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The Longest Journey

Dear Readers, so here I am again,the only passenger on a train heading west to Dorset. As you might remember, my Dad was released from hospital to go back to the nursing home last week, and it seemed as if he might rally. But since then, things have gone downhill. Dad was heavily sedated in the hospital to prevent him from wandering around on what was, after all, a Covid-19 ward. The staff at the home were hopeful that when the sedation wore off he might be a bit more able to take his medication and to build up his strength. They wanted to give him a chance, because my Dad is a great bull of a man, and has been a fighter all his life. But the chest infection is not responding to antibiotics, and Dad is becoming more and more breathless and agitated. As you might know, breathlessness and anxiety can form their own circle of hell – you can’t breathe, so you become anxious, so you become more breathless. They have tried everything to break this cycle, but yesterday I spoke to the staff nurse, and we took the decision to return to morphine. Dad is no longer eating or drinking, and it seems as if all we can do now is make him comfortable, and ease his passage.

Having witnessed my mother’s passing, I know that dying is hard, physical work. I wanted the chance to sit vigil with him, to be there as a witness, but that’s unlikely to be possible, as there’s nowhere to stay overnight in Dorchester. Still, the home is letting me visit (once they’ve taken my temperature and gowned me up), so this is an unexpected boon, a second chance to see Dad and be with him. There is nothing left to say, but the chance to sit with a loved one on this last, longest journey is a privilege, and a gift.

Somehow, though, I don’t want to just remember Dad how he is now. So I thought I’d share a couple of memories of him in earlier, happier days. My earliest memory of Dad is of me washing his back when i was about six years old: we didn’t have a bathroom in our house when I was growing up, and so we took it in turns to wash in the kitchen sink. I remember how enormous his back seemed, and how he was always caramel-coloured: unlike the rest of us, he tanned in the first glimmer of sunlight. It was a shock when I washed his back more recently and I noticed how pale it was, and how the vertebrae formed little mounds in what had previously been a great prairie of brown skin.

At one point when we were growing up, Dad was working three jobs: at Fords, as a part-time postman, and running a market stall at the weekends. He also had an allotment, and some of my happiest memories are of helping him clear the waist-high weeds. He seemed omniscient to me: there wasn’t a plant that he didn’t know, a bird that he couldn’t identify. How an East End lad learned all this I have no idea, but he set a spark of interest in the natural world in me that has burned ever since. How proud he was of his cabbages and tomatoes, his strawberries and his runner beans! He would produce the food, and Mum would freeze it or preserve it or give it away to neighbours. Mum and Dad felt as if it was the pair of them against the world, and they turned to face it together, armed with nothing more substantial than a garden spade and a gigantic saucepan.

Dad left school at 14, and yet his intelligence and hard work was recognised at United Distillers, where he went from being a clerk to the dizzy heights of Overseas Distiller. This meant that he went to a country and made up a batch of ‘flavour’ to Gordon’s secret recipe (kept in a safe) which could then be diluted with spirit to provide gin for the next few months. His first job was in Venezuela, which he flew to in the teeth of a hurricane, and where he realised that the crash course in Castilian Spanish that he’d undertaken in London wasn’t a lot of help in South America. But still, he flourished. My grandmother was dismissive when Dad came home and said that he might be going abroad – she told my mother not to worry, as such jobs weren’t given to ‘people like Tom’. But there he was, and for the next few years he travelled to Spain, Jamaica and Venezuela. My cousin said that, when he was growing up, he thought of Dad as being a bit like James Bond, heading off to all corners of the world with his suitcase. Dad certainly made me think that a job with travel might be fun, and I followed in his footsteps with my love of jumping onto planes and going to places that no one normally went. He faced down his fear of flying, and had more adventures than I can remember – he was in Jamaica during a state of emergency, was knocked over by an earthquake in Venezuela, and would sometimes get stuck for months at a time if the ingredients for the flavour didn’t turn up. If you asked him, though, I think his favourite memory was of travelling First Class.

‘You can’t beat sipping a glass of champagne at take-off with Peter Wyngarde’ he used to say.

Dad was such a company man that if a pub didn’t sell Gordon’s Gin, he would walk out and find somewhere else. The highlight of his career came when he was fifty, and was put in charge of the Heritage Centre at the brand-new, state of the art bottling plant at Laindon in Essex. He would take parties of people from all over the world around the gin ‘museum’ that had been created, and then take them to the boardroom for lunch. He had a team of three young women working for him to act as guides, and he was never happier. Imagine, then, how heartbroken he was when, after the takeover of United Distillers by Diageo, he was taken aside for a ‘chat’.

‘Tom’, said the corporate raider who had been brought in to deliver the bad news, ‘How would you feel about taking early retirement?’

