Category Archives: Wildlife

Monyet biasa?

Monyet biasa (‘Ordinary monkeys’), a.k.a. Long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis), this morning at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan.

Common perhaps, but anything but ordinary.

Mungkin sering terlihat, tapi masih monyet luar biasa.

Owa wa

Hylobates muelleri‘ is known in English as ‘Mueller’s Bornean Gibbon’. But I much prefer the Indonesian name ‘Owa wa‘, which is a near-exact transcription of this gibbon’s distinctive call.

This primate is endemic to the island of Borneo. It’s classed as ‘endangered’ – mostly because of the continuing loss of its forest habitat.

I saw this one (an adult female) this morning at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan. She was a little distant, and I had to photograph her through the branches and foliage of another tree. Hopefully there’ll be more opportunities to see, hear and photograph Owa wa before the year is out.

Lutung merah

The Lutung Merah (Presbytis rubicunda) is variously known in English as the maroon langur, maroon leaf monkey, or red leaf monkey. It’s unique to Borneo and the neighbouring little island of Karimata. They eat leaves, fruit and seeds. Their bodies only grow to 60cm – but with an extra 80cm of tail attached. Although their range is limited, the species is not (currently) regarded as ‘threatened’.

There certainly seems to be quite a few of them at the Kebun Raya Balikpapan, even close to the visitor centre. I’m told that they are just one of 12 species of primates which live in the local forest.

Boiga dendrophila

If I was trying to think of things that I would LEAST like to find in my bed, a two metre long Mangrove Snake (Boiga dendrophila, also known as the Gold-ringed cat snake) would be high on the list*.


They are a bit temperamental, being variously described as ‘nervous’, ‘notoriously aggressive’, and inclined to ’strike repeatedly’. As a result, they make poor bed companions. Fortunately, it seems that they are only ‘mildly venomous’, though one website says (less reassuringly) that ‘there are no substantiated reports of human fatalities’.

* [Actually I CAN think of something much worse than finding a two metre long Mangrove Snake in my bed – but you’ll just have to read on to find out what that is…]


So, you’ve probably gathered that the snake-in-the-bed thing is not a hypothetical situation. On Saturday night we (Karen, our dear friend Gaye and I) were staying in a ‘guesthouse’ near the village of Jahanjang on the Katingan River, about four hours from here by car and ces (longboat). It’s a little out of the way, and only has guests stay there about once a month. The guesthouse stands on stilts in a little lake called Danau Bulat, 10 minutes walk from the village proper.


The lake was stunningly beautiful throughout the day, changing moods and colours every time the light changed. From the boardwalk we sighted proboscis monkeys, macaques, big fruit bats and a variety of water birds.


People passed by rowing their little jukung canoes, on the way to work, for fishing, or to collect the grass which grows in the lake for cattle feed. Sometimes it looked like they were traversing the sky.


It was also pretty nice in the evening light.


Jahanjang village was (as always) very friendly, and as always was home to many unspeakably cute children – such as Nesia (aged 5) and Maulida (2) above.


And boys learning to fly.


Across the Katingan River from Jahanjang is the western edge of the enormous Sebangau National Park. We made a day trip by a motorised ces canoe up a narrow river to Panggu Alas lake, and the nearby WWF station.

Sebangau National Park, although degraded in parts from past canal construction and logging is still the largest area of peat swamp forest left in Borneo, and home to big populations of wild orangutans, sun bears, proboscis monkeys, and innumerable other lifeforms, including… snakes.


Aah yes, snakes. As I was preparing to go to bed in Saturday night (our third and final night in the guesthouse) I reached down to pick up my clothes bag from the floor, and couldn’t help but notice that a large black snake with bright yellow rings was coiling himself up behind the bag. He slithered away under my bed, and I slithered away backwards as quickly as I could towards the bedroom door.

While I waited and monitored the snake’s movements, Karen and Gaye went up to the village (along a narrow dark elevated boardwalk through the swamp forest) to seek assistance. About 25 minutes later they arrived back, along with the guesthouse caretaker (Pak Adinan), Bambang, Pak Sarwedi and three others, armed with some stout sticks and an air rifle.

