Looking back on 3 months in Borneo - Ben Cherry

For those of you that follow me on social media, you’ll be all too aware of my recent time in Malaysian Borneo, for others... why not(!), you can find links to my social media platforms via the icons above… Though seemingly a long time, those three months flew by and now feel like they never happened at all, thankfully I have photos to jog all the notable memories from that amazing experience. I have to give a big thanks to the guys at Scubazoo who helped to organise a number of the trips I went on, with particular thanks going to Jason and Christian. Thank you! Though not working with Scubazoo as such, being able to get their advice on places to go and what to see was invaluable, from people who know this region best.

Another big thank you is required for Fujifilm UK and Japan, especially Marc Horner and Kunio Aoyama for helping make this trip a reality. Working with a brand which shows such faith in your ability is heartwarming and exceptionally motivating. Thank you again.

Anyway, Borneo is synonymous with everyone who is interested with the natural world, being one of the greatest biodiversity hotspots, it is understandable as to why. In regions little touched by man, it is truly an ‘alive’ place. With the bipolar rainforest showing two very different characters at day and night. This wealth of nature is why the University of Sheffield undertakes a field course there every year, one of which I attended in 2013. This brief introduction left me hooked, I simply had to spend some more time here and thankfully in March 2015 I headed out for a three month adventure.

This could go on forever if I went into detail and waffled on, instead I wanted to briefly summarise my thoughts on this remarkable place, alongside some photographs from the trip.

This trip focused solely on the Malaysian state of Sabah.

Mt. Kinabalu

Mt. Kinabalu at Sunrise

Pockets of paradise

From sunrise, watching mist rise up amongst the tree canopy as gibbons call out in the golden light, amongst trees hundreds of years old or some coastline so idilic that you don’t want to leave, Borneo is home to little pockets of heaven. People come to Borneo looking for rugged wilderness and thick rainforest to get lost in and stumble upon orang-utans, nowadays this is limited to areas like Danum Valley and Maliau Basin in Sabah.

It isn’t just lowland rainforest which captures the soul, Mt. Kinabalu, which has been in the news for the wrong reasons recently, is a truly astonishing place. A ragged mountain top which draws mountaineers from the world-over. The aura of this mountain is tangible, leaving you sympathetic as to why the people of Sabah treasure this great lump of rock so much. Hillsides offer conditions fit to grow the majority of vegetables sold in the region, as well as unique habitats home to endemic wildlife and behaviour which boggles the mind.


Bornean Gibbon

Bornean Gibbon

Spectacular Wildlife

Wildlife is what everyone comes to see in Borneo, home to orang-utans, pygmy elephants and apparently some rhinos… This isolated island has been detached from mainland Asia for so long that a large proportion of the wildlife is endemic. One of the stand out examples of this is the frankly bizarre proboscis monkey, otherwise known as the Dutchman. With its long, prominent nose and pot belly; this monkey is quite unique with the males having permanent bright red erections just to finish off the novelty factor. Despite their rather lazy looking form, these monkeys dramatically leap from tree to tree in search of fresh leaves to digest via their multi-chambered stomachs.

Proboscis Monkey

Leaping Proboscis

Then there is the unique behaviour which has evolved here, such as the peculiar mutualism between a tree shrew and a pitcher plant. This plant family is famous for digesting insects and other matter to obtain the nutrients, namely nitrogen in order for them to grow. But for one species in particular it has formed an unusual partnership. Tree shrews, common in the hillsides around Mt. Kinabalu are often found visiting the largest pitcher plant and licking the top leaf. They do this to obtain nectar, to fuel their incredible metabolisms. But what does the plant get from this? Well, it includes a type of laxative in the nectar which results in the shrew defecating in the pitcher plant! This is then broken down and used as the vital source of nitrogen. You couldn’t have made it up if you tried!

Tree Shrew, Pitcher Plant Mutualism

Hungry Tree Shrew

But the animal which has a special place in my heart is the charismatic pygmy elephant. Not widely known, but once seen never forgotten. These gentle ‘pygmy’ giants roam the rainforest in herds, forming natural routes through the otherwise maize-like jungle. Can you refer to an elephant as cute? Well out of all the varieties of elephants, these have to be the cutest, with their large heads, plump stomachs and floor length tails making them all look rather out of proportion.

Borneo Pygmy Elephant

Bull elephant in must

Fragile Future

Borneo is an incredible part of the world, but it is unfortunately also one of the most fragile. As people seek to make ends meat, land is being transformed left right and centre to accommodate palm plantations, seen as a quick fix or rather a quick buck. I am not against the palm oil industry, it is currently a necessary evil, unfortunately, for now anyway. But what I can’t get my head around is the rapid removal of natural habitats to produce more palm oil instead of developing current plantations to be more efficient.

Now sadly, nature reserves (which house the vast majority of natural habitats) are isolated from each other by these vast palm plantations which prevent natural population migrations. The issue from this is that the isolated sub-populations might be large collectively but because of their separation are vulnerable to diseases and other factors thanks to limited genetic variance.

Something has to give within the next decade if Borneo’s incredible wildlife is to be preserved for future generations. I wanted to take pictures of this incredible wildlife to celebrate it, not to archive it.

Borneo Slideshow

Symbolic Tree

Symbolic Tree

In Primary rainforest you will often get trees that are in the 'upper canopy' higher than most trees around them. However in logged forest these are often the first to go making these beautiful structures an increasingly rare sight. Malaysia 2015.

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