Photography experience in Sabangau Forest


Written by Duncan Murrell (Photographer)

As a conservation photographer already involved in conservation work in Palawan right next door to Borneo it was an obvious progression for me to try to get involved there as well, and fortuitously that was facilitated when I met one of the directors of the Borneo Nature Foundation who lives in the same town in England. I was chomping at the bit for my first experience in a tropical peat-swamp forest so rich in primates, and many other creatures large and small for me to find and photograph. The adventure begins as soon as you clamber into a klotok for the passage through the maze of pandan in the river to get to the boarding station for the “lori”, the miniature train that takes you along the old logging railway to the LAHG Research Station. It takes you across the open periphery of the Sabangau Forest towards a gateway in the wall of trees, and then through what seems like a dark tunnel after crossing the bright sun-drenched border of the forest.

Camp LAHG, Sabangau Forest
Photo by Duncan Murrell|BNF|CIMTROP

On arrival at the camp, I felt immediately at home among the old wooden buildings and boardwalks, and it wasn’t long before I discovered how many other creatures treat it as their home too. But I was most excited about some regular visitors; the large monitor lizards that frequent the swamp around the kitchen and dining area scavenging for scraps. It was always an extra treat in addition to the good food to be observing them or other wild visitors from the forest while I was eating my meals. I was ultimately rewarded for my patience when two large monitor lizards engaged in a ferocious territorial dispute right in front of me as they collided like sumo wrestlers. Everywhere you walk around the camp there are skinks basking at your feet, colourful dragonflies and butterflies flitting around the lush vegetation, birds singing in the trees, and at dusk the frog chorus commences. One afternoon I woke up from a nap to find a beautiful harmless gray-tailed racer snake doing the same alongside my bed. Some mornings it was a delight to be woken up by the haunting singing of the gibbons rather than the raucous crowing of cockerels that I’m so used to in Palawan.

Monitor lizard fight
Photo by Duncan Murrell|BNF|CIMTROP

The life in the camp made me eager to know what more life existed beyond. I was fortunate enough to encounter two orangutans on my first walk into the forest, and a draco flying lizard on my first night walk. How amazing it was to be standing face to face with an orangutan feeling the connection with one of our closest relatives. But my primate highlight was a gibbon follow with a habituated group, marvelling at their speed and agility through the branches; there was also the added bonus of five orangutans, a group of red langurs and a troop of pig-tailed macaques. I have a keen interest in the smaller creatures of the forest, and my eyes were ever alert for some tiny surprises as I negotiated the swampy transects. Sabangau didn’t fail to deliver some intriguing invertebrates including some astonishing “resin” assassin bugs that use a coating of sticky tree resin on their front limbs to attract and catch their prey. I found an atlas moth, one of the largest moths in the world, on a night walk, and also the largest species of dragonfly in the camp. Both the forest and the camp kept me fascinated, always with something new to discover. I will have to return for more!


Bornean orangutan White-bearded gibbon
Bat Frog
Moth Pit viper