‘Don’t fancy it’, said Dad, who was no fool. ‘I’m enjoying my job, and there’s a good few years in me yet’.

‘You don’t understand’, he was told. ‘I’m not asking you, I’m telling you’.

In some ways, Dad never got over the shock, but he made the best of a bad job. He and Mum were pretty well provided for, and he started to make plans to move to Dorset as soon as he could persuade Mum.

Before they went west, however, there was a brief period when Dad and I used to have outings to a tapas bar at Liverpool Street. After a gin and tonic and a few glasses of wine we’d actually start to discuss things: how Dad felt about the job that took him to Spain and Venezuela and Jamaica, and the adventures that he’d had there. Then we’d round off with a couple of carajillos (strong black coffee with brandy in it) and stagger gently back to our respective partners.

One thing that he said really stayed with me. ‘I just want your Mum to be happy’, he said, one evening after a few glasses of Rioja. My Dad, my brother and I all adored Mum: we were like little planets orbiting her sun. But, in truth, it wasn’t always easy to keep my Mum happy. She suffered from depression all her life, but worse, she was one of those people who are completely unfiltered. So, if I made her pancakes, the lemon juice was always too cold. If I warmed it up, the sugar was too crunchy. If I replaced the granulated sugar with caster sugar, it made them too sweet. None of this was meant to be hurtful: what she said was just an observation, but it could be utterly exasperating.. I think Dad’s love of marathon sessions of Last of the Summer Wine were a reaction to listening to Mum’s stream of consciousness monologues, and were also a way of dealing with the helplessness that is engendered by listening to someone who is in chronic pain about which you can do not a thing.

I think that it is telling that, once in the home, Dad never watched Last of the Summer Wine again: he was much more interested in what was going on around him and, once Mum died, he no longer had to worry about her. His last year in the home has been so much better than I could ever have expected: he has been cheerful, engaged and really seemed to feel that he was at home. This, too, is a blessing.

None of this, though, is to take away from the ferocious love that Mum and Dad had for one another. For all the gripes, all the sighs and shaking of heads, they were inseparable. I believe that if Dad hadn’t had dementia, he wouldn’t have survived Mum’s passing, and there is no way that she would have managed without him. They were entangled like conjoined twins, and it was impossible to imagine them apart.

Dad could put his foot in it too – I once did a five-course dinner party for Dad, Mum and my brother, and Dad announced that he’d have been just as happy with egg and chips, at which point I burst into tears. Mum made him ring me later to apologise, and very contrite he was too. But now, all these years later, I recognise that he was right: what was important about those occasions was the chance for us to get together and talk, not the precision of the presentation or the complexity of the food. I have enjoyed meals at the nursing home with Dad as much as if they’d been Michelin-starred, because every visit has been precious. I remember thinking how grown-up I was back in the days of the dinner parties, but I wonder if we ever really do achieve the perfect degree of maturity, because I feel as if I’m finally an adult now, at sixty, and yet I wonder how I’ll feel, looking back, if I’m lucky enough to reach seventy.

Ah Dad. You did so much in your 84 years, and yet it’s never enough, is it. We fight so hard for one last sunrise, one last trip to the seaside, one last kiss. I so wanted another summer so we could go to Weymouth and I could push you along the seafront in your wheelchair, a Mr Whippee ice cream running down your arm. I wanted to find you another tapas bar and get you mildly drunk on carajillos. I suspect that you won’t go gently into that good night, and that your fight won’t make your last few days easy for you or for me. But it would be entirely in keeping with how you’ve lived your whole life, and so I’ll stand in the ring with you, for as long as I’m allowed.

The Proboscis Monkeys of Sukau

Female proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus)

Dear Readers, on our first evening at Sukau, with the sun bathing the trees in golden light, we took a boat down the river to see what we could see. These boats have electric engines and so we glide along silently. We didn’t have far to go before we saw a troop of proboscis monkeys. I had seen them on wildlife documentaries, but was unprepared for how subtly beautiful they are, their fur patterned in grey and cream, gold and russet. They have long, elegant fingers and magnificent white tails. However, they also have those noses – huge in males (and a sign of dominance), and upturned in females and youngsters.

Male proboscis monkey

Proboscis monkeys look a little like strange woodland folk from some lost book by Tolkien, but they are animals who are superbly adapted to their habitat. They eat mainly leaves, and are very particular about choosing the youngest, tenderest shoots. This fibre-heavy diet adds to their somewhat comical appearance by giving them enormous round tummies. The male pictured above has the same concentrated expression on his face that my Nan used to wear when she was trying to work out a complicated knitting pattern.

