Born(eo) to be Wild

Borneo; the world’s third largest island harbouring species rich rainforest, estimated to be at least 130 million years old, home to around 100 endemic animal species alongside 6000 endemic plant species. Yet still new species are being discovered in the heart of Borneo at the rate of around three per month! This biodiverse ecosystem really is a tropical paradise sought after by many, but particularly aspiring conservationists keen to catch a glimpse of and address the threats facing the islands wonderful wildlife that can be found nowhere else in the world; making it especially vulnerable in conservation terms. My own ambition of visiting Borneo was fulfilled last October (2017) when I was given the opportunity to partake in a field course, run by the Tropical Biology Association, located in the renowned Danum Valley Conservation Area of Sabah.

Danum Valley comprises 438 Km2 of pristine lowland rainforest and prior to becoming a conservation area, no human settlements were present. Hence the area wasn’t subject to human interference such as hunting or logging. All human activity that takes place in Danum Valley now is primarily positive with conservation as the motivation. This is courtesy of the establishment of the field centre as a hub of scientific research alongside education for student groups and tourists that visit. Due to this lack of disturbance and continued conservation research, Danum Valley is home to a plethora of Borneo’s endemic and iconic species including the rare Bornean pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhino, Malay sun bear, Clouded leopard and of course the Bornean Orangutan. I felt beyond privileged to call this remarkable rainforest my home for a month, alongside these wonderful but increasingly vulnerable species. The following photographs depict just a taste of the diverse wildlife of Danum Valley…

Dark-eared Tree Frog (Polypedates macrotis)
Dark-eared Tree Frog (Polypedates macrotis)
Chameleon Forest Dragon (Gonocephalus chamaeleontinus)
Chameleon Forest Dragon
(Gonocephalus chamaeleontinus)
Green Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus)
Green Pit Viper
(Tropidolaemus subannulatus)
Whiskered Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata) showing his best side
Whiskered Treeswift (Hemiprocne comata) showing his best side
Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) having a fruitful morning
Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) having a fruitful morning
Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) in a romantic embrace
Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) in a romantic embrace

I understandably had very high expectations of the field course, yet the experience managed to surpass these within the first week! Every single day was different as we focused on a different research subject affiliated with a current conservation issue that poses a particular threat to tropical ecosystems. The only real constant was waking up to the excitable howls of Gibbons as they swung between the surrounding trees. Identifying their location was fairly easy from the rustling leaves of the moving branches, but actually catching more than a glimpse of them was near-on impossible; just a dark figure moving swiftly between trees shrouded by early morning mist. Leeches were a less welcome daily occurrence, you couldn’t really go a day walking in the rainforest without being joined by a few blood-thirsty leeches. At least we were suitably dressed in our trusty, rather fetching, leech socks to minimise access for these hungry yet relatively harmless Hirudinea… They even became a source of fascination by the end of our month in the rainforest – a foe turned friend.

When the rain came…
When the rain came…
Leech proofed and ready for the rainforest
Leech proofed and ready for the rainforest

Over the duration of the course we learnt about a wide range of conservation issues in Malaysia, such as poaching and deforestation to facilitate palm oil plantations, and gained direct insight to current ongoing research projects in the Danum Valley Conservation Area (DVCA). My fellow course participants and I benefited from the knowledge and expertise of three on-course academics that shared their research experience with us throughout the course through both theoretical exercises and practical field exercises. Before long they were less our superiors and more our older wiser companions. In addition to learning from our on-course academics, we were visited by resident researchers conducting their own projects in the DVCA. They delivered lectures on the theory of their research and ran workshops enabling us to acquire yet more hands on field research experience whilst putting the theory we’d learnt into practice. From bat trapping to bird mist netting to quantifying the biomass and measuring the DBH of trees, the diversity of field research experience I gained (in a relatively short space of time) was amazing. Collectively, this was a very rewarding and eye-opening process which emphasised the wider impact of conservation research.

Bridging the gap between aspiring conservationists and the rainforest
Bridging the gap between aspiring conservationists and the rainforest

The whole experience was enriched by the diverse and inspiring group of people I shared it with. Despite having different cultural and educational backgrounds, we were all untied by our irrepressible interest in the natural world and our passion for wildlife conservation. It was such a pleasure to learn from and get to know everyone; from the TBA teachers to the Danum Valley staff to my fellow participants. To now say that I have friends come research contacts in several parts of the world is very special; especially as networking and collaboration with passionate people is integral to successful conservation work! Providing a platform to bring such diverse groups of people together is a key factor underlying the success of TBA Courses and allowing them to have a far-reaching impact. It’s certainly an experience that will stay with me for life and guide my career path in conservation.

