Expedition research; ornithological frontiers

Back into the heart of Borneo..

by Sam Jones

Borneo hardly needs an introduction to many birders or naturalists with its enigmatic Bornean Orangutans and hoards of easily accessible endemic birds. Phylogenetically speaking, endemism has run riot across all taxa on the island and Borneo still harbours some of the worlds least studied and most sought after avian treats such as Bornean Peacock-Pheasant, Bulwer’s Pheasant, Bornean Ground-cuckoo, Black Oriole, Bornean Bristlehead, Everett’s Thrush, Dulit Frogmouth, Black-browed Babbler and four endemic Pittas amongst a host of others.

Whitehead’s Trogon– Kinabalu national park, Sabah- a sought after endemic.

It is likely, however, that the majority of prior knowledge or experience is based on the Malaysian state of Sabah- ‘the land below the wind’, where eco-tourism is a thriving trade and the states natural wonders are easily accessible. Sabah only represents one small corner of this huge island however, so what about the rest…

Mountain Litter Frog Leptobrachium montanum, Kinabalu national park, Sabah- a montane Borneo endemic

For the last year or so I have had an involvement with the Heart of Borneo Project  working on a number of pioneering research and conservation initiatives in the Murung Raya province of Central Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.

It takes several days of travel by river, passing rapids on old logging roads and taking gradually smaller boats to eventually work your way up the mighty Barito and then its tributaries into the centre of this magical island. It is here that the largest area of primary rainforest standing in Southeast Asia still survives. The only place in the region where tropical forest can be conserved, protected and researched at a grand scale.  Spanning three national borders (Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia) this is coined as ‘the Heart of Borneo’.
Darwin describes Borneo as ‘one great wild untidy hothouse made by nature for herself’, probably an apt description of this beautiful, unique and threatened place.
Kalimantan makes up nearly three-quarters of the island and it is here that many areas remain, scientifically at least, unexplored, often lacking even the most basic inventory data. Primary forest here is ancient, some of the oldest in the world, and is deeply engrained in the ethnological history of this mysterious land.

Forest as far as the eye can see- from an old logging road in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia

It is one such area that I am soon leaving for, a short expedition to summit a peak known as Gunung Bondang in Murung Raya regency, Central Kalimantan, researching and documenting along the way. The peak is geographically isolated from similar habitat, an island covered in a variety of altitudinal forest types, all virgin and undisturbed. It is regarded as a sacred natural feature by the local community and has not been hunted on or logged with only a handful of small groups climbing to its summit. A ceremony is also undertaken by the local community prior to setting out to appease the spirits of the mountain. The peak rises up from its surrounding lowland forest to a height of 1347metres, its closest similar altitudinal habitat 80km away in the Muller mountain range that traverses from the NE to the SW across the island.

Perhaps most excitingly, however, it has never been zoologically surveyed; a proverbial blank canvas of scientific and ornithological potential.

I’ll be loaded up with mist-nets, recording equipment, camera gear, books to give to locals, camera traps and most importantly binoculars round my neck and a notebook in my pocket with the realisation that everything is a discovery and significant in its own right.
I don’t know what is up there, but i’ll be doing my very best to find out, with the spirit of exploration on the natural history and ornithological frontier burning as bright as ever.

Gunung Bondang– Murung Raya, Central Kalimantan

About Sam Jones

I am an early-career ornithologist and conservation scientist and have been an avid birder and naturalist since childhood. I have been involved in a variety of work worldwide, particularly in expedition environments and field research throughout the new and old world tropics. Most recently this has taken place in Central America, Indonesian Borneo, Ethiopia and the islands of the South Pacific..
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