to the airport. Nothing like the last minite for getting things done!


Blue-eared kingfisher disturbed from his slumber

My last weeks in Sabah flew by and I almost can’t believe I’ve swapped beautiful hornbills for moulting pigeons, glorious sunshine for grey drizzle* and fried noodles for mashed potatoes and gravy (there’s always a silver lining). My final set of fragments proved to be a mixed bag. Of the three, two had been visited by my predecessors and the third as yet unexplored, but close examination of google earth left me hopeful that I could find some forest good enough for a transect. How wrong I was! Even after 4 months spent honing my GE skills it turned out that I was totally wrong in my assessment of the forest quality. Some on-the-ground exploration revealed poor quality secondary forest with few big trees, lots of gaps and a lot of undergrowth and lianas. A nightmare to cut a 1 km transect through, and pointless, as the forest wouldn’t be comparable to the (theoretically) primary forest of my other VJRs. So we abandoned ship, leaving me one site short of 20 and slightly miffed (but who likes round numbers anyway? They’re far too smug).


Happy with my front row seat!


Mr. PT Macaque wondering what we’re doing in his forest

These sites were located along the River Kinabatangan, and we stayed in a B&B at the end of a long road leading to a ferry crossing leading to deep oil-palm country on the other side of the river. The forest is incredibly fragmented in this area, with a narrow corridor of natural (but highly disturbed) vegetation flanking the river and connecting scattered blocks of jungle. This disjointed forest represents the largest area of natural vegetation for many kilometres around and thus contains an incredibly high concentration of


Unimpressed buffy fish owl

animals. If you want to see primates, this is an excellent place to do it. There is a thriving tourism industry, and boat trips run throughout the day- on which you are almost guaranteed to see some cool wildlife. Unfortunately, despite the value of the forest in providing an income from this sort of ecotourism, deforestation (illegal) along the river continues. More education is needed to develop the understanding of local people, so that they can see the long term importance and economic value of retaining forest over the short term gains from harvesting the timber or planting oil palm.


Stunning ox-bow lake

We took full advantage of the boat trips on offer at dawn, dusk and night, and were rewarded with some incredible wildlife viewings. Of course there were the ubiquitous macaques (long and pig-tailed) in abundance, but also red and (more excitingly) silver langurs, gibbons, orang-utans, kingfishers, eagles, hornbills, crocodiles, a glimpse of an elephant…I could go on. It’s a wonderful place, and plans are afoot to create a wildlife corridor extending the length of the Kinabatangan, which will connect these important wildlife areas with the continuous forest in which Danum is found**.


Gomantong cave. If photos could capture smell…

Eager to do everything (you can sleep when you’re dead/in the UK), we also crammed in a visit to the famed Gomantong Caves: enormous caverns within towering limestone outcrops housings thousands and thousands of swiftlets and bats. And cockroaches. The smell physically hits you, and you traverse the outer edge of the cavern, keeping to the walkway, trying to breathe as little as possible. In the centre is a gentle hill formed entirely of faeces, and the walls are covered in multiple species of cockroach, which scuttle around your feet as you walk, along with the occasional crab. It is a truly incredible place: cathedral-like, grandiose, and full to bursting with swallows, which chatter away from their nests on the roof, and sweep past you on their way to and from the cave. Their nests are harvested twice a year*** by men climbing rickety ladders, and are used to make the expensive bird-nest soup that’s such a delicacy here in south-east Asia. I didn’t have the opportunity to try said soup but apparently it’s quite gelatinous, on account of being made from swiftlet saliva. Sounds delicious?



Amat and I worked hard to complete the final two sites of the field season, and then headed back to Danum for the last time. With a week to go before I left, I had bits and bobs to finish in the lab and in the forest, things to go through with Mike, data entry and tidying up and then finally (sadly) packing. But in around all of these chores I maniacally tried to fit in all the best bits of Danum. Mist-netting with the birders, sunrise at the sunrise tower, a fire on the beach, the unavoidable leaving party (more terrible whiskey), riverine adventures and more. It was a very memorable week, made unforgettable by the amazing people I have met at Danum.


Waiting for the birds…

It is strange to be back in the UK. I realise that, however grudgingly, I had become completely used to my quasi-celebrity status as I travelled around Sabah, where my facebook presence gradually built to the extent that I would be recognised in different oil palm plantations across the state. I walk down the street here and nobody bats an eyelid, let alone wants to take a picture of me (on balance, this is a very good thing). I feel I’ve learnt so much over the past four months- about myself as much as Malaysia. The contrast between the UK and Malaysia is stark: here many people have so much material wealth and yet are isolated from one another in big lonely houses; there, entire extended families live on top of each other but are rich in community and love. It’s a tough transition to make, but I have lots to look forward to! And I’ll be back next year for more adventures…


*OK, so in fairness my first two days of persistent drizzle were followed by two days of glorious sunshine in which I got more of a tan than during my entire field season. However (as it’s taken me so long to get this last post out), since then I have only seen brief glimpses of what I assume is the sun, though this remains ambiguous.

**This is very important for enabling movement of animals, and therefore genes, amongst populations, which is vital for ensuring they will be able to survive into the future- especially as the climate changes.

***In theory this bi-annual harvest is sustainable- other populations are pillaged much more frequently- but swiftlet (the edible-nest species) populations are in still in decline in these caves.

Still alive!!

Excellent concentration.

Excellent concentration.

Time has passed so rapidly that it is now quite some time since my last update (delayed even further by terrible internet at Danum, a failing keyboard, and complete absence of much-anticipated wifi in Sukau! Best laid plans…!), so this will be a rapid flutter over some of the more notable trials and tribulations of the last few weeks.