The TBA Borneo Dream Team 2017
The TBA Borneo Dream Team 2017

All the knowledge and experience I gained culminated in a research project which we independently devised and conducted in groups of two or three during the final week of the course. In terms of the topic of our projects, we had almost free reign – within (scientific) reason! However, it was in our interest to choose a research area that overlapped with the specialisms of one our three on-course academics or that we had a good level of expertise in ourselves. My research partner and I paired up due to our mutual interest in pollination ecology, also an area of expertise for one of our on-course academics, and we couldn’t miss this opportunity of being in a tropical ecosystem filled with a plethora of weird and wonderful flowering plants. Our chosen focal species was Musa beccari, a species of wild banana native to the Sabah region of Borneo. M. beccari is abundant around Danum Valley providing a nourishing nectar source for Sunbirds and Spider hunters, amongst other potential pollinators. We investigated the pollination syndrome of M. beccari, whereby plants morphologically specialise on specific pollinator functional groups, which predicts it is primarily bird pollinated due to possessing erect inflorescences; termed an ornithophilous pollination syndrome.

A Butterfly (Hesperiidae) using it’s proboscis to probe pollen and nectar from the ornithophilous inflorescences (that’s a mouthful) of Musa beccari
A Butterfly (Hesperiidae) using it’s proboscis to probe pollen and nectar from the ornithophilous inflorescences (that’s a mouthful) of Musa beccari
A bandit of hoverflies nectar robbing from Musa beccari
A bandit of hoverflies nectar robbing from Musa beccari

To determine the reliability of this pollination syndrome, we conducted floral observations at regular time intervals throughout the day to identify what taxa visit M. beccari and when (dawn, midday or dusk). At these time intervals we also collected nectar samples from the flowers, quantifying volume and sucrose concentration, to determine whether trends in nectar production correspond to pollinator activity. We found that rate of nectar production (?l/hr) and sugar mass (mg/hr) peaks between dawn and midday and this coincides with observed bird visitation. This suggests the pollination syndrome of M. beccari reliably predicts its primary pollinator and M. beccari is able to prioritise resource allocation by varying its diurnal rate of nectar production to encourage bird visitation. Pretty neat result for a week’s work right? Our supervisor, one of the on-course academics, is as pleased with our project results as we are and she has consequently encouraged us to try and get our research published! Now back in the UK, myself in the East Midlands and my research partner Fiona in Edinburgh, we will work on refining our report and take the necessary steps towards getting our short-term study published. Wish us luck!

My month in Danum Valley was nothing short of awe-inspiring from the wondrous wildlife I witnessed to the passionate people I befriended. Even now, as the hot humidity and colourful symphony of the rainforest have been replaced by the crisp chill and dawn chorus of home, I have to pinch myself that I have experienced such a magical yet vulnerable ecosystem at first hand. I just hope that the conservation research being conducted in Danum Valley and beyond will pave the way to a more secure future for one of the natural world’s, our world’s, most biodiverse ecoregions….

Borneo was born to be wild and that’s the way it should stay.

Sunny skies over the serene Segama River that courses through Danum Valley
Sunny skies over the serene Segama River that courses through Danum Valley

If you, like me, are a budding wildlife conservationist and would like to visit Borneo, I would highly recommend applying for the Tropical Biology Association Course. Applications are now open for the 2018 Borneo course and the deadline is 4th March. Go for it! Your eyes will be opened to some of the most mesmerising wonders of our natural world… http://www.tropical-biology.org/field-courses/

Connie Turton
About Connie Turton 1 Article
With an ever-growing passion for the natural world, Connie is an ambitious hard-working individual taking steps towards a career in the science communication sector of conservation; having recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a first class BSc Hons Zoology degree. As a member of the WWF, an ORCA Marine Mammal surveyor and a Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust education volunteer, Connie is a proactive young conservationist contributing to the protection of wildlife in her local area and further afield. Believing that effective verbal and visual communication is key to sustaining conservation, Connie keeps a wildlife blog combining writing with photography to share her encounters with wildlife, both at home and on her travels, in the hope of inspiring others to connect with and protect the natural world. Connie’s ultimate ambition is to combine her scientific background with the creative medium of film to pursue a career in wildlife filmmaking; aiming to educate and inspire the next generation of conservationists.
Contact: Website

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