Saturday, 29 December 2007

MV Doulos

As my visit on board the world's oldest sea-faring passenger ship cum floating bookshop counts as one of the special events of 2007, I just have to post this entry before the year is out!

I set foot on this grand old lady for the second time at Kota Kinabalu Port on 13th Oct 2007, the previous time was 20 years ago on 3oth August 1987 in Tawau!

Doulos was purchased in 1977 by Gute Bücher für Alle e.V. (Good Books for All), a private, non-profit, charitable organisation registered in Germany.

Over 20 million visitors have been welcomed on board for tours, programmes and visits to the floating book fair. With stops in over 500 ports of call, this unique ship has visited more than 100 countries in including Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and many island nations.

The ship's official website is:

Close Encounter With a Python

It was in January, 1977. In the heyday of the golden crop, Cocoa, in a plantation right in the middle of the best cocoa land in the country - the Quion Hill Area of Tawau, Sabah. In this plantation only the best land was planted with the golden crop, while the so-called marginal soils were planted with a side crop - Oil Palm.

Well this post is not about crops, it's about a fatal encounter with a giant Bornean reptile, fortunately for the humans involved, it's fatal- but not to the humans!

Rajoo, a transplanted Tamil worker from Johor (Muar-mari) was taking his 5-year-old son to harvest his block of oil palm at the edge of the plantation with his faithful dog leading the way when all of a sudden he heard a loud sharp yelp from his dog who was just out of sight around a corner from him. His son was just a few yards behind the dog. When he reached the spot where the sound came from he was horrified to see his dog in the massive coils of a python with his child rooted to the ground in front of the gruesome spectacle. He quickly grabbed hold of his boy and ran back to the kongsi to alert the other workers.

By the time the workers arrive at the scene, the python had already swallowed half of the lifeless dog! With sticks and stones the workers made short work of the reptile which had spat out the unfortunate canine, and paraded their kill to the plantation office to show the Tuan (my boss)!

Fortunately I had a loaded (film, of course) camera with me and took a few photos for posterity!
I also took out a measuring tape and found that this monster python measured "only" 20 feet, short of the standing world record then! (The Guinness Book of World Record listed the longest snake ever found at 32.75 feet - a specimen shot in Sulawesi in 1912)

Note: Python reticulatus the Asiatic Reticulated Python is one of the two species of pythons found on Borneo. The other species is the much shorter and smaller Borneo Short-Tailed Python now recognised as a species in its own right: Python breitensteini.

[The pic shows Rajoo standing at the head of the snake, while the brave man pulling the (dead) snake's tail is Lawrence Kuloi the plantation's official hunter i.e. pests exterminator!]{click image to see full sized photo}

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Chorus in the Rain

Click play button to watch and hear frog carol!

IT may be the season for Christmas carols but here there's definitely no silent nights! When it rains cats and dogs these little frogs gather together to sing their surprisingly loud chorus of groans and hongs.

When we were children we thought the sounds were made by monsters in the swamps, and adults warned us about playing in the rain! Now I wonder whether the adults then actually knew what made the ruckus, surely only few knew such loud noise could be made by such small frogs!

The musical wonders are actually squat little 2 to 2.5-inch (50-65mm) frogs with short legs commonly called Brown Bulfrogs (Kaloula baleata) that walk rather than jump. During dry weather they are quiet and secretive, hiding under dry leaves and plant debris and coming out to feed mostly on ants at night.

When calling they are a sight to behold as my short clip shows; the males inflate themelves grostequely while floating on the surface of temporary ponds. I took this video when there was a lull in the downpour with the help of a flashlight.

A champion singing male >

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Fish Poo

YOU sunbathers out there! Don't get offended if I say you guys are lying on dung all day!

Well, I would not be wrong if you’re sunbathing on a soft white coral sand beach on a tropical island like Sipadan!

Photo: Lovely coral sand on Sipadan Island>

Marine scientists and divers had long known that coral sand are made by coral-eating fishes and are actually the excrement of these fishes! Of these the most important, therefore most prolific producers, are the 60 species or so of parrotfishes.

