Endangered Primates on Cat Ba Island

The time passes quickly and there is far less time to write personal things then I thought there would be, and so, so much to write about.  I’m sure people would love to know about the amazing array of colorful butterflies and other insects, the brilliant sunsets, the stunning plant diversity, or the stark landscape, but what people are probably most interested in is the langurs.

What are langurs?  This is a question I am often asked.  In the most simple terms, they are a family of Old World leaf eating monkeys in the family Cercopithecidae, with long hands, minimal thumbs, and long, flexible tails used for balance in their acrobatic lives.  The Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus) is a highly endangered species of langur found only on Cat Ba Island, Vietnam, a species often confused with, but very distinct from the closely related White-Headed Langur that is found in Guanxi, China.

The Cat Ba Langur has the dubious distinction of regularly being included as one of the top 25 most endangered primates in the world.  This is not a distinction of honor, it is much like being classified as a survivor of genocide  or a citizen of a repressive dictatorial regime.  By endangered I do not mean that there are only a few hundred left, I mean truly, desperately endangered, as in only a small handful left.

There are less than 60 remaining 70 (as of mid-2015) in the wild and only 5 in captivity.

Approximately 16 percent of the total global population of this species is represented in this photo.

Approximately 16 percent of the total global population of the species is represented in this photo.

It is my privilege to be working with this species, in conjunction with a number of remarkable people representing a diverse array of organizations, to keep these animals from going extinct.  This is no easy task, one during which I learn new things every day and must adjust my preconceptions on a regular basis.

From my previous post you, gentle reader, have an idea of the rugged nature of Cat Ba Island, a land of sheer cliffs, wickedly sharp limestone, and convoluted shoreline.

A fjord within the langur sanctuary on Cat Ba Island

A fjord within the langur sanctuary on Cat Ba Island

My work has a strong political component and winds up being largely logistical and administrative, but I am fortunate enough to head-up a small organization where I do get to take part in field-work on a semi-regular basis.  All of our activities are focused on langur conservation, no matter how separate those activities may feel at any given time.  This is both a relief and a pleasure as the region is spectacularly beautiful and the local folks I work with have the souls of gentle and generous giants.

Langurs, as a group, are not large monkeys; the Cat Ba Langur has a body about the size of a small child, but with long limbs and an expressive tail longer than the monkey’s body.  Their expressions are surprisingly deep and soulful, as though they are pondering something we humans have lost sight of, yet are aware of and amused by the conceit of doing so.

Adult langur resting in a tree

Adult langur resting in a tree

The adults are black with white/yellow heads, gray suspender-like lines on their flanks, and wonderful punk-rock hairdos.  The breeding groups are female dominated and small, the largest one being about 16 individuals.  There tends to be one reproducing male per group that is often a little separate from the larger body, keeping watch, and the like.  Females share child-rearing duties, sometimes carrying young of other females, and all members are often in close physical proximity.

Their calls are a mixture of chirps, hoots, coughs, and an amazing deep growling ratchet that echoes from the cliffs and sounds as though it comes from something the size of an overweight gorilla.  I have not managed to record the sound yet, or I would post a copy of it as it really is astounding.

The young are a brilliant orange/gold color when born, a color that slowly fades as they age and provides pretty much the only visually obvious way of determining age for the individuals.  Their markings are so uniform that is is impossible to tell individuals of the same age apart unless one has an obvious injury, which few, fortunately, do.

Infant Cat Ba Langur showing brilliant gold color.

Infant Cat Ba Langur showing brilliant gold color

As the animals age they slowly lose the gold color, starting at at the mid-point in their limbs.  The young remain playful well into adulthood, probably a survival characteristic as play has been demonstrated to be a necessary part of physical and social development.

Langur Cua Dong infant adult sm wtr 215

Monkeys in general and langurs especially have long been recognized as being stunningly agile, highlighting the importance of the physical benefits of extended play time during periods of physical development.  Those of you familiar with Indian mythology will remember the character Hanuman, one of the heroes of the Ramayana (shameless plug:  William Buck’s Ramayana retelling is fantastic reading).  In this tale Hanuman, the Monkey King, Son of the Wind is a god-like figure adept, wise, and agile, embodied with great physical and moral strength, the ability to fly, and one of the most likable, playful , and morally unambiguous characters of this set of nested tales.  Hanuman is thought to be a Gray Langur (aka. Hanuman Langur – Semnopithecus entellus), an agile species bearing a robust beard most mountain-men would be jealous of.

On the landscape of Cat Ba the importance of physical agility absolutely cannot be understated.  Stanley Kubrick once stated, ” The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent.”  The landscape of Cat Ba is indifferent with a vengeance, in a way that belies the rich tropical vegetation.  Under and frequently poking through that green blanket of life is a landscape of razor-blades that, when the vegetation is stripped away, appears to come from the post-apocalyptic imagination of a science-fiction writer.  This is home to the Cat Ba Langur; the same landscape we humans struggle to navigate while doing field-work the langurs treat with the same casual approach that we treat a trip to the mailbox.

Langur parkour

Langur parkour

What will happen to this species is far from settled and depends heavily on far more than our work.  It depends on the education, support, and involvement of a far larger society.  If any of you feel the drive to support the conservation of a beautiful and heart-rendingly rare species please take up arms.  It doesn’t need to be this particular one, the world is, unfortunately, full of non-human species of all kingdoms that would benefit from your support.  Some are photogenic species such as this langur, others are innocuous plants or insects.  Some are found in exotic locations like this limestone island in northern Vietnam, others may literally be in your backyard.

