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PHOTOS: ‘A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife’

  • “This is probably the finest and most comprehensive collection of images ever published of Borneo’s diverse wildlife, based on the latest research papers,” photogarapher and writer Bjorn Olesen told Mongabay.
  • All of the authors’ royalties from the book will be donated to Fauna and Flora International for its nature conservation work in Southeast Asia.
  • But if you just can’t wait until you get your hands on a copy, Mongabay has a sneak peek for you. Here is a selection of the photos from the book, with captions by Bjorn Olesen.

For the past decade, wildlife photographer and writer Bjorn Olesen has been donating his skills to environmental and conservation groups like BirdLife International, Fauna & Flora International, and the World Wildlife Fund.

In 2012, together with his wife, travel writer Fanny Lai, Olesen published A Visual Celebration of Giant Pandas, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Singapore Literature Prize for English non-fiction and helped raise funds for WWF Singapore and Malaysia.

Now, Lai and Olesen are publishing their second book in the series, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife. At least one photo from the book has already received high praise: The cover photo was selected — out of 37,600 submissions from 112 countries — for the Grand Prize of the 10th Smithsonian Institution’s photo competition in 2013.

“This is probably the finest and most comprehensive collection of images ever published of Borneo’s diverse wildlife, based on the latest research papers,” Olesen told Mongabay. “Twenty-five selected local and international photographers have contributed their best Borneo photos.”

Cover photo by Bjorn Olesen.

Olesen told Mongabay about how he captured the photo that graces the cover of the book:

We had spent the whole morning trying to capture some photos of the Spectacled Spiderhunter (Arachnothere flavigester), which has been extinct in Singapore for 90 years. But unsuccessful because of bad lighting conditions. It had, however, been a total delight to watch some of these spiderhunters slurping nectar from wild Banana flowers, while at the same time trying to monopolize the feeding area by chasing away all other sunbirds and spiderhunters. Early in the morning they were quite shy, but after a couple of hours they somehow got used to our presence.

Just before packing up for the morning, we suddenly heard the familiar ‘chi-chit’ call from a shady collection of fern and pine trees. We went over to investigate, and there we saw a newly fledged Spectacled Spiderhunter trying to attract the attention of its parents above, by calling chi-chit chi-chit, and flapping its wings. It was one of those memorable situations where everything fell into place for a perfect photographic opportunity. However, this magic only lasted for a brief instance, as the parents ignored it, and the juvenile flew away, and we did not see it again.

Even today we can still clearly visualise this encounter, which symbolises youth, vitality & hope for the future. This photo demonstrates the great strength of still photography: to freeze those magic moments that may otherwise have been unnoticed. The soft light, the inspiring pose, the colour of the bird goes very well together with the beautiful pallet of greens of the ferns.

The book features 468 large-format pages and 350 stunning photos as well as informative commentary that draws on the latest scientific studies to provide little-known facts about 250 of Borneo’s wildlife species, including 61 that are found nowhere else on Earth. Some 50 percent of Borneo’s endemic birds are represented in the book.

A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is an important and positive contribution about this island that is better known in the global media for its high rates of deforestation, carbon emissions, and fire and haze problems,” Erik Meijaar of Borneo Futures and an Associate Professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, said of the book.

“As the South-East Asian cradle of species evolution, Borneo is among the world’s most important places for biodiversity conservation. It very much deserves the attention it is given in this excellent book by Fanny Lai and Bjorn Olesen.”

As Meijaar noted, Borneo is perhaps more famous these days for its high rates of deforestation and forest fires, but more than 50 percent of the island is still forested, and there is still time for long-term protection of these forests.

“Whether this can happen is still uncertain, and is dependent on the collective wills of the national and state governments of Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei,” Olesen said. “Hopefully this publication will inspire more people to place a greater value on wildlife and to join the battle to preserve Borneo’s unique nature.”

All of the authors’ royalties from the book will be donated to Fauna — Flora International for its nature conservation work in Southeast Asia. The book is already on sale in Asia, and will be available in the USA and Canada tomorrow, August 16. It comes out in the UK on September 16.

But if you just can’t wait until you get your hands on a copy, Mongabay has a sneak peek for you. Here is a selection of the photos from the book, with captions by Bjorn Olesen.

