Ahoy there! I’m Gregg Yan, a wildlife lover who worked for WWF, Oceana and other environmental groups. I photograph and write about animals to educate people on how best to save them and their habitats, which often directly sustain the lives and livelihoods of many people.
I’ve been doing this for over a decade and I’d like to share my field dispatches, written in rickety boats, inside leaky tents and atop some of Asia’s highest mountain peaks. For this first story, let me tell you of one of my most dangerous wildlife encounters – the time when a wild elephant kicked our boat in the jungles of Malaysia.
Sit back and grab a drink as I recount the tale of . . .
THE WILD ELEPHANTS OF BORNEO
It’s hot. Humid. We’re in a swamp, inside a chugging boat. The air is buzzing with insects. Like little kamikaze bombers, they’re smacking into your eyes, trying to get inside your nose, ears, and mouth. Some do.
We’re cruising along Malaysia’s Kinabatangan River, Sabah’s longest and possibly the best place to see wildlife in Southeast Asia. Our mission today is to track down and photograph the area’s famed pygmy forest elephants, reputedly the rarest in the world.
Probosci’s monkeys crash rowdily through the foliage above. An hour ago we’d have stopped for them, but now they offer little consolation. It has been two days and we have found few signs of the elephants. I dip my head in resignation.
Suddenly the lead boat erupts with excitement, its two passengers frantically snapping pictures of shadows we cannot yet distinguish. Straining my eyes, I think I see something moving behind the facade of foliage. Something huge.
“Up ahead,” announces our wildlife guide and boatman Osman Umi. I glance back and hope he will say the magic word. He grins and gives off the slightest nod.
I first heard of the Kinabatangan River after summiting Mount Kinabalu with the Loyola Mountaineers in 2007. Years later, I found myself scouring the web for tours. The name ‘Osman’ quickly came up, along with testimonials of his outstanding skill as both tracker and boatman. Soon we had set-up a three-day, two-night trip to see Borneo from a boat – at a fraction of commercial rates. We flew from Manila to Kota Kinabalu, then took a bus to Sandakan City. Osman promised to meet us at Sukau junction, a three-hour drive from the City.
We reached Osman’s riverside house a little afternoon. The simple but spacious lodge has five rooms and sits perched atop solid stilts, insurance for when the river swells each December. A row of upturned rubber boots adorned the porch.
Soon Osman arrived to bring back great news: elephants were spotted downriver the other day! The 37-year old first began ferrying adventurers nine years ago and knew each meter of his primeval playground. Still, he admitted, “It’s easy to get lost.” One night he set out to find tokay geckos (which we Pinoys call tuko) alone in the forest. Eventually losing direction, he hunkered down until dawn with nothing more than a knife and a defective flashlight. “I do not want to do that again!” he laughed.
I asked him if we might also see another animal on my list – the tembadau, Malaysia’s wild cattle. “Not likely,” he said. “Ever since palm-oil plantations come nearer and nearer to the forest. Many wildlife now gone.”
THE FORESTS OF KINABATANGAN
Up to 90% of the Kinabatangan’s forests have been cleared, mostly for African oil-palm plantations, like the one above. About 20 processing mills dot the region. Requiring just three years to become productive, these sprawling plots produce oil for soap, fuel and other commercial purposes. En route to the Kinabatangan from Sandakan City, we saw ordered rows of palm from horizon-to-horizon.
“But elephants easier to see now, for the only good forests left are near the river. Sometimes though, even they must pass through plantations, looking for food. Guards scare them off with explosives.” As if on cue, a baritone boom reverberated across the Kinabatangan. I looked at Osman, but he was staring at the river.
At dawn, Osman brought us to an oxbow lake, a prime spot for tracking wildlife. “These track of mouse deer, maybe two days old,” gestured Malaysia’s incarnation of Bear Grylls. “This one Sambar deer. Just pass through now, see? Tracks still filling up with water.” Animal signs were indeed everywhere: mud churned-up by forest hogs, elephant rub-marks plus leopard scratches on trees. We encountered centipedes – and something much worse . . .