At first they thought that the snake had departed, then we realised that it had actually wriggled up inside the bottom half of my bed. The bed was propped up on a chair, two shots were fired into it, and as the (no doubt outraged) snake emerged to complain, the appropriately named Bambang whacked it repeatedly with a stick.


Bambang carried the poor limp thing outside and laid it out on the boardwalk.


It obligingly posed for some group photos (that’s Pak Adinan on the left, and Bambang on the right), before our rescuers all left (taking the snake with them) to their homes in Jahanjang village. Karen, Gaye and I fortified our shaky nerves with a cup of tea, and resumed our delayed preparations for bed and sleep. All’s well that ends well.

So… what’s worse than finding one large and aggressive (if only mildly venomous) snake in your bed? Well, finding two of them of course! As I reached across to open the mosquito net over my (only recently remade) bed, I couldn’t help but notice another snake, basically identical to one recently evicted, on the floor at the head of my bed. Black with yellow rings, about two metres long, it was a depressingly familiar sight.

Upon this disappointing discovery, we unanimously agreed that the guesthouse had lost its appeal, so we hurriedly decamped to the village. It was now almost midnight, and we had to knock on a few doors before we located Pak Adinan’s home and woke him up. He and his charming wife Siti Masni took us in, gave us another fortifying cup of tea, and his daughter Wini kindly gave up her room for us to sleep in. Perhaps surprisingly, we all slept well, with no snake dreams…


Here’s a list of “things I didn’t know about orangutans before I came to Kalimantan”. To be honest, it was pretty easy to put together a fairly long list, because I didn’t know much about them before moving into their neighbourhood. They make interesting neighbours…


Orangutans are native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Since 1996 these have been regarded as two distinct species: Pongo pygmaeus in Borneo and the Sumatran species Pongo abelii. The two species may have diverged about 400,000 years ago.


Population estimates are not reliable, but there are perhaps 55,000 Bornean orangutans and only 6,000 Sumatran. That makes the Borneans ‘endangered’, and the Sumatrans ‘critically endangered’. Numbers of Bornean orangutans have halved over the past 60 years, and Sumatran orangutans are now only found in an isolated area of Aceh province. Their numbers have dropped by 80% over the last 75 years.


The main reason for population decline is loss of habitat. Peat swamp and other lowland forests continue to be rapidly cleared for oil palm plantations and forestry, but also for construction of roads and clearing of land for housing and small scale agriculture.


Orangutans share 97% of their DNA with humans. They are amongst the most intelligent of primates, having split off from the evolutionary line that led to homo sapiens about 17 million years ago, after the gibbons, and before only gorillas and chimpanzees.


Orangutans are susceptible to all of the same diseases as humans.


The subfamily of used to include other species which are now extinct. They include species that lived in Thailand, India, Vietnam and China. One of these, the Giantopithecus, was (as the name suggests) really big, in fact the largest primate ever, and it only disappeared from the fossil record about 100,000 years ago.They could be 3 metres tall and over 500kg in weight.


Orangutans have long toes and an opposable big toe, allowing them to grasp things (e.g. branches!) equally well with their feet as their hands.


They are almost entirely arboreal, and are the largest tree-dwelling mammal. Their long limbs and curved toes and fingers make them a little awkward when walking on the ground.


Dominant adult males grow large cheek flaps, usually by the age of 20, which no doubt the females find irresistible.


An adult male orang-utan stands about 140cm tall, weighs around 75kg or more, and and has an arm span of TWO METRES! Adult females are about half that weight, and about 20cm shorter.


Orangutans will wade – but they do not swim. That’s why individuals being prepared for return to the ‘wild’ are held by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) on three islands in the Rungan River (just a few km from our home). There’s no danger of them escaping from the islands.


They eat fruit – lots of fruit, comprising around three-quarters of their diet. They will also eat some young leaves, shoots, bark, insects and ants, honey and birds eggs.


Apart from mothers and their babies, orangutans tend to be fairly solitary – more so than gorillas or chimpanzees.