These primates have suffered a 98 percent population crash as a result of hunting for traditional medicines, habitat destruction, and several other pressures.  There were never very many, we cannot speculate about their peak numbers, but during the 1960s there were between 2500 and 2700 on the island.  When our project started in 2000 there between 40 and 53 left alive in the world (surveys are difficult on the island and early surveys relied heavily on local people’s statements).  Very little is known about this species and we are desperately trying to increase that body of knowledge as we do our conservation work.  Fundamental questions are still unanswered and the challenges of field-work in this environment impose severe limitations on many traditional methods of study.

For those of you who feel compelled to support our project, we welcome you: our project is the Cat Ba Langur Conservation Project (please excuse how out of date the website is, our attention has been focused on more pressing concerns) and I can be reached at the following address: neahga.leonard@catbalangur.de

If you are visiting Cat Ba, come say hello.

Juvenile Cat Ba Langur portrait

Juvenile Cat Ba Langur portrait

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A New Job, a New Voyage, An Endangered Species

The rain has finally come to California, bringing with it the promise of new growth and greenery.  As it rains outside the window I am inside,  surrounded by loosely organized piles of clothes, books, outdoor gear, and laptop peripherals attempting to fit my life into two 20kg bags.  Before I go I need to take care of all those technological tasks our life is filled with as well, back up my computers, transfer my iPhone and iPad to a different computer (Apple, you really need to make that easier to do), and do the final run-through on what I am taking with me.  Despite all this, my mind is only partially on the task at hand.

Several weeks ago I was offered a position working on primate conservation in northern Vietnam and my mind is on the location, the people I will be working with, and the upcoming tasks.

The Gulf of Tonkin - NASA image

Northern Vietnam, Southern China, and the Gulf of Tonkin – NASA image

This is exciting, not in the least because Vietnam, like much of South East Asia, (and Southern China) lies firmly in one of the great biodiversity hotspots of the world.  Northern Vietnam is on the edge of Sundaland, a name for the vast expanse of what used to be land connecting the Southeast Asian mainland to Borneo and the Indonesian islands, now mainly under water and expressed as the Sunda Shelf.  During the last ice age this is thought to have been a broad grassland spotted with mountain forests and laced with broad rivers.  For nearly 100,000 years plants and animals moved back and forth across this landscape, becoming wide-spread and subsequently isolated as the rising seas flooded the lowlands, leaving the complex arrangement of islands and peninsulas we now see.

This exposure and inundation of land in this part of the world has been taking place for a long time.  This combined with the vigorous tectonic activity of the region has led to a wonderfully complex region topographically, and subsequently (or in conjunction) biologically.

Sundaland showing current and proposed past rivers

Sundaland showing current and proposed past rivers (source)

This submerged region is now thought to be the cradle of the Asian population, the “Out of Sundaland Theory”, although there is a competing “Out of Taiwan Theory” as well.  Where I will be working is only loosely in former Sundaland, a melding point between Sundaland and the complex geography of Southern China and Northern Laos.  In any event hominids, and later humans have been exploring and living in South East Asia for a long time, and that span of time has allowed tremendous cultural and linguistic complexity to develop as well.  This is one of the places that our most successful and long-lived hominid ancestors, Homo erectus, lived.

I will be on the edge of this region, just off the coast of northern Vietnam, on the northern margin of the Red River delta not too far from the Chinese border.  The location is Ha Long Bay, a dramatic karst landscape that is both mature and submerged.  The ingredients for a karst landscape are limestone and time, lots of both.  In some parts of the world the only signifying features of kart landscapes are rich soils (lots of cations) and , if it is wet, periodic sinkholes.  Where water is in abundance caves are common, as groundwater is often mildly acidic which erodes the limestone.  Over time continued erosion wears down the limestone bedrock to such a great degree that all that is left are startlingly steep sided hills, separated by flat valleys.  This is a mature karst landscape.  In Sundaland some of these mature karst regions were flooded when the sea level rose resulting in a dream-like landscape that looks like something Hayao Miyazaki would imagine if he were to direct a pirate movie.

Ha Long Bay mature submerged karst landscape (source)

Places like Ha Long Bay are excellent examples of island biogeography.  Islands are often home to endemic species, the tortoises and finches on the Galapagos Islands are the classic example of this, made famous by Darwin.  Animals and plants that make their way to an island, or are trapped by rising seas or continental drift become isolated and diverge from their ancestors.  This is the essence of island biogeography and the recognition of how finch beaks on the Galapagos changed in response to the limited food sources available on the islands helped Darwin to recognize how evolution takes place.  My personal hero in the tale of evolution, Wallace, worked in the submerged island remnants of Sundaland and experienced the same insights as Darwin.  Ha Long Bay is a small area, but has its own endemic species, many of them we probably know little to nothing about.

One we do know of is the Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus poliocephalus), a dark haired leaf eating monkey with white heads and brilliant golden furred babies.  They are found only on Cat Ba Island, one of the largest islands in the Ha Long Bay, and are critically endangered.  Critically is an understatement, there are less than a hundred of these primates alive in the world.  And. That. Is. All. There. Are.