The babies start life with completely black fur – I suspect that, like the little white tuft of tail on a baby chimpanzee, it gives them licence to misbehave in a way that older animals would never get away with. Alas, if a new alpha male moves into a troop he may kill any existing youngsters, and some studies seem to think that the new male will deliberately target male babies who might grow up to be a threat. This is one reason that female proboscis monkeys with youngsters often vote with their feet when a new male takes over the harem. Fortunately  I don’t think anyone will be messing with this male any time soon.

Mother proboscis monkey with young baby (Photo by Jan Young)

Male with a bit of a mouthful (Photo by John Tomsett)

Proboscis monkeys form groups of females, young and a single alpha male – the male defends his females from other males, but doesn’t defend a feeding territory, and you will often find proboscis monkeys, langurs and macaques all feeding from the same trees. The males are twice the size of the females, and in addition to their fine schnozzles, they also sport a bright-red, permanently-erect penis, just to make the point about who is the Big Man. I do have a photo of this but have decided to spare the monkey in question’s blushes. Here, instead, is one just looking a little guilty.

Male proboscis monkey by Caroline Hooper

The main predators of proboscis monkeys (except for humans, naturally) are clouded leopards, pythons and saltwater crocodiles. When travelling, male proboscis monkeys always bring up the rear, and they are the only members of the troop big enough to fight one of these beautiful cats off. Fragmentation of habitat puts the monkeys at greater risk from crocodiles – you might remember a sequence in a recent BBC wildlife documentary in which the proboscis monkeys had to cross a river that was home to a very large saltwater crocodile in order to reach fruiting trees on the other side. The monkeys are excellent climbers and swimmers (they have partially webbed feet), and while the babies are particularly athletic, the male often puts on a quick display of his leaping prowess to demonstrate how strong he is before settling back to eat more tasty leaves.

Youngster displaying his magnificent tummy

We only saw a couple of tiny saltwater crocodiles, but they can grow to 6m long, and are described as ‘hypercarnivorous apex predators’ on that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia.

Baby saltwater crocodile. Not big enough to do anyone any damage (yet)

 

As with all of Borneo’s wildlife, the planting of oil palm plantations has presented considerable problems for the proboscis monkey. Many populations are now isolated along the mangrove forests on the coast, and although this is currently protected in Sabah, the areas are under considerable development pressure. In the Labuk Bay area around Sandakan, workers on the local oil palm plantation noticed that starving proboscis monkeys were coming into the kitchen to steal food, and so they started to feed the animals, giving them green beans, cucumbers and sugar-free pancakes. Apparently this dietary supplement meant that the animals began to thrive, and the population expands year after year. There are also plans to reintroduce proboscis monkeys to areas of protected forest in the west of Borneo. Let’s hope that this magnificent, unique monkey has the opportunity to expand its range and to survive into the future.

Photo by John Tomsett

 

 

 

 

 

 

Borneo – En Route to Sukau

Sunrise over the Kinabantangan river in Borneo

Dear Readers, on day three of our holiday it was time to pack up and head to the Kinabantangan river. We had a two-hour river trip to make to get to our lodge at Sukau, and I suspected that it was going to be one of those parts of the journey where we had to grit our teeth and get on with it. We were on a fairly cramped boat, it was hot and humid, the life-jackets made it hotter, and the engine drowned out all speech and the sound of birdsong. But then our boat skidded to a halt, and our guide Hazwan had jumped to his feet.

‘Elephant!’ he shouted.

And so it was.

Photo by Toni Burnley

This was a male, who was crossing the river – one of our group was an experience sailor, and thought that the elephant had entered the water way down stream and the current had pulled him to this spot. The river is very deep at the centre, and the elephant just seemed glad to arrived in the shallows. He ignored us and seemed to be enjoying the water, spraying himself and frolicking. I had not been expecting to see elephants, as they are both rare and shy, so this sighting made my heart leap.

We waited until we got a glimpse of his tusks, to make sure that ‘he’ was actually a male – in Asian elephants of all kinds, only the males have tusks. Most elephants live in family groups of 3-9 led by a matriarch, but the young males may form bachelor herds and the adult males, like this one, tend to be loners unless they are meeting up with a female for mating. This chap might have been crossing the river for romance, or to find food.

Photo by John Tomsett

The Bornean pigmy elephant is a distinct subspecies (although ‘pigmy’ is a bit of a misnomer, as these animals are not any smaller than their mainland Malaysian counterparts). It’s estimated that there are less than 4,000 of these creatures left in the world, mainly confined to the Kinabantangan river, Tabin and the central forest of Sabah. It is said that they have developed a longer tail than is usual for elephants to enable babies to grasp the appendage when they need to scale muddy riverbanks. This is a lovely story, even if not verifiable.

