Written by Yohanes Prahara, BNF’s Content Creator and Media Liaison
After almost one and a half hours of struggling up ‘the onerous cliff’, we finally arrived at the first camera trap location. The forest canopy sheltered us that afternoon. The sun wasn’t even directly above our heads yet. The atmosphere was cool and pleasant, a comfortable condition for completing the first mission: installing a ‘forest spy’.
Adul, the BNF Camera Trap Coordinator, moved quickly to find a location to deploy the first camera trap and prepared the equipment needed. Finally, he found a tree with a trunk the size of an adult human’s thigh. His extensive experience in research activities in the forest with BNF helped him find the most appropriate location for installing the camera traps, i.e., a location where there are signs of wildlife activity. Slowly but confidently, he tied the camera trap to the tree using webbing.
“We’ll deploy the camera in this location because there are a lot of fallen fruit eaten by animals and this route is likely to be the path used by them,” he said, trying to explain the reason for choosing this location.
The other team members moved swiftly to carry out their respective duties. Each person had a role; there were those who measured the 10×10 sq. m habitat plot with the camera trap as the midpoint, then there were those who measured canopy cover using a DIY densiometre – a large plastic bottle cut into half and fitted with a wire mesh on the cut side, using the bottle’s mouth as a viewfinder. The rest measured tree circumferences using a metre tape and counted the average undergrowth at a distance of 2m from the camera trap in each location using a chequered cloth (like a chessboard).
These activities went quite smoothly as the team had practice from previously setting up cameras in the forest on the same side as our camp. In less than 30 minutes, the camera was properly set up and positioned well in the direction of the path expected to capture images of passing wildlife.
After the camera was deployed, we tested it. Mahmudi, the Barito Ulu Program Coordinator (PBU) of BNF and I were always the guinea pigs to test the camera trap position. We walked on all fours like a bear, or even, like a tiger. Our silliness each time we tested the camera often made people crack-up with laughter, alleviating the mood and atmosphere.
After the position test was completed and it felt right, we all moved away avoiding the camera trap lens and Adul pressed the “On” button. That is the sign that the camera trap has begun to record images. We continued our ascent to the next location.
The sun began to move directly above us. The sun’s heat entered from the canopy gaps of the towering forest vegetation. Hot air is trapped under the canopy, increasing the heat. The atmosphere was quiet, only the sounds of birds and insects caught our ears. I hardly felt or heard any wind that could have dissipated the scorching heat of the day, even just for a moment.
Every now and then we saw a group of kelasi (Red langurs) swinging very fast among the 15m tall trees: only a red shadow through the leaves like a ghost that flies during the day. One of the signs they are still wild is if they meet humans they move away quickly.
Traversing through the labyrinth of nature
Not long after, we found a slightly flat path, on our right side, rocks stood like a strong natural fortress. Thick moss covered the rocks entirely. Big trees flanked the rocks and seemed to bind them with strong roots. A natural construction that is both smart and beautiful.
After deploying another camera, we stopped for a while to drink and eat the snacks we had taken along to elevate our energy that was slowly starting to drain. After resting for 15 minutes, we continued our journey through the undulating forest, like a natural maze with mossy walls and decorated with wild orchids.
About 30 minutes through the ‘labyrinth of nature’, we came across a waterway that looked like a small river that was about to die. In the middle, a small stream with very clear water remained.
Some went to fill their water bottles. I tagged along to get some water and tried it right away; it felt fresh and cold as it passed through my throat.
Not far from there, I found a plant with bright orange bean like fruit that immediately piqued my curiosity. I immediately took it and asked one of the local team members who accompanied me during our hike.
“Pak, what fruit is this? Looks like the remains of something eaten by an animal?” I asked Pak Edi.
“This is a type of forest bean; I don’t know the scientific name yet. However, this is one of the favourite foods of gibbons and red langurs. Look, there are a lot of them scattered about, maybe a group of gibbons or red langurs stopped at this location to eat,” he explained to me while handing me the empty pods.
The journey to the next camera trap location was relatively far. The terrain we went through was no easier than the previous route. The steep descent made us often stumble with the wrong placement of our feet. After an arduous hike, we finally found a creek with a small waterfall.
The team up-front responsible for navigation and cutting the path were waiting for us around the small waterfall with clear and cold water. It was time for us to rest with the whole team for lunch. We had packed rice, vegetables, and also fried fish, that we had caught the previous night from the river in front of our camp. Although the menu seems simple, food tastes divine when served in the middle of the jungle of the Heart of Borneo.
It was already 13:30h, indicating we had to hurry to the next camera trap location before the afternoon ended. We followed a small river by jumping from one stone to another which was the only path towards the next location, before re-entering a path with a steep incline.
Big ironwood logs across the streams became our bridges to cross. The red flowers scattered on the ground made us feel like we were walking on the red carpet at a Hollywood awards show. My expedition this time was extremely exciting and beautiful!
Helicopter in the forest?
This time the cliff that we had to climb was not too steep, with a slope of about 30-40 degrees. Although not steep, it was long; we started to run out of breath. I also stopped for a moment to drink and chew candy to increase my sugar levels.
Suddenly there was a sound like a helicopter very close to where I was. Looking up and around to find where the sound came from, I asked Mahmudi who was in front of me, “What sound is that? Why does it sound like a helicopter? There’s no way a helicopter could be here,”.
Mahmudi disproved my suspicions. He explained that the sound came from the flapping wings of a tingang bird (Rhinoceros hornbill).
“Its wings are very wide, that’s what makes the flapping sound like a helicopter. Maybe there’s a nest around here. We are very lucky to be able to get close to one of these endangered birds,” explained the Forestry graduate while looking up.
After almost 1.5 hours of climbing cliffs and hills, I finally heard the very distinctive sound of Namrata Anirudh’s laughter again. She is an independent researcher who helped us in surveying the habitat. As soon as she saw me approaching breathlessly, she shouted, “Praharaaaaaaa, come on, let’s get to the last camera location of the day, hurry up!!!” Unlike my friends who call me Joan, Namrata prefers to call me Prahara (which means Tempest).
Without any rest, we began to deploy the camera trap following the same process as before. It was getting late and we were racing against time. After setting up the camera trap, we discussed finding a way home because it was impossible to track back as it was too long and would take a considerable amount of time.
In the end, the team decided to find a way down directly to the river, which was said to have a beautiful terraced waterfall. With enthusiasm, all the team members went down towards the river.
Unfortunately, this downhill path was extremely steep and precipitous. In fact, it was steeper than ‘the onerous cliff’. If we were not careful, we could have ‘fallen into fatality’. Very slowly we descended the cliff. Eventually we heard the sound of the waterfall. The sound grew closer as we continued to descend.
Not long after, we arrived at the waterfall. I have no words to describe the beauty of the waterfall which is actually not that high. This waterfall is terraced with clear water. Located between shady trees and green vegetation which makes it look immaculate. We didn’t find any traces of human activity here.
We then crossed the river; the water was only knee-deep. Once we found flat land near the waterfall, we immediately rested while enjoying the beauty of the waterfall which is located in one of the veins of the Heart of Borneo. We relaxed for a moment, enjoyed a piece of bread, a cup of black coffee that we had brought along, and dipped our feet in the cold red water – it felt like heaven in the middle of the jungle. (to be continued).