Parrotfishes, with their fused teeth that form beak-like mouths (thus making them look like parrots) feed on algae that grow on corals by biting chunks of coral and then grinding it before swallowing it. Their digestive systems extract the organic parts and excrete the rest as sand which get deposited in the reef and on the beach. As it is estimated that on a single reef they can produce tonnes of sand every year they are very important for coastal maintenance.

One species, the Bumped-head Parrotfish grows up to four feet in length and is said to use its bumped-head as a battling ram to smash up the coral before munching on the pieces. They feed in big schools and have huge appetites and when so many big fish eat so much coral that means a lot of sand. Arab fishermen know this so their name for this fish is “Abu Kharian”, meaning “father of shit”. Ahh, bless!

Looking at the beautiful fine grains one could hardly believe that each grain has gone in one end and out the other end of a fish! And how tons of it, virtually the whole of some islands, are produced in this seemingly revolting manner!

Being a non-diver, I have to rely on my diver friend to get photos of this underwater wonder. Unfortunately even though he had actually seen the sand coming out of the sandmaker many times, he had so far not been able to photograph this fascinating process! So I hope just this photo of swimming Bumped-head Parrotfish will do!

< This photo of bumped-head parrotfish was taken by S. M. Lo off Sipadan Island, Sabah.

This article by this blogger was first published in The Sand Paper - the quarterly newsletter of the International Sand Collectors Society.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

An Eurasian in Borneo

Believe it or not, the most abundant and visible birds today in our towns, villages and farms, in fact anywhere people live, are not native to Borneo. The Eurasian Tree Sparrow as it is recognised by birders the world over or Ciak Rumah or Pipit Rumah in Malay, is in fact a relatively new arrival in Borneo. I remembered that it was not included in the first edition of Bertram E. Smythies' Birds of Borneo book which I had often borrowed from my uncle as a boy, in fact as any respectable catapult-carrying kampung boy I would have known if there were sparrows living in people's houses then! I had listened enthralled to my dad telling us how he used to trapped "house sparrows" in pre-World War II Singapore!

I believe, it was in the early 1970s that I first set eyes on this species on Labuan Island, and it was much later that I saw a small flock near the port in Kota Kinabalu, from that time its spread was just phenomenal - until today there's hardly any corner of settled Borneo that it isn't found.

Passer montanus was originally native to temperate Europe and Asia but had spread to almost
all over the world including Australia and the US of A where it was said to have been introduced. In their original range Eurasian Tree Sparrows prefer rural areas and nest in trees and hedges while cities and towns are occupied by their relatives the House Sparrows. However in S E Asia where there are no native "house sparrows" they have taken on that role.

Ironically, while the immigrants to this region have continued to thrive and flourish, even to the extend of becoming pests in ricefields and in poultry and ducks farms (where they steal feeds meant for domestic fowls) their population in Europe had declined drastically and in the UK it had been classified as a Red List species, i.e. a species that's "globally threatened, whose population or range has declined rapidly in recent years, or that have declined histrorically and not shown a substantial recent recovery"!

How to Skin a Bambangan

Most Sabahans, Bruneians, and I think many Sarawakians, as well as some across the Indonesian border, would recognise this round cannonball sized fruit. However this is a rare fruit in the East Coast of Sabah and many people there find it rather strange and would not know how to open it up. My step-by-step photos show the correct way to remove the thick tough skin with a sharp knife.

The Bambangan, also known as Membangan (Mangifera panjang) is a member of the Anacardiaceae Family of plants to which the Mango also belongs. The huge trees are found scattered in rural backyards and farms and only fruit once a year, flowering usually around March and ripening in August. Most fruits are rather sour even when ripe and they are mainly made into pickles or used in cooking. However some can be quite sweet and aromatic and can be eaten fresh. When in season, tamus or weekly markets and streetsides and roadside stalls, especially along the KK-Ranau Road would be well stocked with these fruits as well as jars of the preserve (or jaruk bambangan).