This male Crested Fireback (Lopahura ignita) was seen very close to the BRL
The Bornean Crested Fireback (Lophura ignita) is endemic and locally common across Borneo in lowland and hill forests, and is often seen in small parties with a single male. Classified as Near Threatened, it was once considered to be a subspecies of the Crestless Fireback, which also occurs on Peninsular Malaysia and Sumatra. Observed near the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley.
Outside Borneo, the Silvery Langur, also known as the Silvery Lutung (Trachypithecus cristatus cristatus) can also be found across Sumatra and along the western coastline of Peninsular Malaysia. It favours mangrove swamps and adjacent forests, and is rarely seen far from rivers and coastal areas.
Orangutans are opportunistic foragers, eating more than 400 food items, including fruits and leaves as well as animal protein from insects, reptiles, bird nestlings, and eggs. There is also a highly unusual record of a Slow Loris being eaten by an Orangutan.
Adult male Bornean Orangutan with the distinctive cheek pads seen at the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. In the past 20 years, 80 per cent of all Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmeus) habitats have been lost to illegal logging, mining and conversion to agricultural land, particularly oil palm plantations. Their populations recover slowly even with the intervention of conservation efforts, given their long inter-birth intervals. On average, female Orangutans only give birth once every seven to eight years, making them among the slowest breeding of all mammal species. For these reasons, the Bornean Orangutans has now been classified as Critically Endangered, with only an estimated 40,000 individuals left in the wild. Orangutans play an important role in the dispersal of seeds from large fruits, which cannot be dispersed by smaller animals, since such fruits make up 60 per cent of their diet. They get sufficient water from the fruits they eat as well as from that collected in tree cavities.
Over the years we have regularly heard the Bornean Ground-cuckoo on the Menanggol River in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Our first sighting of this enigmatic bird was in September, 2009. At that time we observed one individual for a short period, but the light was so poor that we only managed to get a few blurred photos. We have heard the characteristic double note call ‘whoo hooh’ on every subsequent visit and on a couple of occasions we could even hear a pair calling to each other. However, we were not in luck until three-and-a-half years later in March 2013, and this time it was very close. As usual we could not see the bird from our boat, but without warning the cuckoo appeared from the forest floor on top of a branch, where we could only photograph it through a tiny window in the undergrowth. It was at a distance of only 15 meters (50 feet), so we could clearly see the stunning metallic-blue wings and the bright blue facial skin. The encounter felt long, but when we checked afterwards, the performance had actually only lasted 18 seconds, but it saved our day and was definitely the highlight of the trip.’ The Bornean Ground-cuckoo is exceptionally elusive and shy in its habits, its presence is usually only revealed by its booming call. The nest has never been found. The best places to locate it includes the Menanggol River in the Kinabatangan flood plain, Danum Valley, and Sungai Wain in East Kalimantan.
Early in the morning we had been photographing a small troop of Silvery Langurs foraging in the mangrove forest at Bako National Park, Sarawak. Suddenly the peace was disturbed when half a dozen aggressive Long-tailed Macaques entered the same area. All the Silvery Langurs cleared out, and this individual sprinted straight towards us, and passed us at a distance of less than four meters. This is one of the situations in wildlife photography where one gets a very narrow time frame to capture a unique moment that is unlikely ever to be repeated again.
This Bornean Keeled Pit Viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus) in striking position was spotted in low vegetation in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Pit Vipers are among the most evolutionarily advanced snakes around. They have some of the most ‘well-developed’ prey detection mechanisms among snakes. Pit Vipers identify prey through taste and smell with their flickering tongue and the heat-sensitive pits in front of their eyes, as clearly shown here. A beautiful snake with a distinctive triangular head, the Bornean Keeled Pit Viper is the most commonly seen pit viper in Borneo. Normally it is quite sluggish. However, it can inflict a venomous bite and should always be treated with extreme caution. It is a nocturnal hunter of small vertebrates, such as birds and rodents, and during the day, can be observed motionless in low vegetation for long periods.