Making martabak jawa at the night market (yum!).

Our remaining time at Sapi was dominated by Ramadan: Alex and I would guiltily eat breakfast lunch alone while Amat fasted from 4am until 6.30pm. At this point he would often eat a couple of dates, drink some 100plus*, and go and play very competitive badminton for a couple of hours before having a real meal- leaving us amazed, impressed and bemused by his stamina!

In the spirit of companionship (ok, and just to see if we could), we joined

Trial. A swarm of winged termites made their home in my soil samples innocently drying in the sun, shed their wings and settled down. Trusty Alex and I spent several hours picking through the bags... Thank you Alex!!

Trial. A swarm of winged termites made their home in my soil samples innocently drying in the sun, shed their wings and settled down. Trusty Alex and I spent several hours picking through the bags… Thank you Alex!!

Pay-day market. Spot the foreigners...

Pay-day market. Spot the foreigners…!

him for a day of fasting. With some serious caveats- we ate breakfast as per normal and drank water throughout the day. These allowances were both necessary (for orang putihs lacking the decades of practice that apparently allow one to thoroughly dehydrate during a day’s work in the jungle without a) one’s head exploding and b) killing one’s co-workers) and undoubtedly made it a lot easier. Even with water it was a challenge, and incredible lethargy set in around 2pm that made any afternoon activity highly unappealing! I struggled through my data-entry (unappealing anyway) and forced myself to do all the things I needed to do to prepare for the following day, feeling very sluggish and sleepy. It was an interesting experience, and I would like to do it properly- but not during tropical fieldwork!

Wise minds??!

Wise minds??!

Amat was Very pleased with Jane's fancy binoculars!

Amat was very pleased with Jane’s fancy binoculars!

Prior to my last Sapi site we launched an expedition to revisit our old haunts in Sepilok, with the aim of meeting my PhD supervisor and my Local Collaborator: a critical cog in the mechanism of extracting a research permit from the Sabah Biodiversity Council. Very unluckily, finding the trusty Sepilok BnB fully booked, we were forced to stay at the somewhat more luxurious Resort down the road (courtesy of Prof. Jane)! Needless to say the breakfast was Excellent, with at least four different types of fruit, and you could even burn your own toast over an open fire. We even managed to meet my slightly (read: incredibly) elusive LC at a very good seafood restaurant that you would never find without local knowledge. If you want to laugh, watch a (lax) vegetarian attempt to eat crab. Tricky business!

This is where all the e-numbers go to party.

This is where the e-numbers go to party.

And finally, after a very long stay at Sapi, and some five sites later, Alex left us and Becky (Alex Mark II) took over the very important Measuring of Environmental Variables (and collecting of soil samples. The wonders of delegation!). On our way back to Danum we powered through one more site, staying in a small town near the River

Bye Alex!

Bye Alex!

Kinabatangan. This was one of my smallest fragments but comprises of surprisingly high quality forest. It has an unusually high number of huge dipterocarps (often considered a good indicator of forest quality), nicely spaced trees (Goldilocks syndrome: not too many and not too few), and a fantastic breeze on top**. A happy corollary of Ramadan is the bustling night market in towns such as the one we were staying in, which rapidly fill with people as dusk settles, busily buying food and special Ramadan delicacies for their evening meal. Having

Beautiful black-capped pitta.

Beautiful black-capped pitta.

had a wide variety of experiences with these I have become slightly cautious when faced with a stall full of these rainbow wonders: but there are definitely some good ones- you just have to keep working your way through! Of course, at this point we were all very tired, so completing this last plot before getting back to Danum, at the tail end of Ramadan and after such a long stint away was quite a mental challenge. But we did it! And with 16 sites done (of 20) we continued on to Danum for a bit of much-needed downtime over Hari Raya.

A sleepy trogon. Not quite a pangolin, but pretty good!

A sleepy trogon. Not quite a pangolin, but pretty good!

The past week at Danum has been Spectacular. Mixing work and play, I’ve been out early for mist-netting with the birders, late for frogging*** and night-time searches for pangolins

(we found a scorpion), up at the tree platform for a good number of early mornings, swimming in the river A Lot (simultaneously searching for ever-elusive otters. This is an on-going project and

Some serious dust-ruffling going down.

Some serious dust-ruffling going down.

on-going frustration!), doing data entry and a considerable amount of paper reading, catching up and losing out on sleep to varying extents, weighing and drying soil samples (actually I delegated this very stimulating task to Becky), sorting leaf samples for Mike the Botanist (my Hero) to identify, and all in all, making the most every day in Danum! Oh, and of course completing one more transect at Danum in the lovely primary forest.

Time is accelerating and the end is nigh: soon I will be back to reality in a very uncompromising fashion! But before then I have a stint in Sukau for my last three sites, another brief stay at Danum, and then on to UMS (Universiti Malaysia Sabah) to analyse my soil samples before I finally fly home. Let’s see if I can get another update in before then!

Early morning at the tree tower.

Early morning from the tree tower.

*As badminton is the national sport, so 100plus is the national drink. It’s a semi-flat isotonic affair that is pretty refreshing on a sweaty day (i.e. any time, any day).

**Yes, you should have guessed that this site comprised of a single steep-sided hill!

***We caught 66 frogs in a 300m stretch of river! (Including myself here is giving a massively inflated impression of my usefulness in catching or even spotting these abundant frogs). According to Scientist Florina, frog numbers around these streams have been far greater than usual over the past few months – possibly because many species normally found farther from water, in leaf litter or tree holes, are crowding into the proximity of the rapidly dwindling rivers and streams to escape from the intense drought that is still persisting here.