Cat Ba Langur on limestone cliffs. [EDIT – the photo I previously had here was of the closely related White-Headed Langur – it was mislabeled as a Cat Ba Langue at the source I found it]

In 25 hours I get on a flight to Hanoi to take part in an effort to both keep these primates from going extinct and to conserve the biodiversity of the island.  There are a lot of moving parts in the project, many partners at all levels, and only a few of us on the ground to keep everything running smoothly.

I’m excited, eager, and somewhat intimated.  I leave tomorrow.

California Condors, Megafauna, and Trophic Cascades

A long time ago I worked as an archaeologist near Santa Barbara.  I spent most of my days in the field excavating Chumash sites, recording evidence of looting, drawing maps, and hunting for unknown sites.  It was a fun job, I learned a lot, and it was my first exposure to California Condors.

The Chumash left behind a repository of exquisite petroglyphs, painted and carved into the soft sandstone that makes up much of the Transverse Range, an east-west oriented set of coastal Southern California mountains.  One of my jobs was to preserve this rock-art.  In the dust that makes up the floor of the caves and shelters the art is painted lives a bacteria that eats the organic pigments in the paint used by the Chumash.  Visitors would unwittingly kick up the dust, spreading the bacteria and speeding up the degradation of the rock art.  At several sites we paved the floor with stones to trap the dust.  One of these sites was Condor Cave in the San Rafael Wilderness; I’m sure you can guess how it came by that name.

Condor art at Condor Cave – from http://www.parks.ca.gov

It wasn’t until several years later I when was backpacking in the Ventana Wilderness with a friend that I saw my first wild California Condor.  We stopped and sat, mesmerized, watching five large birds swoop and soar around us.  Of course my camera was acting up at the time and the only photos I got were pathetic to say the best.  The experience stuck with me, all the more so because I had been studying anthropology and repercussions of the North American megafauna extinctions.  

About a week ago I was driving from San Francisco to Los Angeles along HWY 1.  It was one of those spectacular California days where the coast is shrouded by pockets of thick fog broken by regions of bright sunlight and the Pacific Ocean lives up to its name lying tranquil in its bed.

Sun, fog, and kelp-beds along the coast between Morro Bay and Big Sur

Sun, fog, and kelp-beds along the coast between Morro Bay and Big Sur

This stretch of road is made up entirely of corners and as I rounded one I saw a pocket of people pulled over in a turn-out looking up at something on the hill-side.   I caught a glimpse of a large bird on the slope, pulled over at the next turn-out, grabbed my camera, and jogged back to find a very calm California Condor sunning itself in the late afternoon light.

California Condor soaking up the last of the sunlight

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) soaking up the last of the sunlight

The California Condors are in rough shape.   DDT, hunting by mis-informed ranchers who believe that condors killed calves, egg collecting, habitat loss, and lead-poisoning are all implicated in modern times for the low numbers of  the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus).   Additionally, these long-lived birds have small clutch sizes (few eggs per breeding cycle) and reproduce extremely slowly; so slowly that a 1996 study by the Fish and Wildlife department found that it would take 1800 years at the current population growth rate of 1.0003 to achieve a stable wild population of 150 individuals.  This low population growth rate is part of why there is a captive breeding program.

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) in the Los Padres National Forest

California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) in the Los Padres National Forest

In historic times the California Condor ranged from British Columbia to Baja, but during the 19th century its range was rapidly diminished to include only California.  Through captive breeding and release strategies the range has been re-expanded and now includes Arizona, northern Mexico, and a little of Utah, in addition to California.  These birds have what is known as a “relict distribution”, that is, they occupy only a fragment of their former range.

California Condor range map - from: IUCN Redlist http://www.iucnredlist.org/

California Condor range map – from: IUCN Redlist http://www.iucnredlist.org/

 

While it is certainly true that lead poisoning, DDT, and all the rest have been massively detrimental to present day condors this overlooks a very important aspect of the condor niche.  These are large birds, the largest flying birds in North America, with up to a 9.5 foot (2.9 me) wingspan and weighing up to 23 pounds (10.4 kg).  These birds are meat eaters and they need a lot of meat.  The historic population was highest along the coast, where aquatic megafauna would, and still does wash up on the beach.  Beached whales, elephant seals, sea lions, dolphins, seals, and large fish may be disturbing to see, but they provide a wealth of food for bears, foxes, coyotes, weasels, wolves, eagles, gulls, ravens, and condors.  It is true that there are still large gatherings of sea mammals along the coast, but it is also true that there are far fewer of them than there used to be and this has imparted an additional stress to the condors, among other species.

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) on the California Coast

Northern Elephant Seals (Mirounga angustirostris) on the California Coast

For birds further inland other sources of meat were, and are important.  Terrestrial megafauna is what fed and feeds inland condors.  We have nowhere near the diversity nor the biomass of large free-living terrestrial animals than we did even a few hundred years ago, let alone what we had when humans first arrived in North America.  Shortly after the arrival of humans most of the large animals, the megafauna (generally being defined as an animal with a body-mass greater than 100 pounds (45 kg) began going extinct.  The giant beavers disappeared, the mastodons vanished, the giant sloths, camel relatives, giant tortoises, horses, and various species of deer were wiped from the continent, and along with those animals also went other animals that relied upon them; dire wolves, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, American lions, American cheetah, tetratorns (think condors on steroids), dung beetles, and condors.

Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis ssp. nannodes) being restored to California grasslands

Tule Elk (Cervus canadensis ssp. nannodes) being restored to California grasslands

There is vociferous disagreement as to why the megafauna went extinct, but many, if not most, scholars believe that humans hunted these animals to extinction.  Humans arrived during an ice age and the rapid change in climate (rapid in an evolutionary sense) may have placed the animal populations in a position where enthusiastic hunting had a greater impact than would be otherwise expected; but whatever the exact details the short story is that humans arrived and within a few thousand years a majority of the megafauna went extinct.  This triggered what is known as a “trophic cascade”.

You can think of an ecosystem as being analogous to a game of Jenga.  All together the blocks form a solid tower, but as you remove blocks (species) the tower (ecosystem) becomes more and more unstable.  Eventually one too many blocks is removed and the whole structure comes tumbling down.  In essence, this is what a catastrophic trophic cascade looks like.  So many animals were removed from the ecosystem that now, eleven thousand years later, we are still seeing some of the effects.  Just as blocks you never touched in the Jenga game come tumbling down, species of plants, insects, and animals that were never hunted went extinct or had their life patterns radically altered.  Some plants lost their ability to disperse their seeds, forests and grasslands were no-longer grazed as heavily and the composition of species changed drastically, watersheds and rivers changed their patterns, soils changed as they were walked upon by different animals with different behaviors, concentrations of bacteria and fungus changed, altering soil and groundwater chemistry.  Trophic cascades are a big deal.  They are ongoing, but operate in the background, running smoothly and unnoticed until something breaks the chain of events and the whole tower of blocks comes tumbling down.

The current narrow range of Condors is due, in part to the cascading effects of the megafuna extinctions and more recent changes brought by colonizing Europeans.  We know from the fossil record that prior to the megafauna extinctions several species of condors lived in North America over a range that includes the historic range of the California Condor and stretched across the southern states and up the east coast to New York.

Prehistoric US fossil sites for North American condors, courtesy of the San Diego Zoo library

Seeing the California Condors in the wild is like catching a brief glimpse into the distant past, a time when North America had wildlife diversity to rival that of Africa.  The fate of the condors is far from certain.  They are from a time and place that no-longer exists and it remains to be seen if they can adapt to the world as we have made it, even with our assistance.  I hope the condors do succeed, the world is a richer place and better place for their presence.

Preening in the late afternoon sun

Preening in the late afternoon sun

Into the forest at Lubuk Baji – Part 2: Monkeys and Apes

The real temperature was not so great, perhaps 83°F (28°C), but the humidity and the still air in the forest made it seem hotter.  I took large, slow strides, my toes instinctively trying to grip the slippery, steep slope through my sandals, my sleeves rolled down to keep the constant flow of sweat from dripping down my arms onto my camera bag.  A bandanna looped around my neck served as a towel to mop sweat from my face, sweat that stung my eyes, sweat that was so prodigious that it felt like the inside of my mouth was sweating.

Bird calls, the occasional ululating call of a gibbon, and the clicks and whirrs of numerous insects surrounded us.  Despite the fecund richness of the forest around us the only animal life to be seen were insects, most obviously large butterflies, predominately black in color, some with large yellow patches, others with cerulean blue patches, many with white polka-dots scattered over their wings.  In the warm air they rarely stood still, preferring to dance in the solitary shafts of sunlight and flit erratically through the trees.

Large butterflies were common in the forest, many about the size of an open hand

Large butterflies were common in the forest, many about the size of an open hand

On the forest floor, amongst the leaf litter crawled the occasional giant woodlouse, relatives of common pillbug but far larger.  They would curl at the slightest provocation, looking like painted ping-pong balls.

Giant woodlouse curled up on the forest floor

Giant woodlouse curled up on the forest floor

We were looking for wild orangutan in the hills of Lubuk Baji.  We knew they were in the area, abandoned sleeping nests in the trees and their pungent scent attested to their recent presence but they remained hidden in the forest.

Lubik Baji is a small hill on the west side of Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.  This large park is one of the last remaining protected lowland forests and contains nearly 10% of the world’s remaining orangutan.  The nearby town of Sukadana is partially surrounded by the park and a large number of people live nearby, many of them relying on resources found within the park for their livelihoods, especially timber resources.

Gunung Palung NP wraps around Sukadana, to the east is a small hill names Lubuk Baji

Gunung Palung NP wraps around Sukadana, to the east is a small hill names Lubuk Baji

We had seemingly missed our chance to see these large forest dwelling primates, perhaps arriving too late in the day.  Our guide kept a close eye out and several times pulled us off  the trail through small tangles of spiky rattan palm to follow up on potential sightings and sounds.  Each turned out to be a false alarm.

Wandering off the trail brought its own rewards though.

Large ground orchid in the Borneo rainforest

Large ground orchid in the Borneo rainforest

Where the ground was a bit more damp large white ground orchids grew, the broad, soft leaves looking more lilly-like than orchid like.

Unknown red & blue fruit (if you know, please let me know).

Unknown red & blue fruit (if you know, please let me know).  Each blue fruit was only about 1 to 1.5cm long.  EDIT: possibly Baccaurea odoratissima

The tree above was fruiting directly from the trunk.  This is a trait called cauliflory.  Plants that exhibit cauliflory flower and fruit directly from their stems and trunks.  It is relatively common in tropical environments and rare to non-existent elsewhere.  I have seen it on many plants in the Amazon, but the fruit growing in this manner that most people will be familiar with is papaya.  I think it is one of the most striking and beautiful ways for a tree to flower, in part because it is so unexpected.