 

There are many huge fruits growing in the forest that would once have been dispersed by elephants: the wild jackfruit (Artocarpus integer), known as cempedak in Malay, evolved to be distributed elephants and rhinos as they deposit their dung around the forest.

Photo One by By Tu7uh - Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18313389

The fruit of a wild jackfruit tree. No wonder only an elephant or a rhino could eat it! (Photo One)

Elephants also love bananas: they may demolish the entire stand, leaves, fruit and all. This doesn’t appear to deter the fruit, which grows from underground rhizomes and so can soon put up new stems. It does mean that in areas where elephants are frequent visitors there are lots of ginger plants, which are rejected by pachyderms, who don’t find the volatile oils in the leaves and root very toothsome. The way that large mammals shape the ecology of the areas that they live in always intrigues me: all those webs and interweavings of life, where each part depends on another, have a complex beauty all of their own.

Elephants naturally come into conflict with humans in Borneo: although the banks of the Kalibantangan look lush with primary forest, the whole area is surrounded by oil palm plantations. Elephants love the young oil palms, and can destroy many hectares in a single night: this is not conducive to their safety, as you can imagine. However, with palms over seven years old the elephants only eat the cut fronds, and leave the plants themselves alone. The authors of my fieldguide ‘Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and Their Ecology’ (Quentin and Karen Phillipps) point out that it should be able to design oil palm plantations where the young palms are protected by electric fences, but the mature palms are left open so that the elephants can pass through. It remains to be seen if this is actually being done.

Photo by John Tomsett

Whenever I see elephants, I can scarcely believe that I’m not hallucinating. It seems extraordinary to me that these enormous animals (even these ‘pigmy’ elephants are up to 2.5 metres tall at the shoulder) can be found so close to human habitation, and that they are so tolerant of us watching them. They feel to me like something from a children’s book, as unlikely as the armoured bears of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’.  And yet, here he is, playing in the water. He turns to find somewhere to leave the river, and we move on to avoid stressing him. That night, I find myself dreaming of elephants.

 

Borneo – The Canopy Walk

Blimey.

Dear Readers, I am not the most adventurous of souls when it comes to physical peril – I admire all you bungee-jumping/parachute-wearing/white-water rafting types for your chutzpah, while simultaneously wondering why you have such a death-wish. But if you want to see the flying squirrels of Sepilok, you have to take a walk in the canopy. So it was that about ten days ago I found myself on some dodgy looking walkways rather a long way up in the sky. Fortunately they didn’t rock or sway, and it was difficult to see through to the forest floor, so I entertained myself by looking up and not wondering what the shelf-life of a rivet was when exposed to the damp and humidity of the rainforest.

And there was plenty to see. We were primed for flying squirrels: they had ‘nest boxes’ on some of the higher trees, and if you squinted you could occasionally see a little nose poking out.

Flying squirrel nest box

Good evening! (Photo by Toni Burnley)

In fact, some of us (ahem) were so primed that when we saw a broad-winged creature gliding through the trees beneath us, we squawked ‘flying squirrel’. Our long-suffering guide, Hazwan, took a deep breath and announced ‘Wallace’s hawk-eagle’, with only the slightest hint of reprimand. It takes some skill to mistake a feathered creature for a furry one, but there you go.

Wallace’s hawk eagle (Photo by Toni Burnley)

What a splendid creature this is! One of the smallest eagles, it is only about the size of a peregrine falcon. This bird flew up into one of the tallest of the trees, and then flew past us. The more sharp-eyed folk noticed that it was carrying a lizard in its talons.

Photo by John Tomsett

Once in the tree, he was joined by his mate, and he shared the lizard with her.

Photo by John Tomsett

There was then a bout of noisy mating which lasted for the usual ten seconds. I sometimes think that female birds are a bit short-changed in the whole wooing business, though I believe albatrosses are somewhat less perfunctory, and at least this one wasn’t assaulted like female mallards generally are.

In the meantime we also spotted a Bornean green keeled pit viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus). We’d seen one in the Sun Bear conservation centre earlier in the day, but it’s always nice to see another one. They are extremely varied in colouration (as you can see from the photos below). They are venomous but spend most of their time hanging about in trees waiting for their prey to wriggle or hop past (they eat lizards, frogs, small mammals and birds), and you are safe from damage unless you poke one or get within striking range with your camera.

Keeled pit viper in the BSBCC

Keeled pit viper on the canopy walk

And then it was time to wait for the red giant flying squirrels (Petaurista petaurista) to wake up. We stood on the walkway, well-anointed with Deet, and as the sound from the cicadas and the frogs rose, and the light dimmed, most people fell silent. All except the two middle-aged chaps with a searchlight and enormous cameras standing next to me. They boomed and chattered on as the sky changed from orange to pink to turquoise to indigo. As the flying squirrels emerged from their nest boxes they were suddenly floodlit, like Liza Minelli at a Las Vegas concert. There’s something about those enormous eyes that remind me of said superstar too.

