Tabin - the forest and the oil palm
Published on: Sunday, December 04, 2011
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A FEW weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be able to spend several days at the Tabin Wildlife Resort, 1 1/2 hours drive from Lahad Datu, which was a wonderful wildlife experience. The resort is situated at the edge of Sabah's largest wildlife sanctuary that covers 112,000 hectares.

Less than 10pc (almost 9,000 hectares) is primary unlogged forest that shelters some of Sabah's last remaining Sumatran rhinos, while the remainder is logged, regenerating forest, bordered by oil-palm, but it is this that attracts the wildlife and herein lies the irony.

While animals such as the Sumatran Rhino, Clouded Leopard and the Malayan Sun Bear prefer the deeper shade of the primary forest that is easier to move around in, the stronger sunlight of the logged forest allows a denser mix of regenerating trees, shrubs and grassy areas, and so more of the young shoots and leaves preferred by elephant, deer and orang-utan.

Oil palm as a monoculture has many fewer species living in it than the forest, but the palm fruit is highly nutritious and the plantations bordering the forest act as a larder. In the evening, animals such as civets, wild cats and wild boar leave their forest homes to forage among the oil-palms, returning at dawn, while hornbills and monkeys feast on the fruits during the day.

All eight species of Hornbill have been recorded here, and on any visit you are likely to see at least three.

Without the forest for shelter they and the other jungle denizens would die, but the oil-palm provides a wonderful supplement to their normal diet.

The sanctuary was set up in 1984, and the reso rt followed in 1999, set along the banks of the shallow Lipad river. Nearby is the Lipad mud volcano, a 15 minute drive, followed by a 15 minute walk, with a tall towering hide.

The mud is cold, having welled up from far, far below the earth's surface, cooling as it goes, gradually bubbling out into a huge mud flow the size of two football fields and carrying up with it from the depths of the earth, minerals and nutrients (especially calcium and salt) that are enjoyed by animals and birds.

The trail in can be incredibly muddy (it is, after all, a mud volcano), but the views from the tower are worth it.

On this particular occasion we came late in the morning and we didn't see any animals actually at the volcano, but on a previous visit, a troop of over forty Pig-tailed Macaque monkeys were prowling over the hardened mud flow.

As the young squabbled and played at the edge of the forest under the watchful eyes of their elders, a small group of wild pig wandered out of the forest, three adults and six piglets, but were confronted by one of the macaques and being more peaceable than the macaques (which have a reputation for aggression), decided to retreat.

But Tabin also holds elephants and Borneo's wild cattle, the 'tembadau', as well as rhino, and though they are rarely seen, all these seek out the health-enriching goo at different times leaving their tracks behind in the hardening mud as evidence.

It is on the night drives, however, that most wildlife is spotted.

Tabin is known for its civets and forest cats, and it would be unusual not to see at least one civet or a leopard cat foraging along the roadside on a night drive, but every visit is different.

On one previous visit we had seen five of the gorgeous small spotted leopard cats in one night, on another only a single tail-end view, but deep in the oil-palm, snuffling around the fallen litter were two honey bears - a mother and her cub!

This was a rare sighting - the mother reared up when she was disturbed by our lights, so we saw clearly the moon-shaped marking on her front as she swung round and swiftly lolloped away further into the oil-palm, followed by her cub. And if you don't manage to spot a civet on the night-drive, look out for the lovely Malay Civet, "Miya", who comes scrounging around the lodge most evenings.

Tabin is also one of the best bird-watching sites in Borneo, known for its owls and eagles as well as for hornbills.

Oil-palms attract rats and snakes and these attract birds of prey.

The Crested Serpent-eagle must be one of the commonest eagles at Tabin, with beautifully patterned brown and black feathers, a small black crest and an unmistakable bright yellow eye-patch.

On every visit we have seen it, not once, but several times, most often sitting motionless on a tree at the edge of the plantation, even sleeping in that position!

Other birds of prey are the owls. The Brown Wood Owl and the Buffy Fish Owl are both commonly seen, and more rarely the Barred Eagle Owl, and on this last visit I was delighted to have seen all three.

These are Borneo's largest and most beautiful owls, and usually remain still in the spotlight, so they are easy to observe.

On one visit, we were discussing the Buffy Fish Owl that we had seen the night before, at breakfast, when we noticed a pale fluffy, buffy-coloured ball in a tree above the walkway along the river which turned out to be a young owl, trying out its wings as it fluttered about the branches.

Eventually a parental owl was also seen, sitting absolutely still in the shadows, in another tree close by, keeping a watchful eye on the flying practice.

But the highlight of this visit was the evening we went in search of elephants. Despite many visits in the past, I still had not seen them at Tabin.

But this time we were lucky. We had spotted them in the morning, foraging in the bushes at the side of road but they soon disappeared into the trees, so that evening we set off again, following the pad prints along the road and piles of elephant dung, which led into the oil-palm plantation just outside the main gate on the access road.

A few glimpses of dark grey shapes moving off in the worsening light among the palms spurred us on, but they had gone.

We waited until it grew quite dark and the glittering stars came out above, before we moved on, and suddenly there they were - a single one at the edge of the road who soon disappeared and then a whole group, maybe about ten or twelve, lumbering down a side road as we followed them, before they too, disappeared into the gloom.

On this occasion, they appeared to be feeding on slashed palm fronds lying under the old palms, and so were doing little damage, but on another occasion we had seen how a few elephants can devastate a planting of young oil-palms, leaving it looking like a bomb-site, for the shoots of the young palms are particularly tasty fare.

A stretch of the plantation along the access road has now been replanted with young palms, but bordered with a deep trench and an electric fence to keep the elephants out.

Eventually we drove back to the lodge under the starry sky, still amazed at the massive quietness and huge beauty of these wonderful, intelligent animals, and pondering on the irony of the conflict between the elephants and the oil-palm plantations.

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