An impressive species is the large Wreathed Hornbill (Rhyticeros undulatus), which can be found throughout Borneo. Although generally a scarce resident, it appears more commonly in the mountains. This male is leaving the nest having just passed fruits to the female inside the tree cavity. Hornbills are among the most captivating birds to watch in the world, and are often considered the flying ambassadors of Borneo. They are very distinctive and easy to recognise because of their oversized beaks and large casques. Hornbills are also good indicators of the ecological well-being of its rainforest habitat, since hornbill populations are dependent on the large fruiting trees that are thinly distributed in the rainforest. Likewise the forest depends on the hornbills, which are the major dispersers of seeds from forest fruits, especially figs, and are sometimes referred to as ‘farmers of the forest.’ Many naturalists have been fascinated by the unique nesting strategy of the hornbills, where the female seals herself into a tree cavity and is fed by her partner. She remains locked in the cavity from the point of incubation, until the young are ready to fledge. Hornbills are noisy and conspicuous with distinctive calls and their wing-beats can be heard from quite a distance. In the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabah, it is possible to see all eight species found in Borneo. Studies have shown that different species of hornbills exploit different food niches, and are therefore able to share the same forests. When fruits are in short supply, more time is spent on hunting for insects and small animals; additionally different hornbills use different foraging tactics. The hunting of hornbills is still a problem in many parts of Borneo. Their slow reproduction, coupled with habitat loss is making matters worse. Of the eight hornbill species, four are now listed as Near Threatened, while one is Critically Endangered.
The World’s ‘Smallest’ Frog Crawls out of a Pitcher Plant. The Matang Narrow-mouthed Frog sitting on the rim of the (Nepenthes ampullaria) pitcher plant. The Nepenthes ampullaria pitcher plant subsists off decomposing organic matter that collects in its pitchers and can often be found in heath and swamp forests. The Matang Narrow-mouthed Frog (Microhyla borneensis) had just crawled out of a pitcher plant when it was discovered in Kubah National Park, Sarawak. The species lives in and around the host Nepenthes ampullaria pitcher plant and deposits its eggs in the pitcher. When the eggs hatch, the tiny tadpoles grow in the liquid accumulated in the pitcher’s cavity (M. Matsui, 2011). When we had the opportunity to go and see this extraordinary new endemic species, which had only been photographed on a couple of occasions in Sarawak, we decided that two days or rather two nights would be enough to find and photograph this tiny species in Kubah National Park. We started out the first evening just after nightfall, having located some of the Nepenthes ampullaria pitcher plants earlier in the day. Unfortunately we had to give up that first night around 1 am after having heard none of the elusive frog’s harsh rasping calls, which is the most reliable way to locate the species in the leaf litter. The next day to our delight, we found a new patch of N. ampullaria pitcher plants with minute tadpoles inside, and as luck would have it, in the darkness of the same evening, we finally located two specimens of this minute frog. We managed to photograph them a couple of times before they jumped into the darkness of the Bornean rainforest.
Until recently the Matang Narrow-mouthed frog was thought to be the smallest Old World frog with males measuring a mere 10.6 to 12.8 mm, until 2012 when a even smaller frog Paedophryne amanuensis was discovered in New Guinea.
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The Blue-winged Pitta (Pitta moluccensis) is a regular migrant to Borneo from mainland Southeast Asia where it breeds. It crosses the South China Sea to Borneo during its migration, and can be seen on islands and coastal lowlands from October to April. With a third of the world’s pittas, Borneo proves to be an irresistible magnet for birdwatchers with an interest in this colourful group. Pittas are most vocal in the morning, and are more often seen than heard. They are notoriously difficult to spot because of their shy habits, and devilishly challenging to photograph in the dark undergrowth of tropical forests. For many birdwatchers, one of the most sought-after bird families is the pittas, with their spectacularly beautiful plumage. Most of the bright colours are on the underparts, enabling the birds to hide better as most predators usually approach from behind or above. Most species have concealed white wing-patches, which can only be seen when the wings are stretched out. Their eyes are quite large and, unusually for passerines, they possess a good sense of smell.
Borneo Pygmy Elephant
On one of our early trips to Borneo, we were fortunate to observe a group of Bornean Pygmy Elephants crossing a tributary of the Kinabatangan River. We switched off our boat engine and stayed quietly at a distance. In the beginning, we observed the herd foraging on the right riverbank and, to our delight, they soon started to cross the narrow tributary in twos or threes at a time. We stopped counting when 10 individuals had crossed, as we saw a mother elephant and her young calf entering the water. It was obvious that the calf was reluctant to cross and at the halfway point, the calf started to panic and wanted to go back. However, with the encouragement of the experienced mother, the calf managed to swim across the narrow tributary with the mother behind, guiding it with her trunk.
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