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Midnight Horror!

I have often come across this interesting tree with its clusters of big long pods which rattles in the wind when dry but haven’t known its name until quite recently. And I used to just think of it as the Rattle Tree.

It came as a surprise that it’s actually called the Midnight Horror, the Tree of Damocles or Broken Bones Tree all of which suggest a sinister character of the plant. The first and third names rather baffle me, while the second name clearly alludes to the pods which look like big hanging swords like the one that supposedly hung over Damocles.

On googling for Midnight Horror, the explanation that nocturnal travellers passing by the tree were often startled when they looked upwards and saw what seems to be swords pointing down at them seems rather weak, some explained the pods looked like vultures with drooping wings. The white winged seeds which floats to the ground on ripening are said to resemble broken bones, thus the other name. My own experience is that people passing by a tree with ripe pods especially at night would certainly be alarmed when a sudden gust of wind causes the pods to make a loud rattling sound.

(Photo: The winged white seeds look like graceful butterflies when they float down to the ground.)

Menacing names aside this tree is in fact a beneficial tree whose bark and seeds are used for alleviating pain and counteracting inflammations and fever in Oriental medicine.The Chinese thus have a beautiful name – mu hu die or Tree Butterfly (木蝴蝶) for this herbal plant.

The scientific name of this quite common tree is Oroxylum indicum (Family: Bignoniaceae). It has a big natural range, being found in China, India, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

This is my favourite photo of this tree with a conveniently perched Wallace's Hawk-eagle as an indication of the size of the pods.

Here's the original story of Damocles' Sword, in its original language....
Quamquam hic quidem tyrannus ipse iudicavit, quam esset beatus. Nam cum quidam ex eius adsentatoribus, Damocles, commemoraret in sermone copias eius, opes, maiestatem.... OK, OK, here it is in English:

Dionysius was a fourth century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse. To all appearances he was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers (adsentatores) to inflate his ego. One of these ingratiators was the court sycophant Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, "If you think I'm so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?"

Damocles readily agreed, and so Dionysius ordered everything to be prepared for Damocles to experience what life as Dionysius was like.

Damocles was enjoying himself immensely until he noticed a sharp sword hovering over his head, which was suspended from the ceiling by a horse hair. This, the tyrant explained to Damocles, was what life as ruler was really like.

Damocles, alarmed and quickly revising his idea of what made up a good life, asked to be excused. He then eagerly returned to his poorer, but safer life.

Quoted from this website:

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Pangolin - Eater of Ants

To most Borneans the meat of wild animals used to be a natural and  a considerable part of daily fare, but today with the near-decimation of our jungles, bushmeat (a term that seems to have gained popularity nowadays) is harder to come by and is still a very welcome occasional treat. One particularly relished meat was that of the pangolin (sometimes called the scaly anteater) which in the old days were quite common in jungles as well as in rubber and cocoa plantations. (This photo of a mother with young riding piggy-back on her tail was taken in a cocoa plantation in Tawau around 1980)
In those days hunters do not go out to hunt pangolins in particular, usually their quarry were larger animals like the sambar deer (payau), muntjak (kijang) or wild pigs. Pangolins were sort of  like “side-catch” together with civets (musang), pelandoks and the equally tasty porcupines. People also take the occasional pangolin that they accidentally met. At this rate of “harvesting” there was little danger of wiping out any species.
However when people are overcome by greed, species like the pangolin are all in danger and become threatened with extinction. After having over-exploited their own pangolins to the point of virtual extinction in their regions, the Chinese are buying these animals from other countries where different species are found. All too often we are bombarded by the media with news of truckloads of pangolins being seized at national boundaries by wildlife enforcement people – truckloads – hundreds of these poor animals being sent to their slaughter. These reports were only of those cases when the enforcers were lucky, one dreads to think of those that got away, how many thousands were and are still being taken?
Borneo is not spared this illegal activity, and although we hear less about it it doesn’t mean that there is less threat here. Here’s a recent Sabah case – see the attached newspaper clipping. (Click it to see a larger image and read the newspaper report.)
Personally, not so long ago I have heard of illegal wildlife procurers going around oil palm plantations in the East Coast of Sabah offering up to RM60 per kilo of live pangolin to workers. When I got wind of this I immediately told my staff and workers that anyone caught dealing with these criminals risk immediate dismissal.
I have no objection to people catching (non-protected) wild animals in plantations and farms for their own dinner, but doing so for financial profit (supporting illegal trafficking) at the expence of the animal is definitely not acceptable. I admit that I have tasted stewed pangolins in the past and unashamedly totally enjoyed it (I can tell you it tastes like porcupine, which is much nicer than chickens!), but those were the days when it seemed it would take another Ice Age to make these animals extinct!
Here are some facts about the species of pangolin found in our region:
Species name: Manis javanica
Common English name: Sunda Pangolin or Javan, also sometimes Malayan Pangolin
Local names: Tenggiling (Malay), bulukun or mangkotong (Kadazan/Dusun), I think it's called bulukun in Murut also, while in Iban it's Tenggiling. Please correct me if I am wrong. In Chinese it is chuan san jia 穿山甲 which roughly means mountain-digging amour!

