Sabah's Tabin Wildlife Reserve -- They Met for Dinner in the Oil Palm Estate

by Heng Wah, Jan 24, 2003 | Destinations: Malaysia / Sabah
At The Mud Volcano Site

At The Mud Volcano Site

At The Mud Volcano Site

Emerging much rejuvenated in the body, mind and soul from a three-day stay in the virtually undisturbed world of Danum Valley, I put up a night in the town of Lahad Datu. I was looking forward to travel to Tawau as I knew that Robertson, my Tawau friend, has made elaborate plans to take me to Tawau Hills Park, a nature park as well as show me around Tawau. Tawau is the furthest east point in Malaysia that shares a border with Indonesia's Kalimantan. Lahad Datu, on the other hand, is well cloistered within the embrace of the picturesque Dalvey Bay, which opens up to the Celebes Sea and protected by a promontory.

While I was savoring two of Tawau's renown local produce the tiger prawns and mud crabs with David, a born and bred Lahad Datu resident, who so proudly proclaimed that his town serves the tastiest "potato veggie" and mud crabs I received over my cell phone a call from Casey another old friend from Kota Kinabalu. His advice was that since I was still in Lahad Datu I must make it a point to visit Tabin Wildlife Reserve which is some 50 kilometers (30 miles) north east of Lahad Datu. He explained that I might as well give Tawau Hills Park a pass this time. The clincher was Casey's re-assuring words: "You can certainly find a lot of wildlife at Tabin."

Early the next morning, after a hearty breakfast comprising fish paste noodles, another Lahad Datu specialty with David, we set off on our journey to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. As we reached the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, we observed that occasionally there was dung along the side of the road. Curiosity got the better part of David, who decided to stop his vehicle to carry out a close examination of the dung to confirm they were indeed droppings from the wild Asian elephants (Elephas maximus). As we headed for the main Lodge in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, we passed by a number of oil palm estates bearing names such as Ladang Permaigah, River Estate, Kertam Estate and Permai Estate.

On the other side of the gravel road was a continuous stretch of secondary forest as the entire Tabin Wildlife Reserve is located within a former logging concession area. We also observed that there were many well-trampled paths on the right side of the road, which continue for a short stretch on the road's left until they merge with the man-made paths between the rows of oil palms. As David has been tagging along with his uncle on wild boar hunts, he informed me that the well traveled trails were made by wild animals especially the wild pigs and deer. In any event, we disembarked from his four wheel drive to examine closely one of such trails. True enough, we saw footprints made by some wild animals! Through David's amateurish eyes, he was able to distinguish footprints made by the bearded pigs (Suis barbatus), wild elephants and deer. However, he was not able to distinguish pug marks of the four species of deer which are endemic to the island of Borneo, that is the sambar deer (Cervus unicolor) and the barking deer (Muntiacus muntiak), better known among Malaysians as the kijang, the greater mousedeer (Tragulus napu) and lesser mousedeer (Tragulus javanicus). The mousedeer goes by the Malay name of kancil or pelanduk. Just before we reached our destination, we intruded into a gala played out by a 30-strong troop of grey leaf monkeys (Presbytis hosei).

We arrived at the Tabin Wildlife Lodge at around 4 pm in the afternoon. By then, the base of both my hiking shoes have given way as they were put through a severe stress test during my three-day stay in Danum Valley, which involves much jungle trekking. I therefore had to swap my open pair slippers with David's pair of jogging shoes. As the Lodge housekeeping took some time to spruce up one of the rooms for me, Suzy, the front office supervisor advised us to explore around. Initially, we were unsure where to start wandering, as the place was rather alien to us.

However, Suzy's mere mention of a nearby mud volcano easily won us over. We therefore drove on following the well-marked directional signs indicating "Lipad Mud Volcano" until we arrived at a forest opening with a marker showing that the mud volcano was 800 meters ahead. From this point onwards, we trekked through the forest underbrush. The trail was cleared of twigs, creepers, fallen branches or tree trunks. However, the recent rains have rendered the path rather slippery along some stretches. At one point, I slid, slipped and uncontrollably fell on the slimy jungle floor. David and I enjoyed a good laugh at my acrobatics! After more than half an hour of trudging through the muddy trail, we found what we were eagerly looking forward to. The Lipad Mud Volcano measuring 2 hectares (5 acres). It is devoid of vegetation and the cone is about 2 meters (6.6 feet) high, comprising of bubbling, salty, grey colored mud emanating from beneath the ground. The minerals comprise mainly calcium and sodium. All around the mud volcano there are footprints left behind by elephants, wild boars, birds and other unidentified .wild creatures. These are plentiful evidence that the mud volcano is a popular place where mammals, birds and other animals come to lick the salts, wallow in the mud, drink the water or cavort around in a carefree manner.