Babies stay with their mothers until at least the age of seven, and sometimes into their teenage years.


In the wild females won’t become pregnant until their previous baby is at least seven years old. This is the longest inter-birth period of any primate.


They sleep at night in a nest made high in a tree from bent and interwoven branches and a mattress of leaves. Usually a new nest is made each night. Nest-making is a learnt skill, usually learnt from the mothers by the age of three. The orphaned orangutans at BOSF go to ‘Forest School’ where they learn nest-making from their human teachers.


When angered, an orangutan will suck in air through its pursed lips, making the ‘kiss squeak’ sound.


Rescue, rehabilitation and re-release of orphaned orangutans is both worthy and worthwhile – but it’s not going to be nearly enough to counter the rapid decline of the populations due to loss of forest habitat.

As the ecologist Dr Erik Meijaard, from Borneo Futures, has observed: “The balance in orangutan conservation is not right. In the past decade we lost some 25,000 wild orangutans and we rehabilitated a few hundred. Very few are investing in on-the-ground orangutan conservation. It’s like fighting a war with hospitals and nurses only.”

Extinction in the wild within a generation remains an appalling possibility.

Kupu-kupu (Butterflies)

The island of Borneo is deservedly famous for its butterflies (kupu-kupu in Bahasa Indonesia). There are masses of them, at least 939 species recorded in the Malaysian part of Borneo alone. And on top of that there are thousands of varieties of moths. The butterflies come in a huge range of colours, patterns, sizes and shapes, and many are stunningly beautiful.

We see a lot of butterflies, but haven’t yet managed to photograph many of them. They can show up and disappear quickly, usually when I don’t have a camera at hand, and they stubbornly refuse to stand still while I photograph them. Here are some that were kind enough to pose for me. About half of them were photographed ‘in the wild’, and the others were found in the wonderful ‘Butterfly Room’ at Singapore Airport (Terminal 3)


Great Mormon (Papilio memnon agenor). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

The Great Mormon (no I don’t know how it got that name…) is a large and very elegant butterfly, and it is actually fairly common. This butterfly (or one of its 13 subspecies) can be found from northeast India across to China and Japan, and down as far as Australia. Lucky for us, they are attracted to many domesticated plants, and are often found around home gardens.

We have seen them regularly, and I have even managed to photograph them in three locations in both Central and West Kalimantan. This one above was in one of the herb and flower gardens at work, and kept coming back to feast on the nectar of the flowers.

Lime butterfly (Papilio demoleus). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

Lime butterfly (Papilio demoleus). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

This butterfly is not only attracted to flowers of the lime plant, but to all kinds of citrus. Like the Mormon, they are members of the ‘swallowtail’ family, are quite common and are often found in and around home gardens.

It might sound like an oxymoron, but this is an aggressive butterfly. It is highly adaptable, fast breeding, and has now spread to almost all parts of the world – including Borneo, where it was not originally found. In many locations, particularly places with citrus plantations, it is regarded as a pest. It’s also fast flying and restless, so it can be hard to capture in a photo before it flies off.

Malay Yeoman (Cirrochroa emalea emalea)

Malay Yeoman (Cirrochroa emalea emalea). Tumbang Manggu, Central Kalimantan

The Malay Yeoman is often found around the edges of forest areas, as was this one above, which we saw in a protected patch of forest amongst logging concessions in the upper Katingan river.

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus), Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), Five-bar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates)

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus), Common Bluebottle (Graphium sarpedon), Five-bar Swordtail (Graphium antiphates)

Emerging from the bush onto a dirt road after a hike in jungly forest near Tumbang Manggu, we came upon a mass of butterflies in a genteel frenzy, swarming onto the sandy road surface. This beautiful delicate scene is apparently an instance of ‘mud-puddling’, a common behaviour of insects whereby they extract salts and other nutrients from wet soil, dung, decaying fruit, carrion – even the blood, sweat, and tears of animals. We were told that the butterflies above are attracted to urine. It rather took the shine off the pretty scene, and made me uncomfortable about lying on my stomach to take the photo!