Photo by John Tomsett

Photo One by Michal Sloviak from https://www.biolib.cz/en/image/id171802/

Red Giant Flying Squirrel (Photo One)

Red giant flying squirrels eat not only nuts and fruit, like other squirrels, but also eat young leaves and, as with the flying lizard that we saw yesterday, their gliding probably helps them to scout out a bigger area for edibles than would be available if they just jumped from limb to limb like ‘normal’ squirrels. They have a cape of fur from ankle to wrist which gives them a huge surface area, especially when you consider that these animals are almost four feet long from nose to tail, and can weigh up to 7 lbs. I met two giant flying squirrels in the Night Zoo at Singapore a few years ago, where they occupy a huge walkthrough compound. One was sitting on the branch above me, scolding his neighbour in the opposite tree. He looked about the size of a Maine Coon cat, and I thought that I had never met a more unexpected animal. It was as if Tufty the squirrel from my childhood road safety films had been inflated with a foot pump.

Red giant flying squirrel getting ready to fly (Photo by John Tomsett)

Here is a photo of a red-and-white giant flying squirrel gliding. If I was to have to have a beauty contest, I’d say that these guys are very slightly cuter than the red giant flying squirrels, though it would be a close run thing.

Photo Three by Burrard-Lucas.com from https://www.mnn.com/earth-matters/animals/blogs/flying-squirrel-facts

Red and White Giant Flying Squirrel. Qinling Mountains (Photo Three)

Photo Four by Joel Sartore, from https://www.nationalgeographic.org/media/photo-ark-red-and-white-giant-flying-squirrel/

Red and white giant flying squirrel (Petaurista alborufus) (Photo Four)

And then, one of the squirrels ‘flew’ through the trees, swooping downwards with what I thought was a remarkable resemblance to the Wallace’s hawk eagle seen previously (if you squinted). It landed on a tree about a hundred metres away and scampered up the trunk to repeat the process. I wonder what kind of mental map of their territory they have? It must be in three dimensions, unlike more land-hugging creatures who just have to worry about the width and breadth, not the height.

Having half-blinded the poor rodent, the two talkative types mentioned earlier stomped off at speed along the canopy walk, no doubt en route to damage the eyesight of some other nocturnal creature. We were lucky on our trip – even the keenest photographers in our group were kind to the animals and respectful of the rest of us. Some people seem to treat wildlife as just something to ‘capture’ on the camera, and then to move on, whereas for me it doesn’t matter so much if an animal is familiar because there is always some new behaviour to witness, something new to learn. It’s so good to deepen a relationship with a species, and this has been a trend for me as I’ve gotten older – I am no longer so stimulated by novelty. None of which takes away from the sheer joy of meeting an animal that you’ve only seen on wildlife documentaries in the flesh, for the first time.

Red giant flying squirrel considering his next move (Photo by Toni Burnley)

And then it was off along the canopy walkway, passing scorpions and giant ants on the way. Tomorrow, I will be reporting on our trip to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, perched on the banks of the Kinabantangan River, where we encountered a most unexpected creature enjoying himself in the water.

 

 

 

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre

Sun Bear at the BSBCC (Photo by Sue Burnley)

Dear Readers, just across the way from the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre is a smaller reserve for the rehabilitation of Bornean sun bears (Helarctos malayanus eurysipilus). These are the world’s smallest bears, and the second most endangered, after the giant panda.The centre was founded by Wong Siew Te, a passionate wildlife biologist who was on site when we visited, and who was a fount of knowledge on the individual bears, and on the challenges that face them.

Photo by Caroline Hooper

As with all Bornean animals, habitat is key: sun bears spend a lot of time in the trees (their small size means they can climb higher than any other bear), and they have a passion for the honey of the stingless bee. When this isn’t available, they rake into logs with their long claws, looking for grubs and termites. They are often accompanied by insect-eating ground birds such as the Bornean crested fireback pheasant, who snatch any invertebrates that the bears have missed.  The bears are reliant on the huge trees of the dipterocarp forest to provide them with food, and, as we saw when we talked about orang utans, the fact that these trees only fruit occasionally puts severe pressure on the bears: they may starve in the years between fruiting, and it is probably a major factor in their small size.