During our trek through the undergrowth, we heard the calls made by a number of different birds. As David is from Lahad Datu, which until 20 years back the forests came right up to the present suburbs of town the country boy could easily recognize the sights and sounds made by the wild pigeons, hornbills, jungle crows and the other feathered species. We made no mistake when we heard the wood knocking sounds made by the wood peckers. However, we had much difficulty in spotting them as they deftly hid among the thick foliage. We encountered a few pitta birds, a colorful ground dweller distinguished by their low-pitched, monotonous whistle. When I reached David's four wheel drive, I discovered the upper and lower soles of my borrowed shoes have also gone missing! After dropping me off at the Lodge, I wished David a safe and pleasant journey back into Lahad Datu town.

The Tabin Wildlife Reserve was gazetted a wildlife sanctuary in 1984. It is rectangular in shape and covers a secondary forest area of 1205 square kilometers (485 square miles). It was set up by the Sabah government to protect and conserve the fast disappearing mammals, namely the wild Asian elephants, the Sumatran rhinoceros (Dicerohinus sumatrenis) and the tempadau or banteng (Bos javanicus) which is a specie of wild Asian cattle of smaller built than the seladang (Bos gaurus) (same specie as the gaur in India) found in Peninsular Malaysia but not in the island of Borneo. According to a 1992 survey Tabin Wildlife Reserve had a population of between 212 to 297 elephants and the current reckoning is that the population is apparently healthy and thriving. Based on another survey carried out in the 1980s there was then between 7 to 20 Sumatran rhinos. However as they are an extremely shy animal which try to avoid any human activity no one is able to put a finger as to a good guesstimate of the current number of Sumatran rhinos within the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. However, some two years ago one had been captured and placed temporarily in an enclosure close by the Lodge and eventually sent to a rehabilitation centre in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah?s capital city.

Tabin Wildlife Reserve is hilly in the central and western regions. The northern part constitutes the lower reaches of the tributaries of the Segama River, Sabah's second longest river. Here the vegetation consists mainly of swamp forests and mangroves. While most parts of the Reserve had been logged previously for the mature hardwoods there is still a small "core area" in the centre where virgin forests still stand. In addition there are small patches of native coniferous in the higher elevation. Animals especially mammals need minerals for their sustenance. Within the Reserve there are three sources of minerals. They are salt licks, mineral springs and mud volcanoes. Besides the Lipad Mud Volcano there are two other mud volcanoes in the Reserve. Another reason why wildlife is found in abundance and in great diversity is the presence of many oil palm estates in the fringe of Tabin Wildlife reserve. The leaves, fruits, saplings and the growing tips of young palms provide food for the elephants, rhinos, wild boars, deer, monkeys, porcupines, rats, squirrels, birds and other herbivores. In turn some of the smaller animals or the young ones of the larger mammals like the bearded pigs and deer are preyed on by the larger carnivores such as the clouded leopard (neofelis nebusa) the largest of the carnivores in Borneo, leopard cat (Felis bengalensis)and the common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus) and by omnivores such as the binturong or bear cat (Arctitis binturong) a prehensile-tailed animal which is the largest civet in Borneo. Birds of prey such as the owls, hawks and eagles also make their presence felt. The rotting fruits, decaying leaves and other vegetative matter and detritus serve as food for the ants, beetles, bugs and other insects, millipedes, centipedes, snails and other mollusks. These invertebrates in turn are eaten by predators such as the Malay weasels (Mustela nudipes), pangolins or anteaters (Manus javanica), frogs, lizards and snakes as part of Mother Nature's complex food chain. Nature too has endowed some of these creatures with defensive mechanisms or survival instincts. For example the scaly pangolin will when threatened roll itself into a ball, the porcupine will brace itself with protruding long sharp spines while the agamid lizard (Calotes cristatellus) will like a chameleon camouflage itself by changing the color of its skin to blend with its surroundings. Except for the swampy north Tabin Wildlife reserve is essentially a lowland rainforest. The predominant family of tropical hardwoods is the Dipterocarpaceae and the natural vegetation is often referred to as the dipterocarp forest. Dipterocarpa comes from three Greek words meaning two for "di", wing for "ptero" and fruit for "carpa".