According to the Butterfly Circle website, the Common Bluebottle (the blurry blue-green butterfly in the photo above) can often be found feeding on “roadside seepages or urine-tainted sand”. The site goes on to say that it “is frequently found in the company of the Blue Jay and the Five Bar Swordtail”. We can confirm that, as those are the three varieties of butterfly in the photo!

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus)

Blue Jay (Graphium evemon eventus). Tumbang Manggu, Central Kalimantan

Some more Blue Jay butterflies (not to be confused with the bird – or the baseball team – of the same name) feasting on the urine-soaked sand. Yuck. Like many butterflies, they have quite different patterns and colours on the tops and undersides of their wings.

Karen and a Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi)

Karen with a Malayan Crow (Euploea camaralzeman scudderi). Loksado, South Kalimantan

This butterfly kept landing on us. We’ve been told that they do that because they like the saltiness of perspiration, but we reckon it was just being friendly.

The species is called a ‘crow’ because of its dark colour, but that’s where the resemblance ends. In the caterpillar stage, they feed on milkweed plants, and so the adult butterfly is poisonous, and is avoided by predators. Some other unrelated species, which are not poisonous, have evolved to resemble the ‘Crow’ so as to get the same protection from predators.

Another Great Mormon (Papilio memnon agenor). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

Another Great Mormon (Papilio memnon agenor). Tangkiling, Central Kalimantan

I like the symmetry of this photo. This butterfly is a male; the female is quite different, not blue-black like the male but a sort of sepia brown colour, and is much less common.

Common Cruiser (male) (Vindula erota), Singapore

Common Cruiser (male) (Vindula erota), Singapore

Frequently seen, although anything but ‘common’ in appearance, this cruiser is so named because of its regal flight pattern, cruising around the forest like it owns it. It is found from India right across Southeast Asia.

Common Cruiser (female) (Vindula erota), Singapore

Common Cruiser (female) (Vindula erota), Singapore

The female Cruiser is bigger, with an overall greenish-grey hue, and a big white stripe. As well as being sexually dimorphic, the Cruiser also has very different forms depending on whether it’s wet or dry season. So there are four quite distinct adult forms.

Tree Nymph butterfly (Idea leuconoe). Singapore

Tree Nymph (Idea leuconoe). Singapore

The Tree Nymph (also known as the ‘Paper Kite) is found across much of Southeast Asia, though in Indonesia only in Sumatra and Kalimantan.

Like the Malayan Crow, it eats milkweed in the caterpillar stage, so it is unpalatable for birds and other predators. With those big wings, it is able to fly by gliding as much as by flapping, and it sometimes looks like it’s floating. It’s very pretty…

Great Eggfly (Hypolimnas bolina).

Great Eggfly (Hypolimnas bolina). Singapore

The Great Eggfly (where do they get these names?) is found fairly commonly from Madagascar right through to New Zealand (where they call it the ‘Blue Moon Butterfly’). The female looks quite different, mostly brown and without the distinctive spots of the male.

Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsea). Singapore

Malay Lacewing (Cethosia hypsea hypsea). Singapore

This beautiful butterfly with lovely scalloped patterns along the outside of the wings is another poisonous one (not that I could imagine wanting to eat one). It’s a forest dweller.

Common Mormon butterfly (Papillo polities romulus). Singapore

Common Mormon (Papillo polities romulus). Singapore

I don’t understand why this butterfly came to be known as the ‘Common’ Mormon. It really deserves a name more in keeping with its beautiful and elegant form. ‘Exquisite Mormon’, perhaps?

Not yet identified (Kupukupu tyrannosaurus); Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak

Not yet identified (Kupu-kupu jokarus tyrannosaurus?); Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak

We saw this gorgeous butterfly in the forest of the Kelabit Highlands, in Sarawak close to the Indonesian border.

So far I haven’t been able to find it listed in any of the butterfly catalogues, and we’ve settled on the improbable conclusion that it’s never been seen by humans before. That would give us ‘naming rights’, so we’d like to call it Kupu-kupu jokarus tyrannosaurus. (But perhaps I should first have another look through the catalogues).

And below are a couple of others that I haven’t been able to identify (yet). Suggestions, anyone?



