The Elephants of the Kinabatangan
The Elephants of the Kinabatangan (1 February 2006)
The Kampong of Sukau perches on the low, muddy north shore of the slow-flowing Kinabatangan, where it runs through a hot and humid flood plain on its final stretch to the mangrove swamps and the sea beyond. Until not so long ago and for millennia before that, the river was surrounded by thousands of square miles of lowland rainforest. By now, the forest is reduced to a one hundred mile long series of strips and patches along the river, making up the 65,000 acre Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Having driven for hours through biologically near-sterile oil palm plantations, the tall trees, the peaceful river and the wooden homes of Sukau were a welcome change. It is wonderful how a slow, tepid river instills the traveler with a mood of relaxation, timelessness and dreams. To me, this river brought back memories of the upper Nile, the Purari or the Sepik, but time and “progress” have been marching on, as there are no more dug-out canoes, no rowboats and no single-rod fishermen. Speedboats, tourist launches and motorized fishing boats setting gill nets are now the human side of life on the river. But despite these changes, the river still held its spell over me, as we slowly drifted from the Sukau jetty to our wildlife lodge. It is one of a few such lodges in the area; built of local wood on the edge of the forest, and raised above flood levels, this lodge is partly surrounded by the Kinabatangan and one of its tributaries, the Mananggol. It is a simple building, set in well-kept, treed grounds with a few scattered cottages. The pace of life here is slow, but the welcome we received was warm and sincere. It was easy to plop down into one of the comfortable chairs on the verandah, with a cold bottle of ‘Tiger’ and stare at the river.
We were in our cabin, unpacking our bags, when someone called ‘The elephants are here’! And indeed, just beyond the edge of the lodge’s grounds we saw a herd of elephants crashing through the bush. They foraged on whatever greenery they walked through, but they appeared to be agitated and restless. This was not just a fleeting image of the behind of a large gray animal disappearing into the bush; this was a herd of these wonderful beasts doing their own thing in their own environment. As I approached them to take pictures, a large tusker came out of the bush, bellowing, and then he made very threatening moves and rattling sounds. We withdrew somewhat, but I had the feeling that our presence was not what caused the tusker’s aggressive behavior or the herd’s agitation. There were adults, sub-adults, juveniles and one or two small calves.
They walked back and forth, feeding or interacting with one another in various ways. But after a while, they slowly moved off towards the Mananggol, and then moved upstream, following the river’s edge. This meant they were completely out of sight for us, but their scent lingered, and long after they withdrew, we heard them crashing through the forest and the old tusker was still loudly blowing off steam.
About an hour later, we went in search of our herd in one of the lodge’s boats, camera at the ready. We slowly motored up the Mananggol, which proved to be a verdant paradise with an abundance of wildlife. The deep water, the floating mats of water hyacinth, the reed-beds and the riparian rainforest were teeming with bird life, insect song, flowering lianas and other wondrous plant life. All this was enlivened with red and gray leaf monkeys, one large male orangutan, a spectacular green pit-viper, soundly asleep on a low branch overhanging the river, a herd of bearded pigs rooting in the mud, a small crocodile, egrets, herons, darters, paradise flycatchers, both long-tailed and pig-tailed macaques, and then…. we heard the elephants. Hearing a herd of these leviathans of the rainforest moving through their domain is an exciting experience, as their vocabulary is complicated and powerful. As we got closer, crashing sounds of individual heavy bodies moving through the bush started to separate out of the general din, and we became aware that there were several animals spread out over an area, communicating with one another. Then, before we actually spotted any of the beasts, we saw the tops of some trees starting to shake, and out of that direction we heard the old tusker still at it, roaring, trumpeting and rattling.
This Green pit viper was resting on vegetation. Notice the red eye, which is its real color.
The boatman gently pushed the bow of the boat into the shore and cut the engine; we waited silently as the herd approached. First a back or a flapping ear, then another one, suddenly a cow with her little suckling offspring emerged into a clearing, but just for a moment. Then all of a sudden the big tusker was there, and three other adults following him broke into the open, and while only partially obscured by low vegetation, the miraculous happened. The tusker mounted one of the cows, and copulated right there, in front of us, not paying any attention to us or the boat. Immediately after the bull dismounted her, the cow flopped down and rolled around in the mud. The whole herd ran around as if having a party, and then they moved away; the show was over.
We continued our exploration of the Mananggol, marveling at all sorts of natural history events or entities, while every now and then we still heard the elephants slowly moving further away. As the sun was closing in on the horizon, casting an orange glow on the forest around us, we came upon a troop of proboscis monkeys. These relatively large primates must be among the most amusing animal species in the world. Just looking at them made us laugh, mainly because their long noses make their faces into perfect caricatures of people, especially when they resembled people we know. The females have cute up-turned noses, while the mature males have long, swollen drooping noses. We focused our attention primarily on the big, imposing mature alpha male, who was comfortably sitting on a forked branch high above the river, while keeping an eye on his extended family. He had an air of confidence and bravado, as he sat there like a king on his throne, his one and a half meter long snowy white tail hanging straight down, his legs spread wide, and displaying under his bulging belly, for all the world’s admiration, a bright fire engine red erect penis protruding upwards above a jet black scrotum.
The next morning we departed, driving down the same arduous road we had come up the day before, and were treated to one more elephant encounter shortly before our return to the Danum Valley Field Station. As we came around a curve in the road, we faced a herd of our favorite pachyderms, lazily shuffling around in the dust.
Our teen-aged friend half way through his pirouette.
When they saw us, they slowly walked off into the bush, accept for one juvenile male, a teenager you could say, who came towards us, stopped about 15 feet in front of our vehicle, and danced. Yes, he danced; I could not describe what he did with any other word. With rhythmically bending knees, his trunk waving from side to side, far more elegantly than I had ever thought an elephant capable of, he danced on the spot, made a full circle pirouette, and walked off the road. So ended our date with the elephants.