Photo Two by By Eva Hejda http://fotos.naturspot.de/, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=238324

Bornean crested fireback pheasant (Lophura ignita) (Photo Two)

As these forests have largely been destroyed, the sun bears have lost their homes. They do not feed on the oil palms that replace them, although they do have a taste for coconuts, and have remarkably strong jaws that enable them to crunch into the nuts. Sadly, the loss of the forests brings the bears into contact with their only predators, humans: as with orang utans, the mothers are shot so that the delightfully cute cubs can be taken as pets. Unfortunate as this is, some bears will be raised for to be ‘farmed’ for their bile, which is an ingredient in Traditional Chinese Medicine. I can’t help but think that this is the worst fate of all.

Sun Bear getting stuck into a coconut – Photo by John Tomsett

At the rehabilitation centre, the bears are gradually introduced back into a more natural life. At first, bears who have been kept in tiny cages are released into a slightly larger cage – going into a big open space would be deeply troubling for them. Some of the bears display stereotypic behaviour at first, pacing or rocking. Wong Siew Te was very concerned about this – when one of the bears came out into the forest part of the reserve, he watched closely.

‘Why are you pacing?’ he mused. ‘What’s the problem?’

And then he realised that one of the other bears was a bit too close, and the pacing bear was stressed. After a bit of snuffling and roaring, the bears seemed to work it out, and both bears went away to forage, seemingly reconciled.As with humans, stress of any kind can be the trigger for old behaviours that helped to manage anxiety, be it nail-biting, obsessively looking at the internet or pacing. We are not so unique as we like to think.

Photo by John Tomsett

The BSBCC currently has 43 sun bears in its care. It has managed to release seven bears into protected forest, but the process is extremely difficult unless the bear is found when it is very young. Once habituated to humans, sun bears can be dangerous, and so can’t be released in parks where there are humans. They used to have a fearsome reputation among local peoples: the bears were known as ‘nundun’, and it was said that if it was fruiting season, the bears would gather together and attack en masse. It is easy, when looking at these cute little faces, to forget that these are wild animals with some of the strongest jaws in the animal kingdom.

Photo One from https://www.bsbcc.org.my/romolina.html

Romolina, a tiny bear cub who weighed only 5.95kg on arrival at the conservation centre. She is doing very well! (Photo One)

It was inspiring to hear Wong Siew Te talk about the sun bears in his care – he knew the personality of every single one, and you can share his enthusiasm here. He also didn’t mince his words about his concerns for the forest and the future of the bears and the other wildlife of Borneo. At this point in the holiday I hadn’t seen for myself how extensive the destruction of the forest had been, and how much of the landscape is dominated by oil palm plantations. While some of our guides were hopeful about the use of sustainable palm oil, others were scathing.

Photo by John Tomsett

What a lovely place the BSBCC was! I wandered to the second viewing platform, which had a display showing each of the bears, the circumstances in which they were rescued, their personalities and their habits. I plonked down on a bench, only to see a lizard fly across a clearing and land on a tree trunk. When I stopped gibbering and pointing, I realised that I had seen ‘the’ flying lizard that features regularly in wildlife documentaries. He’s only a little chap, and when he’s on a tree trunk you wouldn’t give him a second glance. This one was displaying by popping out a yellow ‘flag’ under his chin, probably to warn off other males.

Flying Lizard (Draco volans)

However, he has ‘wings’ that extend from his ribs, and enable him to glide from tree to tree.

Photo Two from https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/689684130407771709/

Bornean flying lizard showing its ‘wings’ (Photo Two)

There are a multitude of gliding animals in Borneo – in addition to the flying lizard there are snakes, geckos, squirrels, frogs and ‘lemurs’ who all ‘fly’ from tree to tree. There have been several theories about why Borneo might be such a hotspot, but the one that makes most sense to me relates, again, to the fruiting patterns of those dipterocarp trees. Because the fruit supply is intermittent, it is likely that the insects and small animals that feed on the fruit is also widely dispersed and occasional. It makes sense that animals develop a way to range widely, and efficiently, without having to be climbing up and down those massive trees all the time. If you would like to admire the gliding skills of Borneo’s snakes and reptiles, there’s a very nice video from National Geographic here.

Well, by now we were all a bit hot and sweaty (I don’t think the temperature dropped below 30 degrees the whole time we were in Borneo, and the humidity is punishing for a poor pale Englishwoman like me). But tonight we went off for a walk in the canopy to see if we could see any flying squirrels, and that is another adventure…..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dad Update

Dear Readers, you might remember that on Monday, my Dad was admitted to hospital with a chest infection. He was on a Covid-19 ward, waiting for his test results to come back to see if he had the virus. We were all pretty confident that the test would come back clear – Dad’s nursing home has been in lockdown for weeks – but he was very distressed at being in a strange environment. He was being given intravenous antibiotics but overnight he pulled out his canula, his catheter and anything else attaching him to a machine. As he is on blood-thinning tablets, the amount of blood was apparently impressive.