Green crested lizard (Bronchocela cristatella)

We get a fair amount of wildlife as regular visitors in our garden. We see lots of bulbuls and other birds, squirrels, bats, even one small snake that wriggled into the innards of my motorbike and hasn’t been seen since.


But yesterday was the first time we’ve had a Green Crested Lizard (Bronchocela cristatella) come to visit. He ran rapidly along the railing of the side fence, before stopping to pose for photos, and then scampering up a tree. He (and apparently it was a ‘he’ – only males have the crest) was very attractive. Bright green head and body, big eyes, and a long long delicate brown tail, which made up three-quarters of his 60cm length.


Although it’s the first time we’ve seen one, the Green Crested Lizard is in fact common, and can be found across Southeast Asia, from southern Burma right through to New Guinea. They mostly eat insects, and in turn they get eaten by snakes and some of the larger varieties of birds.


He is a lizard (Ind: kadal), not a chameleon (Ind:bunglon, but he can change colour. When stressed, he will turn brown. Our visitor must have been feeling relaxed, because he remained a brilliant green colour during his visit.


Mahakam Lakes

Here’s a followup to the previous post about the Mahakam River in East Kalimantan, but this time focussing on just one part – the wonderful Mahakam Lakes.


The Mahakam Lakes region is a complex of wetlands including some 32 lakes, three of which (Jempang, Semayang and Melintang) are large – each more than 100 sq km in size. All up the wetlands cover over 8,000 sq km, but much of this only gets inundated during the wet season. There are nine major villages and a population of around 15,000 people – Kutai, Dayak Benuaq, Banjar (who have moved up from Nagara in South Kalimantan), and other communities. The landscape looks and feels a lot like the Lake Sentarum region in West Kalimantan, (which we visited in April).


We were there late in the wet season, when the water levels are still high, so most of the villages can only be accessed by longboat. On the smooth waters with a small outboard motor whirring away behind you, it’s an extremely pleasant way to travel, and there are always interesting sights along the way.


In most of the villages, like Jantur pictured above, the houses and roads are built entirely on wooden platforms standing on wooden stilts.


In Muara Muntai (above), the arrival of a motorbike is preceded by a clattering sound as the tyres rattle the boards underneath.


Life ‘on the boards’ goes on as it would on any Indonesian streets. People promenade, carry loads to and fro, sit and watch the world go by, and kids ride their bikes and fly their kites. We thought we had time to walk the length of Jantur village, but it is longer than we at first realised, and we made very slow progress as we had to stop, exchange pleasantries and explain ourselves to everyone that we encountered along the way.


One problem with living amongst all that lovely timber is that fires are common, and often devastating in impact. (We have seen this before at Flamboyan in our ‘home town’ of Palangkaraya). The fire in the village of Tanjung Isuy (above) happened a month before our arrival, and destroyed many of the buildings and jetties fronting the lake. They somehow managed to contain it before the whole village was burnt.


Nowadays, living in longhouses (rumah panjang, betang in Central Kalimantan or lamin in East Kalimantan) is uncommon – though we saw many longhouses, including new ones, in West Kalimantan. This one above is fairly new, so it is built more for convenience than for protection. The older style of rumah betang are elevated four or five metres up, with retractable access steps, so that the occupants are safe from predatory animals and raids from enemy tribes.
Inside there is (as always) a long open communal area, and doorways into the private quarters of each of the families. This one is about a ’12 door’ longhouse – meaning that 12 families share the building.


The floor on the inside of this longhouse consists of strips of split bamboo. Like all Indonesian houses, you leave your shoes or sandals outside, and it was quite painful to walk around inside with our tender western feet. Thankfully there are mats here and there…


Pak Jayo and his wife Bu Panis live in dusun Panaat Bura, on the outskirts of Tanjung Isuy. Their home is surrounded by dozens (maybe hundreds) of wooden figures that he has carved. There are gardens containing (amongst many other herbs, fruit and vegetables) the Doyo plant, whose fibrous leaves are used to make the ulap doyo cloth which is unique to the Dayak Benuaq people of this area.


