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Danum Valley, part 1

My words of the day are:
gajah, elephant.
Pokok, tree.
Hutan, forest.

The land in Sabah is extensively exploited, yet it is dotted by many protected areas of different size and relevance. Danum Valley Conservation Area is one of the largest and most famous, a 450 km2 patch of primary forest just two hour drive away from Lahad Datu. It was founded in 1986 thanks to a joint effort of the British Royal Society and the Malaysian government, with the dual goal of preserving and studying the bornean lowland rainforest. At present, Danum Valley is chiefly a research station. Tourists are allowed, the accommodation is basic but good, but the separation between tourists and researchers is clear-cut. Not that it matters too much at the time of my visit. The informal research season ends in June/July, so very few scientists are around. And whenever the tourists’ season is, it can’t be now. On the day when I reach Danum, I share the ride with only two other visitors: Nick, a British birdwatcher; and Roger, an Australian medicine student and former forester. When we reach the park lodge, the only other people in sight are a few members of the technical staff. Having so few people around means that the forest shows its real face, and its inhabitants are more likely to show theirselves.

This is confirmed from my very first morning in the park. I leave very early for a little walk, to get a feel of the surroundings an enjoy the misty morning light. I have yet to leave the main dirt road when, right after a bend, I see something grey and the size of a small truck hanging out by the side of the road. There it is, my first encounter with a bornean pygmy elephant. For scientists, this is Elephas maximus borneensis. For locals, it is gajah. For me, there is no way this elephant is “pygmy”. Even from 30 meters away the beast looks larger than a caravan. In fact, as a source as reliable as Wikipedia later teaches me, “pygmy” Bornean elephants are actually not significantly smaller than their counterparts on the Malaysian peninsula. Yet it also says that Asian elephants rarely exceed 2.7 m of shoulder height in males. Funny how fear (pardon, excitement) tends to magnify things. The big one in front of me is a female. In between her legs, her calf. An older calf trots around, curious like a kid. I can hear them munching from 30 meters away. They know I am there, but they don’t seem to mind. I keep observing them and taking pictures until the older calf becomes a bit too curious, heading decidedly towards me. At that point I leave the ground. Enough excitement for this time of the day.
I do not know it yet, but this is just the appetizer for a very long and eventful day in the hutan, the forest.

– – continues