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Green Crested Lizard

DUE to its ability to change colour the relatively common Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) is often mistakenly called a chameleon by many. I’ve even seen a photo of it so labelled in a display in one of our state parks! Also by the same virtue of its seemingly magical ability, many Borneons, being a superstitious lot, unfortunately believe that this shy lizard is highly venomous and so should be killed on sight or at least avoided.

Of course, myth and mistaken identity aside, this is a perfectly harmless insect-eating lizard that is not closely related to the true chameleons of Africa.

I found this young specimen in the process of shedding its old skin along a forest road.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

To Eat or Not to Eat (Fins - Best on Sharks)

I admit that I like shark-fin soup. It’s not that I get to eat it very often though, in fact only very rarely, like at weddings, major family gatherings, and so forth. Over the years, I may have even included it in one or two (or even 4!) of the dinners that I had given or presided over. But that was in the past, albeit only the recent past and at that time when one talked about sharks “Jaws” came to mind. Who wants to save sharks? Why protect them? Who would believe that the millions of sharks in the ocean could be decimated? They are ferocious beasts that can take care of themselves!

Anyway sharkfin is so expensive - how many people can afford to eat it? Exactly! It’s mostly the Overseas Chinese who ate sharkfin but only a small percentage of them could have yee-chi tong regularly in those days not so long ago! Now with the billion-plus population of Chinese in the Mainland so much more economically enpowered almost every Chinese family wants and can afford to have this delicacy on the menu at every wedding, birthday, New Year, get-together, and business dinners. They can even have sharkfin-filled dimsums for Sunday brunch! It’s a status thing!

Not that it is so delicious that the ingenious Chinese cannot find or make a substitute for it, there are already faux sharkfin on the market! But nobody wants “fake” they want the real fins chopped right off the swimming fish!

That makes it different now! Sharks simply can’t reproduce fast enough to keep up with the demand! Sooner rather than later they will become extinct, they are already on the way now!

Friday, 26 October 2007

Sputnik and Harvestmen

When I saw this spider-like creature with a pea-sized body and very long thin legs, it instantly reminded me of Sputnik-1 (Спутник-1) the Soviet Union’s and the world’s first ever man-made satellite to be put into orbit around the earth 50 years ago this month. Launched on October 4, 1957, Sputnik-1 was the first of a series of satellites collectively known as the Sputnik program and its success ignited the so-called Space Race between the then USSR and the United States within the Cold War.

Although this arachnid looks like the so-called daddy-long-leg spiders that we sometimes find in damp places in our bathrooms it is not a real spider. It belongs to the Order Opiliones whose members are commonly called Harvestmen (for what reason I don’t know). Like spiders they have 8 legs and feed on small insects and belong to the Class Arachnida but unlike them they do not produce web. Quite a number of species of harvestmen are found on Borneo, generally living on the soil among leaf litter, in foliage or on tree trunks.