I have heard several hypotheses for why tropical trees do this; one has to do with sun protection for delicate flowers and fruits.  Tropical sun is intense and the trees may be protecting their fruits under a dark canopy.  Another thought is that it makes the fruit easier for large animals to reach as they do not have to rick precarious trips onto thin branches that may not hold their weight.  One side effect of this growth form is that trees can produce fruits of immense size.  Jackfruit (Artocarpus spp), a delicious fruit of which there are many species, produces some of the largest fruits of any tree, the largest fruits weighing up to 80 pounds (36 kilos).

Failing to see any wild primates we continued our hike along the ridge to an overlook of bare granite shaded by a grove of tall bamboo.

Looking East-Northeast over Gunung Palung National Park and parts north from the Sukadana Hills

Looking East-Northeast over Gunung Palung National Park and parts north from the Sukadana Hills

From here we finally got an overview of the surrounding countryside.  Views like this can be surprisingly rare in forested lands, even when there are hills and mountains.  Below us rice paddies infringed on the edge of the national park, then faded into a shaggy carpet of greenery.  Here and there eskers of logging tracks could be seen following stream courses and through binoculars it was clear that all the tall trees had been cleared from the lower slopes of the distant hills.

We sat enjoying the breeze and view for a time, then headed back to the stream and park building for lunch.

I grew restless and maybe 15 minutes before we were to set out I told the guide that I would go first and wait for the rest of the group later on.  Walking in nature in large groups always bothers me a bit, too many people talk too loudly, make too much noise moving through the forest, and scare off the wildlife.  I tend to walk slowly and quietly with frequent pauses to listen, look, and smell the air.

As it has so many times in the past my slow approach to nature paid off in spades.  Just downhill from the honey gathering tree I saw a large branch move across the stream and head a loud rustle, clearly not from the wind.  I froze and waited, watching the closely.  Large dark shapes clambered about, difficult to see, sometimes in deep shade, other times so strongly backlit by the sun that all I could see was a dark blob.

I waited with my camera out.  After a few minutes of quiet waiting the orangutan began moving about, foraging and breaking off large dead limbs.  I waited until they seemed accustomed to my presence, then slipped back up the trail to wait for the rest of my hiking group.  Five minutes later they came down the trail, talking and breaking dead branches on the ground.  “Shhh, tiga orangutan,” I said holding up 3 fingers.  Everyone fell silent and we crept down the hill.

The orangutan watched us for a few minutes, then returned to foraging.  One adolescent clambered directly over us, occasionally peering down through the sheltering leaves, then moving on again.

Very curious adolescent orangutan

Very curious adolescent Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)

Most of my photos did not turn out well, the contrast was too great and the apes moved too quickly.  After much post processing one image revealed that there were at least 4 orangutan, possibly more nearby.

After about 20 minutes we continued on our way down the hill, pausing to swim in a deliciously refreshing pool at the base of a waterfall.

The trail was paralleled by a series of lovely waterfalls

The trail was paralleled by a series of lovely waterfalls

Regretfully donning our clothes once more we continued our hike out of the forest, happy at seeing the orangutan and thinking that out wildlife sights were at an end.

Just inside the margin of the forest we found that we were unexpectedly and happily wrong.

Red leaf Monkey (Presbytis rubicunda), aka Maroon Leaf Monkey

Red leaf Monkey (Presbytis rubicunda), aka Maroon Leaf Monkey

Several Red Leaf Monkeys were foraging for fruit in the semi-wild durian orchard.  They made long, graceful leaps between the trees, their tails streaming out behind them, accenting the arc of their flight.

People often think we need to protect the forest in order to protect species like the orangutan, various monkey species, birds, and other forest inhabitants.  While this is indeed true, it is only part of the picture.  The forest denizens must be protected as well because without them the forest changes, sometimes radically, becoming a completely different environment.

Many species of plants require their seeds to be consumed along with their fruit and carried far off as part of their dispersal strategy.  Many seeds must pass through the digestive tracts of specific animals before they will germinate.  The extinction of one animal species can have repercussions that are slow to manifest, are difficult to reverse, and may have a wider impact through the ecosystem.

We often talk of specific species as being keystone species.  It may be wiser to think of all species as being keystone species.

Red Leaf Monkey watching me

Red Leaf Monkey watching me

Pontianak to Sukadana: through the mangroves at high speed

It has been a while since I’ve written a new post.  Quite a bit has happened in the last few weeks, the key bit being that the position in Borneo has fallen apart on me unexpectedly shortly after arriving in Indonesia.

Despite the unexpected disappointment there was a lot to see and experience.  I last left off in Pontianak, a rough and tumble Indonesian city in West Kalimatan, a hardy workman’s city perched on the borders of one of the largest rivers in Borneo.  The name, Pontianak, refers to a specific type of vampire, a woman who died in childbirth, a somewhat strange thing to name a city after.

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

Boats and buildings line the riverside in Pontianak

To get from Pontianak to Sukadana one may either take a round-about bus that runs over poorly maintained roads and may not make it during the rainy season, or a boat that races through broad channels in the mangrove swamp.  The slow boat takes more than a day and the speedboat takes between 5 and 6 hours, more if either of the two massive outboard engines are damaged by the numerous floating logs in the water or fouled by vegetation, old fishing nets, or garbage.