Though no tigers prowled Borneo, throngs of gross, gooey tiger leeches awaited warm-blooded clients along trails, canals, and dense undergrowth. Before starting our elephant cruise, Osman taught us to dress and cover the bleeding bites with tape. Leech wounds took days to heal but made for cool bar tales – a fair trade. This done, we set out to find elephants.
We rapidly approach the excited boat. I can see movement behind the foliage but just can’t see through. I duck for a second to remove my cap – and suddenly, they’re there.
Elephants. Three of them.
Frozen at the bow of the boat, I no longer notice the buzzing of mosquitoes, nor the throbbing in my boots. There are only the elephants, passing slowly by a small break in the foliage, 20 feet away.
The boat jolts and hits the bank. Osman is bringing us in! With tensed muscles I explode off the boat, knowing guides rarely allowed guests to land. When I snap pictures, the nearest animal retreats trumpeting into the green. Did we scare it off? Before I can react, the elephant re-emerges and charges straight towards us. It is gaining ground fast. Only, the boat is moored in the mud, and I am stuck out front.
I crash back to the boat, an elephant on my tail. In seconds it reaches us and does an about-face, revealing it to be female. “She’s gonna sit down!” shouts Paco, one of our friends. She doesn’t. Instead, she gives our boat a thunderous kick, knocking us – along with pieces of our boat’s wooden bow – back into the river. Then, she is gone.
We are all breathing hard. “Intense!” exclaims Ann. Our spirits soar, having just experienced elephant Kung-fu. We’ve done it – we’ve seen Borneo’s elephants from a boat. Little did we know that the smiling Osman had something even more substantial planned.
“When I say run,” instructs Osman as he sits calmly in a clearing six feet ahead, “-you run.” I nod, straining to see what the herd will do next.
We are again in the forest, sunrays filtering through the canopy to paint our world dappled shades of jade and chocolate. Five elephants stand shoulder-to-shoulder, 40 feet away. Overpowered by the wafting stench of musk, I wrinkle my nose.
Three of us are crouched behind tiny trees, trying not to make any sounds. The boat – with our more sensible team members – is 80 feet behind.
I came to Borneo to see elephants up close. Now it seems I’m getting my wish, as tusked seven-footer trumpets and trots ahead of the herd. Osman notices. “Don’t panic, just keep taking pictures.” At 30 feet, the moss-covered tree I’m cowering behind seems toothpick-thin. At 20 feet, my heart pounds so hard I actually hear it thumping. Ten feet.
Adios! I turn tail and bolt towards the nearest large tree – grizzled, with a drum-sized trunk. No way am I going to be turned into a human pancake. Turning back, I find Osman laughing and playing with the wild elephant. He looks at us beaming. “This one always curious … so I never say run!”
We laugh along, realizing Osman knows this 40-strong herd well. We watch them play and spar for what seems a lifetime – but was closer to half-an-hour. As we stood to leave, the tusked elephant approaches me, stopping behind some foliage. We look one another eye-to-eye, and I say goodbye.
A RELAXING REST AFTER A LONG DAY
Back at the house, we enjoy a traditional Malay dinner of Udang Galah, curried river prawns. The day is done – we’ve had our fill of adventure and now, we were having our fill of food.
Hands still dripping with sauce, I go outside to look for Osman, savoring the cool night air. I want to thank him for introducing us to the elephants of the Kinabatangan River – but he’s lovingly cleaning his boat for another run on the Kinabatangan.
I leave him be and rejoin the group. Perhaps he’s recalling the generations of people his boat has taken down the Kinabatangan – people whose lives have been forever touched by seeing pot-bellied proboscis monkeys, shy orangutans and magical elephants. I can still see him smiling. All around him the river flows, the way it has for millennia.
To meet the elephants of Malaysia’s Kinabatangan River, contact Osman and Yanty Umi at +60198415259. Hope you enjoyed reading! Catch more field dispatches from Gregg Yan, only on Yuneoh!