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A Year Around The World

Sabah Safari

MALAYSIA | Friday, 13 March 2015 | Views [578]

I am now the proud owner of a pair of emerald green “leech socks.” I’ll get back to those in a bit. 


First, a little geography. Borneo is the world’s third largest island. Extra credit if you can name the two larger ones. (Hint: if one of your answers is Australia, you didn’t pay nearly enough attention in the fourth grade). The land mass of Borneo is divided among three nations: Indonesia, Malaysia and the tiny oil rich country of Brunei. I spent ten days on the Malaysian side of Borneo, specifically the Malaysian state of Sabah. Sabah occupies the northwestern tip of Borneo and is home to the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, Mount Kinabalu, which is a peak that tourists often climb. However, I didn't go to Sabah for mountaineering. I went to Sabah for the jungle.


The rainforest in Borneo is a 140 million years old, making it one of the oldest and most ecologically diverse rainforests on the planet. Eons of ripening have produced a thick green stew of towering trees, twisting vines, creeping fungi, uncountable insects, colorful birds and iconic animals. Since only 2007, at least 120 new species heretofore unknown to science have been discovered in Borneo’s rainforests. 


Of course, just like most tropical ecosystems throughout the world, the Bornean jungles are severely threatened by humanity. Only relatively small patches of virgin forest remain unlogged, and massive palm oil plantations encroach relentlessly from all sides on even the most pristine areas.


On my travel priority list, I almost always put the wild locations first. Although I love urban areas, they are in no danger of disappearing forever. Ireland will still Ireland when I’m 90, and I’ll happily take a robot guided bus tour to visit Dublin then if I’m still alive. The sad truth is that places like the rainforests of Borneo with all its ecological treasures may very well be gone within a few decades; Hence, my great desire to see (and photograph) them now.


The unquestioned star of the Bornean jungle is the Orangutan, which in the local language means “person of the forest,” an apt name as they are about as close to a person as you’ll find in the animal kingdom. They share over 97% of our DNA and are thought to have an intelligence level equivalent to a four-year-old human child. If you can’t picture these amazing orange apes in your head, or get them confused with our other close relative, the chimpanzee, it may be helpful to think of their roles in various Hollywood films, including King Louie in the Disney version of the Jungle Book, or perhaps Clyde, Clint Eastwood’s sidekick in the 70’s classic Every Which Way But Loose (orits less successful sequel Any Which Way You Can).  If you still can’t picture them, just take a look at my website www.billarmstrong.photography in a week or so, and you’ll see photos of the wild orangutans I was lucky enough to photograph in Borneo.


Besides seeing wild orangutans in the rainforest (and several semi-wild orphaned ones at a sanctuary), I saw many other primate specious including the bulbous-nosed proboscis monkey and the tiny, big-eyed Western Tarsier. I also viewed many non-primate species like crocodiles, huge monitor lizards, bearded pigs and amazing birds like the rhinoceros hornbill. One of my most memorable experiences in Sabah was seeing a young pygmy elephant and its mother munching grass by the side of the river. The entire trip was an incredible experience for an animal lover like myself.


Now back to the leech socks. One species that I saw in Borneo but didn’t really fall in love with was the jungle leech. These nasty little suckers hang on to grasses or short plants just waiting for a warm blooded creature to amble by. Much like ticks in the U.S., they will grasp on to your body, find a warm spot, and dig in to feast on your blood until they are engorged. Jungle leeches are crafty too. They can wriggle through the fabric of your boots, pants or regular socks and get to your skin as easily as if you were wearing shorts and flip-flops. That’s why, if you’re planning on trekking around the jungle, you need to buy a pair of leech socks. They are more tightly woven than regular socks. They come up almost to the kneecap and have a draw sting around the top for tight cinching. They seem to come in only white, red or green. In fact, with the addition of an appliqué Santa of Frosty, they’d actually make a pretty decent Christmas stocking. 


I should be back in the states by Christmas this year. Maybe I’ll stuff a leech sock or two for my loved ones.

Tags: borneo, danum valley, elephant, jungle, leech, malaysia, monkey, orangutan, pygmy, sabah

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