Trees belonging to this family are characterized two-winged fruits although some species from this family have five wings and others have no wings. When the fruits are ripe they drift like helicopters over a wide area of the forest floor and this helps the dispersal of the seeds for perpetuation of the species. At any one time one will be able to see clumps of flowering or fruiting trees belonging to the same species. However, the dipterocarps do not flower each year but do so once in every four to five years. Sometimes due to the vagaries of nature such as drought or excessive precipitation conditions or an increase in sunspot activity the entire forest floor will bloom at the same time.

This phenomenon is known as mega mast flowering and it happens once in 9 years or so. The entire dipterocarp forest will depict a post card perfect view. Dipterocarps grow to a height of up to 55 meters (180 feet) and if left alone undisturbed by Man it can live for more than 500 years. However dipterocarps are in great demand for the furniture, wood making and construction industries and much of the forests in Sabah had been cleared to feed the hungry sawmills and meet the voracious demands of Man. In recent years much of the cleared forested land made way for oil palm cultivation although re-afforestation have been implemented in some of the secondary forests like those surrounding Danum Valley under the auspices of FACE (Forest Absorb Carbon-dioxide Emission)

Foundation funded by a group of Dutch power companies. Some other secondary forests have been turned into national parks such as Tawau Hills Park or wildlife sanctuary like Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

The Lodge at Tabin offers the following facilities:- *20 units of cabins each with either double or twin beds. *20 tented camps which can accommodate 4 persons each. *A timber-built restaurant constructed on an open concept (without walls) allowing .guests to enjoy without impediment the sights and sounds of the forests. *24-hour electricity with hot water shower and modern toilet facilities.

The cabins were only ready for occupation in August 2002. Thus when I was there in December 2002 the cabin furniture was still gleaming and everything in the cabin was so spanking new. Tabin Restaurant serves a wide range of dishes both Western and local cuisine. The chef Jaffar cooks excellent food in view of his long years of pandering to the taste buds of diners patronizing the food outlets of an international hotel in Kota Kinabalu where he started his apprenticeship. He and his able assistant Evelyn know how to treat guests at the Lodge like a king or queen as he last served for some 8 years in the royal Brunei household as a cook. He is also quite an accomplished guitar player. He too has good vocal chords and he learnt these skills from his father who was a musician with Radio British North Borneo in the pre-independence days. He entertained me to some of the evergreen hits of the 1960s and 1970s especially those sung by the Bee Gees. That evening after a scrumptious dinner Michael my guide and Johnny the driver took Suzy, Jaffar, Evelyn and I for a night safari drive in an open air jeep. Indeed for such a night drive to observe the habits of nocturnal animals the more eyes on board the better as we would not only have to look ahead both at close range and at a distance with the assistance of powerful search lights we have to look left and right both up and down too. We traveled along the road which separates the wildlife reserve from the oil palm estates. When dusk fall this meeting place of the wild and the developed world comes alive. Within two minutes of our drive I cried out aloud: "Look two horses!" There was laughter all round as the two animals I saw in front of me turned out to be a pair of sambar deer. They both reach the height of a pony. Throughout our one and a half hour drive we saw several Bornean bearded pigs darting across the road. At other times too we sighted herds of bearded pigs rambling around the palms apparently having a go at the delicious fruits of the oil palms. The eagle-sharp eyes of Michael spotted a leopard cat hiding among the lush foliage. It has the size of a domestic cat but with a spotted body. It is fond of rats, snakes and other small animals which make their way to the oil palm estates. The powerful beam of light from Michael's torch caught the sight of two species of owls that is the brown wood owl (Strix leptogrammica) and the buffy fish owl (ketupa ketupu). The brown wood owl was not at all disturbed by our presence although we were less than 2 meters (6.6 feet) away and close enough for me to snap its photograph using a conventional non-zoom AF camera. We also saw a number of bats, flying squirrels and flying foxes. I must say that I was lucky to enjoy the sight of Mother Nature's gifts to mankind .Before I adjourned for the night Jaffar and Evelyn advised me to rise from bed early to observe a particular southern pied hornbill (Anthracoceros convexus) which has the habit of pecking against its own reflection from the glass door of one of the cabins usually in the morning at around 6.30 am.