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

Speedboat returning to Pontianak from Sukadana

I had been expecting the boat to head out into the ocean and run down the coast.  I was pleasantly surprised that the route ran along the interior channels of the Kapuas River delta  instead.

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana.  Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Inland route from Pontianak to Sukadana. Roughly 130-140 miles along the winding channels through the mangrove forest

Mangroves are one of the most mysterious and interesting ecosystems to me, perhaps because I have spent so little time in them and because there are so few intact mangrove forests left in the world.  In terms of carbon sequestration mangroves are one of the most effective ecosystems for carbon storage.  Mangroves are the nursery for many species of fish and crustaceans, and protect coastal areas from storm surges and tsunamis.

The center for diversity of mangroves is in South East Asia where there are some 40 or so tree species from a variety of families that all have adopted the “mangrove” lifestyle.  Trees falling into the general category of mangroves share a number of features despite coming from different families; some form of air-breathing apparatus on the roots (stilts, knees, aerial roots, root spikes that lift above the mud, etc), high tolerance to salt, and floating fruits/seeds.

One of the more interesting plants in the mangrove forest is the Nipa Palm (Nypa fruticans).

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

Nipa Palms (Nypa fruticans) growing along the banks of the river delta

This palm is unusual in several ways.  It often grows in areas where the trunk is completely submerged for long periods, making me wonder how it establishes itself in the first place.  This in and of itself is only mildly remarkable, what is truly odd is that the trunk is horizontal, growing underground, parallel to the surface, with all the greenery visible comprised of individual fronds acting as mini-trees growing from a single stalk.  In some ways the growth habit of this palm is more like that of a fern than a palm.

The fruits form in a large round mass, a little bigger than a basketball, divided into fist-sized floating seeds that break off and float away, sometimes germinating while still afloat.  The flower stalks are rich in sugar and this is one of the palms used to make palm sugar, a laborious process akin to making maple sugar, but limited to collecting sap from the flower stalks rather than tapping the tree.  Some studies indicate that this palm has a promising potential for biofuel production, but the process of cultivating or collecting enough to make this feasible would spell ecological devastation for immense regions of sensitive and already threatened habitat.

Mangrove forests are one of the most imperiled and under appreciated ecosystems in the world.  They are limited to tropical and near tropical regions.

Mangrove forest distribution from Charter Science

Many of the great tropical fisheries of the world owe their existence to mangrove forests; they provide nursery grounds for many aquatic species.  When mangrove forests are cleared to make room for development or for the shrimp farms that feed the developed nation’s voracious consumption of shrimp and prawns, these fish nurseries wither away, taking with them the tropical fisheries hundreds of millions of people rely on for their primary source of dietary protein.

Mangrove forests are found in low-lying, flat areas, areas subject to immense tidal run-ups, storm surges, and, in earthquake prone regions, areas where tsunamis can travel great distances inland.  The presence of mangroves acts as a buffer to these great movements of water, protecting both inland environments and human settlements.

In Southeast Asia the mangrove forests themselves provide a number of immediate resources for local people, including food, building supplies, medicines, and protected navigable waterways.

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

Local fellow collecting vegetation from the mangrove forest

As in all areas people must make a living.  For some the only option is land clearing, whether for agriculture or timber.  In the Indonesian mangrove forests land is cleared for rice agriculture, aquaculture, and logging, primarily illegal.  Logging in this area is an enormous problem.  Large rafts of logs are often seen moored on the banks of the rivers and small-scale loggers carry short logs to local mills.

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A small two person logging operation bringing palm logs home

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

A larger logging operation bringing intermediate sized hardwood logs into the mill

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

People fishing from a large raft of hardwood logs floated down from the interior forests

Nearly all the current logging in Indonesia is illegal.  The legal logging concessions have been cleared, in many cases converted to palm oil agriculture.  New land is legally cleared for palm oil, but current regulations prohibit the felled wood from being sold, thus this wood is often destroyed, resulting in an increased spread of illegal logging.

It is a cycle difficult to break.

In these areas dry land is a rare commodity and whole villages rest on stilts rising over the rivers and soggy ground.  Boats and motorcycles are the primary methods of transport, motorcycles being driven over narrow plank walkways with a casualness that makes the uninitiated cringe and wonder how many motorcycles lie in the mud at the bottom of the river.

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

Midday conversation on a stilt-village

The trip from Pontianak to Sukadana took a little more than 5 hours, an exhilarating 5 hours spent zipping through wide channels amongst one of the more interesting and briefly glimpsed ecosystems it has been my privilege to view first-hand.  I desperately want to go back to a diverse mangrove forest and spend months at a time clambering about, exploring and learning how it functions, but that will now have to wait until some undefined time in the future.

For this job in Indonesia I sold many of my things, put the rest in storage, spent a lot of money I would not have otherwise spent, and tossed my life in the blender with the assurance that the next step on my career path was well and firmly in hand.  Instead of an interesting and tasty life-shake emerging from the blender, the blender was casually and abruptly knocked off the counter, leaving my plans and work spread across the metaphorical floor in a sticky mess from which I am now attempting to salvage what I can.

Back to the job hunt, back to evaluating my life choices, back to laughing at the impracticality of my dreams.

Despite all, I had an opportunity few ever have and was able to see things most never even think about.  For that I am grateful.

Make the jump, take the risk.  If you make that leap you don’t know where you will land, but if you don’t nothing interesting will ever happen.