This interesting specimen was photographed in the forest near Madai Waterfall, Kunak where they are quite common. (The super-imposed Sputnik image is produced using a photo found on the Net.)

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Borneo's Own Big Cat

The caption under a small photo of a clouded leopard on the index pages of the October 2007 issue of the National Geographic, “A New Species”, was a little misleading. However further inside the magazine is the full explanation and a full length photo of the feline together with a map showing (somewhat optimistically, IMHO) the extent of the remaining rain forests on Borneo.

Neofelis diardi is not exactly a new species as it was first described by a zoologist 184 long years ago in 1823. However later taxonomists demoted this cat to sub-species status, i.e. they thought this cat was merely a race of the species Neofelis nebulosa which are found all over Asia ranging from Nepal through Eastern China to Southeast Asia including Sumatra and Borneo. Thus those Borneo, and Sumatra, were classified under Neofelis nebulosa diardi until now when new detailed analysis shows that, in spite of very similar appearance, they are genetically vastly different from their mainland cousins.

While we think this calls for a celebration, we also mourn the fact that the rain forests of our great island where these magnificent cats and countless other animals live, are disappearing fast! The so-called Heart of Borneo set aside by three countries that share it is indeed being set aside FOR the cultivation of oil and bio-fuel production with each of these participating countries seemingly trying to outrace each other to “develope” (read “destroy”) the land.

This photo of a bored and unhappy captive animal was taken at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park in Kota Kinabalu. I accept that some animals need to be captured for various legitimate reasons, including for display to educate the public but I strongly oppose capturing and displaying animals sorely for entertainment and financial gains. Though sometimes it’s difficult to judge and draw a line…

The common English name for this cat would probably be Bornean Clouded Leopard or Island Clouded Leopard (to include Sumatra). Anyway the many natives of Borneo have their own name for it: Mondou/Inanasad/Nanansad/Tangangansad (Kadazandusun); Enkuli (Iban); Lakuing (Brunei); Kuleh (Kayan); Kuir (Kelabit, Lundayeh); Tantanion (Murut). In Malay it’s Harimau Dahan or Rimau Dahan.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

First Post - dedicated to Streamyx, TMNet

I've been working on my first post for this blog for days now, or rather trying to publish my nicely thought out first post but thanks to Streamyx our almighty broadband provider I have to attempt doing it with a snail-paced dail-up connection... I shouldn't get so worked up and mad really, after all this is Borneo! And I happen not to live in KL or even KK or Kuching but in a small pekan bah. And when we have broadband or don't is all up to Streamyx, great god! We just have to accept it, sabar and be grateful when we have broadband for a weekend! Yes just be sabar and/but DON'T forget to pay your monthly subscription! Or your connection will be disconnected!

Foreigners who find out that we live in Borneo are invariably surprised that we (who are supposed to live in trees - maybe our over zealous Tourism people should not use so many of those Orangutan photos in their advertisements) are also connected to the Net, maybe just as we are sometimes surprised when we found out that one of our chat mate in the chat room is a pygmy in Congo! Ha? U mean u also cn use computer ah?

Sure, we are connected to the www too like everybody else, just that we are not as equal as everybody else. People in the big cities of course are more equal, they have fast broadband, WiFi, etc, etc. Not like us in the pekans, (I think people in the kampung don't even have dail-up?, I think only, I am not sure). Yes most of us have dail-up and some of us have slow broadband or intermittent broadband... like available one or two days in a week, or sometimes even one whole week without interruption! But mind you, we pay the same rate as the city folks (city folks who can afford sitting in some of those expensive kopitiams sometimes get to use free internet! But of course they have to buy their expensive laptops also lah).

Anyway, I'm rambling off the point now, and I don't get to post my first blog! Sabarlah, friends try to come back to read my blog some other time, maybe next Sunday. If Almighty Streamyx permit! (no point getting so angry)

pekan = town/ kampung = village/ sabar, sabarlah = patient, be patient,/ kopitiam = coffee shop (usually the old-fashion type)