They warmly welcomed us and showed us around the house and garden. They make a range of handcraft goods for sale to visitors, though their Visitors Book showed the most recent guests were more than a month previously. I bought a bikini ha necklace strung with boar’s teeth and a kind of wood that will make me invisible to my enemies. You never know when that might come in handy.


In Tanjung Isuy we arranged (i.e. paid for) a traditional dance performance one night. It was a mostly disappointing and perfunctory performance, because many of the dancers had been called to a special service at the local church, and those who did show up were perhaps not the most skilled of dancers. One dance was however very interesting. It told the story of a young girl who became very ill after being visited by malign spirits (above). Her mother despaired and moaned, and a ritual healer (a balian or perhaps a basir) was summoned to exorcise the spirits that had put the bad spell on her. Happily, his chanting and dancing worked like a charm (which in fact it was), and there was a short and joyous finale.


The new (2013) longhouse at Mancong village is an impressive two-storey affair, and it functions as a cultural centre rather than as a residential building. It sports a large number of carved wooden patung belongtang out front. These are normally built as the place to tether buffalo and cattle to be sacrificed during the tiwah funeral ceremonies – but these ones were more likely built solely for ornamentation. Either way they were impressive. Note that all of the figures are standing on stylised ceramic jars – these are the balanga after which the Palangkaraya Museum (where Karen is working) is named.


A traditional dance performance was under way inside the longhouse, and these children were waiting outside for their turn to perform. Nice cultural juxtaposition: the girl was texting friends on her handphone while she waited.


Not surprisingly, the wetlands are home to an abundance of wildlife. Lots of fish, and fishing is the main livelihood of people in the villages. There were macaque monkeys in the trees, and water monitors in the river. We saw (but DIDN’T manage to photograph), the widespread but endangered Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris [L], Pesut [I]). But the most visible wildlife are the thousands of birds. Terns, herons, egrets, eagles, babblers, bulbuls, flycatchers, swifts and swiftlets, kingfishers, drongos…

The bird above is a Blue-throated Bee-eater (Merops viridis [L], Kirik-kirik Biru [I]). Yes, it eats bees (and other flying stinging things), catching them in flight and carefully squeezing out the venom before eating. For some reason it (reportedly) ignores insects which are not in flight.


Stork-billed Kingfisher (Pelargopsis capensis [L], Pekaka emas [I]) This bird is listed as ‘uncommon but widespread’ (being found from India to Indonesia). It lives in forested areas near tropical rivers and lakes, and so its biggest threat is habitat loss.


A pair of Lesser Adjutants (Leptoptilos javanicus [L], Bangau Tontong [I]) in Peregik village. These are big storks, more than a metre tall, and called adjutants because of their ‘military gait’ and habit of standing at attention for long periods. They are found in isolated communities from India to Indonesia, and a wild population does exist on the Mahakam.

These two, and a number of others that we saw along the river in the same village, are captive birds. We were told that they are kept to scare other birds away from the fish that are laid out to dry in the sun, but we were also told that they are kept just as pets, so we’re not sure of the truth…


Purple Heron (Ardea purpurea manilensis [L], Cangak Merah [I]) in Melintang village. Like the Lesser Adjutants of Peregik village, this is a captive bird, though wild populations do also exist in the area.


Another captive, this time a Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus [L], Elang Bondol [I]) seen in Muara Muntai village. He looks healthy enough – but surely she (or he) can’t be happy to be restrained like that?

Bird trivia: the Brahminy Kite is the mascot of Jakarta city, and is regarded as sacred (and a manifestation of Singalang burung no less) by the Dayak Iban of West Kalimantan and Sarawak.


Finally, and almost inevitably, we were invited to a wedding reception (we think that makes eight now). This one was in Muara Muntai village. The bride, groom, and close family members were all resplendent in their shiny green and gold outfits. There was a very polished band playing well-known Indonesian pop songs, and lots of dancing. One interesting thing was that, apart from the groom’s one dance pictured above, none of the male guests danced. There were however two guys dressed in red and gold who came with the band, and they did dance performances throughout the reception, sort of like male go-go dancers.