From Madrid to Kuching: new places, new sights, & oil palm plantations

I am nearly at my final destination. The little town of Sukadana in West Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) is only two more hops away, either a flight or bus ride, followed by a speedboat ride down the west coast of Borneo, a ride that passes through mangrove swamps and over muddy sea water.

At the moment I am in the city of Kuching (Cat City), in Sarawak, Malaysia. The Indonesian border is to the south and east, not far way, hidden by mountains and clouds. The province takes its name from the slow moving Sarawak river that runs through Kuching. As you might imagine, this part of the world is heavily boat centered.

River boat on the Sarawak in Kuching, Malyasia

River boat on the Sarawak in Kuching, Malyasia

The trip from Madrid to Kuching was an extension of the now ludicrous collection of hiccups, trials, and frustrations that have ridden on my coat-tails ever since I was nearly prevented from boarding the plane from Los Angeles to Madrid. Fortunately, these obstructions have only added spice to an unexpectedly fantastic voyage so far, full of delightful surprises, wonderful people, excellent food, and meat for a rich assortment of unbelievable stories.

I took Qatar Airways from Madrid, paying more in baggage fees than for my ticket (moving over-seas has even more unexpected expenses than regular moves do), caught the sunset from 35,000 feet over North Africa, a glowing pink/purple-amber layer of clouds that swiftly fell into gray, then black, and changed planes in the Doha airport. The flight path dodged and jinked in order to stay out of, let’s say “difficult”, airspace.

Qatar Airways flight path from Madrid to Doha

Qatar Airways flight path from Madrid to Doha

From Doha to Kuala Limpur, through immigration, then on Malaysian Air to Kuching.

One of my first views of Malaysia was of the vast oil palm plantations surrounding the Kuala Limpur airport.

Oil palm plantations are increasingly wide-spread through South East Asia

Oil palm plantations are increasingly wide-spread through South East Asia

The world appetite for palm oil is vast and ever growing. China and India use it for cooking, the US and Europe use it in shampoos, hand lotions, and face creams. All over the world is is added to foods, often called “coconut oil”, an act of creative labeling.

Enormous regions of diverse tropical forests are logged, razed to the ground, and replanted in monoculture stands of oil palms, stands that reach to the horizon in many areas. As one might imagine, the once great biodiversity of these areas drops precipitously.

Processing oil from the oil palms is labor intensive, requiring machinery that locals cannot afford and the process is only effective at a large scale. Thus, any money that is made from the oil palm industry remains in the hands of the investors and wealthy, with a miniscule portion of it dripping down to the people whose homes and land have been taken and transformed.

This is one of the great conservation concerns for the well being of both the people and biodiversity of South East Asia.

The plane lifted swiftly from Kuala Limpur, hiding the oil palm plantations under a dense layer of clouds that thinned once over the waters of the South China Sea. Several hours later I had my first sight of Borneo, my new home.

Mt Santubong, a small coastal mountain in Sarawak

Mt Santubong, a small coastal mountain in Sarawak

Just near the small mountain of Santubong, lies a town, not unlike the town that will be my new home.

The small town of Kampung Buntal in Sarawak at the base of Mt Santubong

The small town of Kampung Buntal in Sarawak at the base of Mt Santubong

I avidly peered out the window of the plane, in that awkward combination of a hunch and twist that you are forced into to see out of the tiny, smudged plane windows.

The rivers fascinated me. This part of the world receives an astounding amount of rain and even short rivers are wide with tremendous volumes of flow. Enormous amounts of sediment are carried by the waters, turning the sea around much of Borneo the color of hot chocolate. Some of the rivers originate in the flat areas and are nearly back from tannins released by decomposing vegetation. Each of these rivers leaves a swirling mark where it enters the ocean, and all twist and meander on their way to the sea.

Deep meanders as the rivers approach the sea

Deep meanders as the rivers approach the sea

Kuching is the capital of Sarawak, the southernmost province of Malaysian Borneo. It is a low, wet city with rainfall approaching 4.5 meters a year (depending on what source you read). This makes it one of the wettest cities on the planet, this morning and last night the thunder was frequent, shaking the buildings, and the rain violent in its path to the ground.

The riverfront has a nice park with shade trees and wide walk-ways. The humidity and heat lends itself to a rich collection of plants, of which ferns are well represented. Most of the river-front trees have climbing ferns creeping up them, some trees are completely covered by them.

Climbing ferns covering a small tree on the Kuching waterfront

Climbing ferns covering a small tree on the Kuching waterfront

Ornamental stands of Lipstick Palm (Cyrtostachys renda) add color to the walkways.

Lipstick Palms (Cyrtostachys renda) are planted in small stands

Lipstick Palms (Cyrtostachys renda) are planted in small stands

Bronze river dragons guard the banks of the Sarawak.

River dragon

River dragon

And Chinese temples have their own collection of guardians as well.

Chinese dragon guarding a Buddhist temple

Chinese dragon guarding a Buddhist temple

The internet connection at my hotel is growing erratic, so I will pause here and continue with another entry later.

I will be in Kuching for several more days, then, if all goes well and there are no other complications, on to Indonesia for both work and language school.