Due to the excitement engendered during the night safari drive I soon dozed off into deep slumber land although throughout the night there was an incessant "wah" "wah" barking calls of a tree gecko (Crytodactylus species) webbed to one of the roof buttresses right outside my cabin back door. The next morning my biological clock seemed to work perfectly. I was roused by it at my usual 6.00am wake up call. By a quarter past six I staked out at cabin number 6 hoping to catch a glimpse of the hornbill at work. However after more than half an hour of silent vigil I gave up but was amply rewarded soon after. As advised by some of the staff I carried out a similar spying expedition from under a richly flowering fig tree close to the staff quarters. I was pleasantly surprised to be greeted by the loud plaintive cries of a flock of eight southern pied hornbills. I began to snap away in rapid bursts photographs of the noisy hornbills.

After a wholesome breakfast Michael and I set off for a four-hour jungle walk covering some 3 kilometers (1.2 miles) of steep and hilly terrain. Besides the many species of dipterocarps such as the seraya (meranti in Peninsular Malaysia), merbau, keruing, selingan batu, we encountered with the various species of the hardy bamboo, lianas (Ficus villosa) which are woody climbers, rattan (Palmae family) another climber with hooks to facilitate climbing. Other ubiquitous plants are the screw pine (Pandanus family) a pineapple-like leafy plant with long stiff leaves fringed with sharp prickles and the wild ginger (zingiberareae family) crowned with bright red or yellow flowers. The trunk of the lianas are often coiled up and rested on forest floor or suspended on branches of other trees and their tips reach out to the sunlight. There are also various species of epiphytes such as wild orchids, moss, lichens which grow on the branches and trunks of other trees. I was most captivated by the enchanting beauty of particular specie of the terrestrial orchid (Calanthe zollingeri) with a long lasting upright incandescence bearing snow-white clustered flowers. One will never miss the various species of parasitic plant. Worth special mention is the eerie looking strangling fig tree (Ficus benjamina) which sprouts from seeds lodged within the branches of the host tree. Over time the network of interlacing roots of the strangling fig tree will reach down to the ground and envelope the trunk of the host tree. After several years the strangling fig tree will kill off the host tree in a fashion similar to the slow vise-like grip of the python. We also observed that there were also a few wild fruit trees such as the rambutans, durians, bananas and pineapples. Their presence in the forest was due unwittingly to the efforts of monkeys, squirrels and some other wild creatures. The forest floor especially among the leaf litter or decaying vegetative matter is the habitat of the millipedes, centipedes, snails and the lizard-like skink. We spotted a fair number of pill millipedes (Oniscomorpha order) and flat-backed millipedes (Platyrhalus genus). When I touched the pill millipede it rolled into a round ball to protect itself. The round ball camouflaged the millipede to look like a seed of a wild fruit. The flat-backed millipede measuring 30 centimeters long looked like one of those long flat-bed trains from Western movies traversing across the vast American plains. The forest has a diverse range of birds which include sunbirds, leaf birds, insect catchers, spider hunters, nectar suckers, flower peckers, barbets, barblers, warblers, drangos, jays, broadbills and pitas.

The forest in the Tabin Wildlife reserve is so rich in flora and fauna that one can spend a few days there to marvel at the wonders of nature. It was with a tinge of sadness that I have to leave the Reserve after two days of carefree, peaceful and stress-free existence to enjoy the sights and sounds of wildlife but I vowed to return someday in the not too distant future. I bade farewell to the friendly staff and Johnny took me to Lahad Datu for me to meet with David who would whisk me to Kunak where Robertson was waiting eagerly for me. And I know that outside Tabin Wildlife reserve a convoluted, confused, callous and cantankerous world driven by crass commercialism and spurred by stark materialism awaits us.

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