Trip Report: Indonesia Endangered Wildlife Tour 2017

One can easily relate to a finger-sucking Orang-utan infant, hanging tight to mum.

This trip concentrates on three key species that are either vulnerable or critically endangered: the Orangutan, Black Crested Macaque, and the Komodo Dragons. For this we travelled to Borneo, Sulawesi and the Komodo islands.

As the tour leader, there are some things that I cannot accurately predict or plan ahead of time. For example, the weather and the wildlife encounters.

Unusually for this time of year, we have had a few days where it rained. Luckily for us they occurred during period of rest and one time, while we were heading back to our boat. Although very heavy, it has to be said that tropical downpours are for the most part, very refreshing and end as suddenly as they begin.

As for the wildlife appearances, well, I have to say that this year was pretty spectacular. Not only did we see all the key species in droves, but also on several occasions we observed some behaviours not witnessed by many.

Our journey began in Borneo, the world’s third largest island. We spent a few days living onboard a traditional houseboat to reach some of the locations deep within the rainforest inaccessible by roads. Almost immediately after a brief cruise heading upriver our guide spotted an Orangutan by the bank, feeding on the hearts of Nipa Palm. It was somewhat camera shy however, but it did spark everyone’s excitement.

Just taking in the view whilst heading upriver on our houseboat, named Rambo III (don’t ask), minus David who took the picture – think Tom Selleck but with short-cropped hair.

Left: This young male came very close to our boat while we were having lunch.  Right: A non-fish-eating Kingfisher from the forest of Sulawesi.

Over the next few days, we saw many individuals at the open feeding stations. These posts attract both previously rescued Orangutans as well as wild ones. The number of individuals that come to feed varies. As they are set in open forests, sometimes none show up at a particular session, so it is by no means guaranteed. This year however, was quite exceptional. Not only did we encounter a good number, many of the females came with infants, which were very encouraging, both from a conservation point of view and as a photographer. Just like their human counterparts, the youngsters are curious and sometimes a little mischievous. Of course, when they stray too far or misbehave, mum steps in.

The more precious moments were when we came across truly wild individuals along the way. On two separate occasions we saw individuals feeding on fruit trees by the side of the river. As our boat deck is reasonably high, it allowed us some great almost eye-level views of this behavior. But by far the most fascinating, was that for the first time, we managed to see a pair mating. Just as well that they were slightly obscured by some branches, as we were only a few meters away! Without going into the nitty-gritty, it was a most gentle of acts. The male performed a brief grooming session prior to what can only be described as an acrobatic Kama sutra position impossible to all but the most agile of climbers!

On the last evening we moored against some Nipa Palms, which were glittering like Christmas trees under the starry sky, from hundreds of fireflies. It was a magical end to the first and very fruitful, segment of our trip.

A Black Crested Macaque on the volcanic beach. The turquoise sea helped to show off the Mohican hairstyle that gave it the common name.

Sulawesi is home to the charismatic Black Crested Macaque. It was famed by a landmark court case where a photographer has not been granted the copyright of a teeth-bearing macaque ‘selfie’ as the judge ruled that the image was triggered by the primate!

We followed two groups over the next few days, with the help of a guide and a tracker. This required a fair bit of walking in the forest. As we were only photographing them going about their daily lives, much is dictated by their whereabouts and activities. I find this form of photography very rewarding as we get to know the group more intimately over a period of time and it also makes it easier to understand certain behaviours, such as a territorial dispute.

There were a few shots that I wanted the group to have the opportunities to try. One was when they head to the river to cool down during midday, and the other was to the black volcanic beach. The latter provides a very different backdrop to the forest setting. On this visit we had them all, including a fight (more like a chase) between the two rivaling groups.

Three Ochre-bellied Hawk Owls. Look into my eyes, look into my eyes, the eyes, the eyes, not around the eyes…

Left: This Blue Tree Viper is only found on the Komodo Island.  Right: A Black Crested Macaque foraging for food by the shoreline.

Unlike a trip to the temperate regions, working in the bio-rich rainforest presents many other equally interesting subjects to photograph. Amongst other things we came across, there were two mammals in particular that I was keen to show everyone. The first being the super adorable Tarsier, and the second is the Cuscus.

The Spectral Tarsier is smaller than their Bornean counterpart, the Western Tarsier. Although they were not difficult to locate, photographing them was not easy as the light under the tropical canopies was very low. Knowing how sensitive their eyes were, I was determined that we would not employ flashguns. Instead, we relied on static hand torches and very high ISO settings in camera. I think we still managed to achieve some satisfactory results using this less invasive method.

As we have crossed the Wallace Line heading east, we were in the land of marsupials. In this case we set out in search of the Bear Cuscus. It took a fair bit of hunting. In the first instance, they were behind heavy leaf covering, high up on the trees. The second time however, two presented themselves in a clearing lower down, albeit only for a very short while.

Two young Spectral Tarsiers huddled together on a frond of Palm leaf.

Before too long, it was the end of the second, tiring but rewarding, leg of our tour. So back to the airport once again, this time southbound to the islands of Komodo. Just as in the first part of our trip, we were eating and sleeping on a boat, except this time we were heading out to sea. The waters surrounding these coral islands were pristine and full of life.

Our first stop was to photograph the very large fruit bats known as the Flying Fox. They are impressive to watch but catching them in flight was a little more challenging.

I know a couple of good rangers on the Komodo Island. One in particular specialises in snakes. So on the way there I made an impromptu call to see if I could arrange a night walk for our group as I knew one of them was keen on seeing and photographing a ‘proper’ snake. So after agreeing to donate one of my kidneys as a form of payment, we went on land in search of serpents. But this was not before we barbequed some Sea Bass on the pier for dinner!

Originally we agreed to a couple of hours’ walk, but we were unsuccessful. We did come across some roosting birds as well as geckos however. It was not until some three and a half hours later that we suddenly came across three consecutive species of snakes. The first two were small and harmless, but nonetheless beautiful, while the third was the real gem that what we were hoping to find – the elusive and very striking Blue Tree Viper. The guide sent me photos of this particular colour morph some years ago but this was the first time I had seen it in the flesh. Arguably the most beautiful viper I have ever come across.

A large fruit bat in flight. The Sunda Flying Fox can have a wingspan of over a meter.

The following morning we headed out to photograph the third and final key subject, the Komodo Dragon. One might be fooled by the relative docile appearance at first but despite being the largest lizard in the world, I have seen them sprint for food at quite an unbelievable speed.

We worked to maximize the morning light before heading out to a couple of locations I know of, that have the potential of creating some nice images. Sadly, the dragons were less than cooperative when it comes to posing. We did however find salvation with a couple of individuals by the waterhole. Another rare sighting for us is the fighting between two giants. It only lasted a very brief moment but it was a real privilege to watch.

I think it would be fair to say that I packed a lot in on this trip, and wore everyone out, in a good way. We worked hard, saw a lot, ate very well, and had a fabulous time together.

There are two components that make a trip like this special: great company and fantastic wildlife encounters. We had both on this trip, and then some. My sincere thanks to Steve, David, Lisa, Claude and Peter for joining me on this very memorable tour.

If you’d like to join me on this unique adventure, please get in touch.

Not a dinosaur, but a huge male Komodo Dragon, the largest lizard species in the world.

Colourful tropical fish and corals.