 

How Does the Acorn Get from Here to There? – Scrub Jays and Oak Trees

With a few exceptions trees in the Oak genus (Quercus) are easily, if not immediately, recognizable.  There are approximately 600 species in the genus divided into two sub-genera.  Oaks are found in North and South America, Europe, North Africa, and Asia.  The oaks in Asia are in the sub-genera, the Ring-Cupped Oaks (Cyclobalanopsis), whereas oaks in the rest of the world are members of the Quercus sub-genera.

Oaks have complicated relationships with a number of other species ranging from symbiotic fungus to parasitic wasps to humans.  Oaks feature in our mythology, we use the bark of Quercus suber, Cork Oak, to make stoppers for wine and for soft flooring, we make furniture and barrels from some species of oak, we made cart and early car axles from particularity strong species, they make excellent firewood, and they are fun to climb.

Climbing a Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) when I was little

Oaks also make acorns.  Sometimes, particularly when mast fruiting, oaks produce enormous quantities of acorns.  Most of these acorns are eaten by animals; insects, humans, pigs, squirrels, birds, and a host of other animals.  The survival and reseeding rate for acorns is low, but oak trees tend to be long-lived, some reaching ages of 500 years or more.  In the absence of other factors this low seedling success rate is not an issue as the tree produces thousands of acorns each year for hundreds of years.  Some seeds are bound to survive and turn into new trees.

Oaks have a particular problem.  Their seeds (acorns) are large.

Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia) acorns

By themselves the trees can only drop the acorns under their own drip-line, in the shade where they will not sprout.  How does the tree send its seeds to a new place where they can sprout and are not left in a dense mat of easily found and eaten food?

Plants, being clever and manipulative in their slow vegetative manner, have all manner of methods for getting animals to carry their seeds far and wide.  Oaks harness many species to do this work, bribing them with the highly nutritious seeds they produce.  Across much of North America scrub and blue jays are put to work distributing acorns across the landscape.

Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica) in the Santa Monica Mountains – possibly Belding’s Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica obscura)

Meet the Western Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica), also known as the California Scrub Jay, and sometimes known as, “That damned bird!”  It is a mid-sized bird, perhaps a foot long including tail, loud, strong, clever, and imperious.  Like all jays it is in the Crow family (Corvidae), one of, if not the, smartest of bird types.  Corvids are renowned for their problem solving abilities and feats of memorization.  Scrub jays are no exception.

When the acorns are ripe jays congregate on the trees, grab as many acorns as they can, and fly off to stash them for future use.

Scrub Jay carrying acorns to hide for lean times

Each bird seems able to carry 3 or 4 acorns at a time, in the picture above there are two in the jay’s beak and at least one more in its crop.

Jays will carry acorns up to a mile and a half, hiding them in widely distributed caches of 1-3 acorns per cache.  The bird memorizes the locations of each cache, that of any other caches it sees other birds store, and will move its own caches if it knows it has been observed making its own cache.  Some of these caches will be forgotten and in some of those the seeds will sprout.

One bird doesn’t seem like it would make much of an impact, but one must recognize both the diligence of each bird and the number of birds engaged in this activity.

Scrub Jays harvesting acorns (@ 40 photographs taken over @ 10 minutes)

The photo above is a compilation of about 40 photographs taken over roughly 10 minutes.  This level of activity has been constant on this tree throughout the day over the past 2 or 3 weeks.  The scale of the endeavor starts to become apparent.  Beneath the tree ground squirrels and gray squirrels gather seeds from the ground to add to their own larders as well.

The oak tree has effectively expanded its dispersal distance from a few feet to over a mile.  Not only that, the oak tree has found a way to have its seeds hidden in safe locations and planted in the ground.  Only a small proportion of the acorns will survive to make new trees, but over the 350 year expected life-span of this particular tree it is not unreasonable that several hundred acorns will survive to produce trees that will live long enough to produce seeds of their own.

Scrub Jay enjoying the sun

+++ Cathy commented that any discussion of oak trees in California is incomplete if Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) are not included.  They don’t live where I am at the moment, but last week I was up in my old stomping grounds and visited one of my favorite grainery trees.  Grainery trees are where these communal woodpeckers store and dry their collected acorns.  This particular tree is an ancient, wind-blasted Douglas Fir atop Mt Tamalpais, has a nearly 4 foot diameter, has been lightening struck numerous times, and sits amidst a copse of large moss enshrouded oak trees.

Old grainery trees will be used by many generations of these little woodpeckers and the trees look like an art project .

In any event, here is a photo of part of a grainery.+++

Acorn Woodpeckers (Melanerpes formicivorus) use all surfaces of a tree to make their larders. They will use fence-posts and the sides of barns as well.

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As a final note, in many areas, but in California in particular, oaks of all species are severely imperiled.  Oak woodlands are often considered to be the most important ecosystem in the region, but they have been subject to a number of stresses.  Oaks have been extensively cleared for orchards, vineyards, farmland, and urban use.  Saplings are eaten by cattle in range-lands, non-native feral pigs sniff out and eat all the acorns they can find, sometimes damaging tree roots in the process, and an ill-considered introduction of turkeys to the state by Fish & Wildlife to raise hunting revenue has led to even more acorns consumed by these overly prolific birds.

On top of all this, Phytophthora ramorum, a pathogen in the fungus-like family of water-molds, was accidentally introduced to the state via exotic ornamental plants and is causing wide-spread devastation.  This is commonly called Sudden Oak Death Syndrome and foresters strongly recommend not transporting oak firewood and washing cutting tools and boots when moving between oak growing regions.