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Borneo Field Course 2015 – Rainforest without the rain!

16 July 2015

by Professor Mike Bruford, Sustainable Places Co-director

This years Biosciences Field Course to our Sustainable Places Observatory at the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary (1st – 17th July) took place against the backdrop of an El Niño event which saw very little rain, high temperatures and an unusually dry forest floor. The nineteen second year Biology undergraduate students that accompanied Professor Mike Bruford and Sustainable Places affiliate Dr Pablo Orozco-ter Wengel to Borneo experienced the forest at its driest since the field course was established in 2008 and the dry period is predicted to last for another 2 – 3 months. Indeed we only got significant rain on two days, when this is normally an almost daily event. The dry conditions did not make the animals any less confiding than usual, however, with the group seeing numerous orang-utans, proboscis monkeys, bearded pigs, crocodiles, monitor lizards, hornbills, crested serpent eagles, buffy fishing owls, Malay civets and, with the help of Cardiff University Professional Training Year students, some rather secretive nocturnal primates – notably the western tarsier (pictured) and slow loris.

1. A rather blurry photo of a western tarsier resting in a tree close to the oxbow lake at Danau Girang Field centre. In defence of the photographer, we were so close that this was taken on a generic, fruit-based smartphone! 2. A hawk moth clinging to the door of the main building.


borneo leaf












During the field course, students chose projects from a diverse subjects including forest frog habitat preferences, the determinants of hornbill group size, patterns of wood colonising fungi, butterfly daily activity cycles and beach-dwelling long-tailed macaques! Alongside the usual mix of projects and training, there was a camera crew in attendance to film a crocodile being fitted with a satellite-tracking device, a visit from the Chief veterinarian of Sabah Wildlife Department (who is also studying for a PhD part-time at Cardiff) and numerous activities following the resident PhD, MRes and undergraduate professional training year students – all of whom we would like to thank for letting us into their daily routines.

Dr Pablo Orozco-terWengel and Cardiff student Roxanne Everitt spotting a slow loris at night using high beam head torches. Any resemblance between Dr terWengel and the Predator from the Arnold Schwarzenegger films is purely coincidental.


A highlight was an update visit to the riparian restoration project that Danau Girang Field Centre has been leading with local NGO MESCOT to rehabilitate a 50-m wide tract of land next to the river near the village of Batu Putih and re-establish a ‘corridor of life’ for wildlife movement up and down the banks of the Kinabatangan river. The first trees were planted in March 2014 following compulsory removal of illegally planted oil palms by the Sabah Wildlife Department. Pioneer riparian rainforest tree seedlings were planted soon after and we were anxious to check in on how they had grown in the year since we last saw them. The results are astonishing, with some species already attaining greater than 3 metres in height (see below).

1.  Young trees in the plot, with the Batu Putih hill in the background. 2. Canopy emerging from the elephants grass in the riparian restoration zone.

borneo tree

borneip young tree









The aim of the project now running at DGFC is to evaluate how wildlife species begin to utilize the restored habitat as the vegetation develops. It is already clear that orang-utans and other purportedly arboreal species are more terrestrial than previously thought in the Kinabatangan and the use of remote sensing techniques such as camera traps and drones (already ongoing in the Sanctuary) will enable a detailed appraisal of riparian restoration dynamics for the coming years, yielding exciting results of general applicability in tropical ecosystems.


Mike Bruford in the riparian restoration zone, next to some of the faster growing pioneer trees, 17 months after planting.


mike borneo


1 comment
  1. Phil Willmott

    A fellow Wittertainee?
    Included the self-same phrase in the recently published second edition of my textbook!

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