Yesterday my brother got a call that Dad was very poorly, and was now on palliative care only. This was a shock as he seemed to have been holding up pretty well. I spoke to the nurse, and asked if I needed to come now.

‘I wouldn’t leave it too long’, she said.

So, I headed down on the empty tube train to an empty Waterloo and took the three hour journey to the hospital. It wasn’t difficult to Social Distance as there was barely anyone about. In W.H. Smiths there were more staff trying to make sure that people kept six feet away from one another than there were customers. I had a carriage on the South Western Railways train to Dorchester all to my self. When I got to Dorchester it was a ghost town.

The hospital, usually so bustling, was eerily empty. I got the lift to the second floor (the ward is familiar from frequent hospital stays by Mum and Dad in the past). When I opened the lift doors, a nice young man asked me to wait because someone was being brought in by ambulance, and so we waited until a grey-faced elderly gentleman in an oxygen mask was brought in.

I went to the ward. One of the nurses intercepted me.

‘You’re aware that this is a Covid-19 ward’?

‘Yes’, I said, ‘But I think my father is dying’.

She nodded and sent me into the ‘quiet room’ to await a nurse to help me to gown up to go in to see Dad. The palliative care nurse popped in, and told me that they’d stopped all invasive procedures, were giving Dad his antibiotics when he’d take them, and were giving him small doses of Fentanyl if he seemed particularly distressed, but that he wasn’t on a morphine driver at the moment. I told her that my one big wish would be to get Dad back to his nursing home if he tested negative for the virus – I know that he would be less distressed and more relaxed in a familiar environment. She said that she would do what she could, but I wasn’t sure if she was just trying to make me feel better.

Then the nurse came to fit me with an apron, gloves and a face mask. I had no idea that the face masks were only good for about twenty minutes before you need a new one. She took me through the procedures when I was leaving the room – gloves and apron off on the ward, hands washed, come out, mask off once I was out of the room. She showed me how to pinch the mask so that it fits the face better.

And then I went in to see Dad who was, of course, out for the count, as usual.

I held his hand and told him all the things that I’d want him to know if, as seemed likely, I might never see him again. I cried into my mask which is a most unpleasant experience. His breathing was bad, but I remembered how Mum’s breathing had been in the days before she died, and his didn’t seem the same somehow. I couldn’t bear to leave him, but I had to.

Walking out of the six-bed ward, empty except for Dad, was such a hard thing to do.

One of the nurses, a strapping chap from Hull, made me a cup of tea, and asked me about Dad. It transpired that Dad had gotten very angry about being contained and had punched him in the stomach.

‘He’s still strong, your Dad. I wouldn’t write him off just yet’, said the long-suffering nurse. And when I apologised for Dad, and said it wasn’t normal for him to be violent, he just laughed.

‘All part of the job’, he said.

And that is one reason why our NHS staff deserve so much more than they currently get, in every single way.

I wondered if I could stay over in Dorchester so that I could see Dad again but, quite rightly, all the hotels and B&B’s are either closed or, like the one that I normally stay at, being used for NHS frontline staff. It seemed that it might be the last time that I ever saw Dad alive.

I caught the train back home, crying all the way, so just as well the carriage was empty.

When I looked back along the platform at Waterloo, I saw that exactly five people had gotten off the ten coach train.

And then, this morning, I heard that:

a) The Covid-19 test had come back negative

b) Dad had taken his medication

c) Dad was sitting up in bed eating his breakfast

d) The hospital were going to release him back to his nursing home today.

So, it will still be pretty much impossible to go and visit Dad until the restrictions are lifted, and he is still a very sick man, but at least he will back in familiar surroundings, with people who know him, and who have excellent palliative care skills. It is such a relief to know that he is back where he belongs. But kudos to the staff at the hospital, who have done an amazing job with someone who can be a difficult patient, and who have managed to keep him well enough to go home. I am more grateful than I can express for this reprieve, however temporary.

 

The Orang Utans of Sepilok

Dear Readers,  when I was choosing a place to visit for my sixtieth birthday it was the orang-utans of Borneo that finally made up my mind. I have spent time in the past with chimpanzees and gorillas, but have never had the opportunity to meet one of these ‘men of the forest’. So, my holiday started off with several visits to Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, a 43 sq kilometre protected reserve in Sabah. This was founded in 1964 to look after orphaned orang-utans, and the need has never been greater. We shall (sadly) return to this subject over the next few days, but as you probably know, logging and palm oil production has destroyed the majority of Malaysia and Indonesia’s primary forest, and so the orang utans are left homeless. When the mother apes wander into the palm oil plantations they are often killed, and babies fetch a high price if sold to the idle rich in many countries – a man was recently apprehended at the airport with a drugged baby orang in a rattan basket. Fortunately, this little one was rehabilitated and will be released into the wild.

Sepilok has been remarkably successful at rehabilitating the baby orangs that it rescues. At first, the babies are completely cared for by humans, but once they are well they go through a programme of ‘skills training’, teaching them to climb, to identify the many different types of food that are available in the forest – each new baby is paired up with an older ‘buddy’ who teaches them the ropes. Eventually, they are released into protected forest, either at Sepilok or further afield. Visitors can only access a small part of the reserve and are confined to walkways. We are not allowed to get closer than 15 metres to any orangs that are hanging around – a Sepilok employee with a small bamboo stick will try to encourage the visitors to step back or move on, though some idiots do seem to think that their photos are more important. Generally the best views are at the feeding platforms – some food is left at these sites twice a day, so that newly released apes have a chance to supplement their diets. Apparently the food left here is deliberately monotonous, so that the orangs become bored and go elsewhere to forage.

While we were there, a wild mother brought her baby to the feeding sites. It is so moving to see the way that the baby was always in physical contact with his mum, keeping one hand entangled in her fur at all times.

A female baby will stay with her mother for about eight years, but the boys hang around for ten to twelve years – the outside world is a dangerous place for a young inexperienced male. There are no real predators of adult orang utans, apart from the odd enormous python (one that was nine metres long turned up at a logging camp), though clouded leopards will take a baby if they get a chance.

Orangs have the greatest difference in size between male and female of any ape – the big ‘flanged males’ are double the size of the females. Why has this happened? Firstly, not all males develop the typical fatty pads around their necks and throat that dominant males do – some males remain in a state of arrested development and are much less conspicuous. It’s these smaller, subordinate males that will force themselves upon  a lone female if they happen to find one. Females may prefer the big flanged males because they offer them more protection, and seem to be generally more appealing than the little guys – big males also have some unique vocalisations that they use to attract females, so maybe they are also honey-voiced seducers.

But why don’t all males develop fully? One reason probably relates to the nature of the forest that they live in. The majority of the trees there are known as dipterocarps (meaning ‘winged fruit’ – their seeds resemble those of the sycamore). These trees only fruit occasionally, sometimes every ten years, and all the trees in an area come into flower at the same time. This provides an occasional bonanza, but the rest of the time it’s slim pickings for all the animals. I suspect that the forest couldn’t support a population of orangs where all the males reached full maturity. I wasn’t lucky enough to see an adult male on this visit, but they are magnificent animals.

Photo One by Eric Kilby from Somerville, MA, USA / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Dominant Bornean Orang Utan male (Photo One)

Photo Two by Bernard Dupont, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/berniedup/8066226485

Subordinate male (Photo Two)

It was a real privilege to be able to watch these extraordinary animals at Sepilok, and we were very lucky – the reserve was closed to visitors because of Covid-19  the day after we left. I was pleased to see how carefully the staff were managing their interactions with the apes – keeping their distance and wearing proper face masks when they had to have hands-on contact with the youngest babies. Apes are extremely susceptible to our diseases, and even a coronavirus such as the common cold can be fatal for great apes – I dread to think what Covid-19 could do. I note that treks to see the mountain and lowland gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda have been suspended for a while, which is a relief. We have barely come to terms with the effect of the disease on other humans, let alone our closest relations.

Wild mother orang and baby at the nursery feeding station

Mother visiting the feeding station and spending time with her adolescent son.

Youngster just hanging around…

And I wouldn’t be Bugwoman if I wasn’t also intrigued by the insects. How about this chap?

Lantern bug

This is a true ‘bug’ of the Fulgoridae family, but although it is called a lantern bug it isn’t actually luminescent, and as far as I can see no one has worked out what the ‘nose’ is for. Still, it is a splendid insect, and apparently its mouthparts can tap directly into the sap of the tree. Very little is known about these insects, as is often the case in the tropics – there is such an abundance of species, and the habitat is so challenging, that these creatures are very under-studied. How splendid they are, though!

Malayan Owl butterfly (Neorina iowii)

And I managed to get a shot of the Malayan owl butterfly (Neorina iowii) – there were many, many beautiful butterflies and moths, but most of theme seemed to be on a mission and it was very difficult to keep up with them as they zoomed through the undergrowth. Plus, did I mention that Borneo has leeches? One wouldn’t want to career through a shrub without one’s leech socks on. Still, this butterfly, with its very pale eyespots, was most obliging. Its wings were like black-blue velvet.So, tomorrow we will remain at Sepilok, but we will leave the orang utans and make haste to see the sun bears at their rehabilitation centre just across the way. In the meantime, have an imaginary glass of Bornean ginger beer (ginger grows everywhere) and I’ll ‘see’ you soon.