Monday, July 27, 2015

What were the legendary man eating snakes of Borneo. BBC Earth.

Jimmy and Juliet: Love Sparks at Piasau Nature Reserve

Back in the ‘60s, Piasau Camp was once a housing estate for expatriate staff and senior Malaysian employees of Sarawak Shell Berhad. Surrounded by casuarinas and other major secondary forest vegetations, Piasau Camp harbours a viable biodiversity of small mammal species, and herpetofauna.
By 2008, a small interest group began to work closely with Sarawak Forestry to monitor a small population of Oriental-pied hornbills. The sightings of the species have since then been vigilantly documented by nature lovers which took a serious turn in 2012. Impactful interest by the public had driven the living estate into Miri city’s very own green lung, Piasau Nature Reserve.
We, the citizens of Miri owe a lot to Jimmy and his family of 19 (and counting) for making Piasau Nature Reserve a reality. Jimmy is a handsome male Oriental-pied hornbill. Currently in his tender age of adulthood, he has been the leader of this community for the past couple of years even before Piasau Nature Reserve’s gazettement in 2013.
Like any hero in big screen movies, Jimmy himself fared well in the looks department with a solid cylinder-shaped casque above its bill, looks worth salivating for if you’re a female hornbill.
At the time, however, Jimmy only had his eyes fixed on long–time partner Faridah. Hornbills are meant to mate for life and they took the oath “till death do us part” earnestly. Together, this dynamic couple produced approximately 56 offspring since 2005 till the day Faridah’s life was brutally taken by a group of delinquents in September 2013.
Jimmy was greatly distressed by Faridah’s passing. With his beloved partner out of sight, he was seen roaming around the reserve calling and yelping helplessly, constantly searching for her. This appearance of ‘mourning’ continued for a couple of months.
Faridah’s death however was not in vain.
In the wake of her death, the camp was finally gazetted as a Nature Reserve on 31st December 2013. Her remains which had been preserved by the Museum Department was returned to Sarawak Forestry and is now kept safely at SFC’s Ranger Post, H58 at the reserve.


With Faridah’s remains on display by the window of H58, Jimmy would actually come by and perch on the window ledge from the outside. Not only did he perch, he also pecked at the window screen perhaps believing that she was still alive and hoping that Faridah could come back to life and fly away with him again.
His act of desperation shows how deep and strong the bond between these lovebirds was, and how it seemed impossible to break.


For those of us at Piasau Nature Reserve, it broke our hearts to see Jimmy in a state of depression ever since Faridah died. Our worries for him, however, were not long as Jimmy seemed took on a new love interest not too long after the gazettement of Piasau Nature Reserve.
We wondered which lovely female had taken Jimmy’s heart. With her mesmerizing brown irises, Juliet, a juvenile Oriental-pied Hornbill is prettier than most females in the neighbourhood. After several attempts of courtship and mating, Juliet finally produced a pair of offspring, Musa and Cecelia. The young offspring fledged their nest in March 2015.
Since then, Jimmy, Juliet, Musa and Cecelia were always seen flying, roosting together in a family of four around the reserve. Where there is Jimmy perching, there will always be Juliet and their young nearby.
Jimmy remains a very protective partner and parent and never leaves his small family out of sight. Whenever he senses potential danger, he makes evasive maneuvers and yelps loudly in defense of his family. Constantly ‘rubbing shoulders’ with the brahminy kite communities in the park, Jimmy can be quite a gangster himself.
Occasionally, this little family can be seen roosting on top of our cars and playing around with pebbles at the compound of H58. On certain days, when the weather is fine, Jimmy and his family would come by H58, perching on the window ledge and take a peek into the office. Not disturbed by our movements within the house, they tend to stay in that spot momentarily before flying off to the dead Acacia tree behind H58.
It is a very amazing sight indeed to be able to watch these birds very closely compared to others who can only admire their beauty in zoos or enclosures.


Feeding on leban, ficus and palm fruits, Musa and Cecelia grew up well and progressively. The young are still under close supervision of both parents and are learning to find their own food. Frequently observed perching on the rooftop of H58, Musa will always peck on the roof probably in search for bugs and insects to eat. Cecilia too was observed to display the same behavior.


We also noticed that Musa’s casque has begun to grow recently. Although not yet prominent, he will soon grow into a healthy male adult. Knowing how territorial Jimmy can get, his time in Piasau Nature Reserve may be numbered.
We know what their activities are in the daytime, however where they are and what they do at night remains a mystery. As of now, we have little information of what happens when night falls. Hopefully, through further surveys, we will be able to find out soon not only what they do and where they are and if possible, what we can do to keep Jimmy and Musa in the same territory in peace, keeping the family as one as it is now.

Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) is hosting the National Hornbill Conference 2015 in preparation for the upcoming International Hornbill Conference 2017. The 3-day conference will be held at Imperial Hotel Miri from on 11th to 13th August 2015.
More information on the conference is available at: and

Quarrying threatens to flatten this wildlife refuge in Kelantan.BY TAN CHENG LI

These tree-clad limestone karsts are the only remaining wild areas in Chiku, Kelantan, but they may soon be quarried for cement production. Photo: Mohd Faizal Shaupi

On maps, it shows up as a tree-covered region. The Relai Forest Reserve, to be exact. But what is seen from the air is an expanse of rubber and oil palm trees, broken up in parts by soaring limestone outcrops.
Through the years, pieces of the reserve in the hinterland of Kelantan, in the area called Chiku, have been given away for agriculture or encroached upon. With the forest landscape already destroyed, the limestone hills are the only wild areas left – the only refuge for whatever flora and fauna that remain. And yet, these too, might soon be gone.
The country’s biggest cement clinker plant is set to come up there, at a site some 30km from Gua Musang. The company, ASN Cement, intends to quarry the limestone karst which locals call Chiku 7, for raw materials to produce cement clinker.
The project appears to be a replacement for a similar one in Merapoh, Pahang, which was abandoned two years ago following public protests and the discovery of extensive cave systems, new species of geckos and rare plants.
The same scenario is unfolding in Chiku now. Caving enthusiasts have found unique cave formations and archaeological remnants, while scientists have found rare and new species, which all make the Chiku karsts worth preserving.
But will these new information be enough to convince the Kelantan Government to pull out from the project to produce 10,000 tonnes of clinker cement a day?
Limestone hills versus cement factory
In mid-February, Mentri Besar Datuk Ahmad Yakob led the ground-breaking ceremony for the cement plant. Nevertheless, the detailed environmental impact assessment on the project has yet to be approved. It is still being vetted by a panel of experts put together by the Department of Environment.
A stream runs through one of the caves in Chiku 7 limestone. - ALI SHAMSUL BAHAR
A stream runs through one of the caves in Chiku 7 limestone. Photo: Ali Shamsul Bahar
Numerous limestone hills are scattered over the Chiku area. Locals have given some of them names such as Chiku 4, Chiku 5 and Chiku 7, but many remained unnamed and none have been thoroughly explored. So when caving enthusiast Laili Basir ventured into the caves of Chiku 7, he was blown away by what he saw – huge chambers with beautiful mineral formations shaped over millions of years.
In one cave, a crystal-clear stream flows through for some 800m, harbouring tiny fish and shrimps. Laili estimates there are between 40 and 50 caves in the area, and feels they should be preserved for tourism and not be destroyed.
“One of the caves is big and accessible. There is no need to crawl to reach it so it is suitable for both young and old. The forest there is gone … the only natural and original area is the limestone hills. Some of them are connected. If you blast one, it will affect the others. So the impact will be worse.”
He also fears that the stream may be diverted from the cave during quarrying. “This will change the circle of life in the cave as the nerve of the cave is the river.” The karsts also provide protection from flooding as they retain water during the monsoon, he adds.
Neolithic artefacts
While mapping the caves, Laili’s team made an important discovery – a Neolithic archaeological site. They found fossils of snails eaten by Stone Age people and pottery shards. From the snail species and pottery patterns, vertebrate palaeontologist Lim Tze Tshen estimates the site to be about 10,000 years old. Fossils of the muntjac and porcupine also littered the floor of another cave. Lim says a 1990 report on the flora and fauna of limestone hills in Kelantan by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) had described the archaeological importance of Chiku as “significant” but there has been no systematic survey since then.
He points out that the detailed environmental impact assessment (DEIA) submitted by ASN Cement did not have any archaeological study. “If we hadn’t gone there and surveyed the cave, all these will be mined for cement and everything will be destroyed. There will be no history recorded for the area.
Now, we can push back the history of the Chiku area back to the Neolithic period. This part of our country’s history is relatively unknown, so with every spot that we find, we fill the gap and get a better understanding of our history,” says Lim, a research associate at the Museum of Zoology in Universiti Malaya. He has informed the Museum Department of the discovery, and hopes proper excavations will be carried out.
Pottery shards reveal the existence of a neolithic settlement in the cave. - LAILI BASIR
Pottery shards reveal the existence of a neolithic settlement in the cave. Photo: Laili Basir
Rare finds
With most of the lowland forest in Chiku gone, wildlife such as elephants, tigers, sun bears and deer are gone, too. What’s left are small animals such as serows, wild boars, mousedeer, black giant squirrels and porcupines. But on the harsh environment of the limestone hills, lizards and snails survive.
Herpetologist Dr Lee Grismer, who has discovered several new species of gecko throughout Peninsular Malaysia, has added another one to the list – a bent-toed gecko which lives in a cave in Chiku 7. He says DNA analyses and anatomical comparisons indicate there is no other species like it in South-East Asia. Grismer, of La Sierra University in California, is currently describing the species.
“Its only suitable habitat is in the cave. It does not primarily inhabit the surrounding vegetation. Its long limbs and toes, flat body and head, make it highly adapted for moving about only on the cave walls of the limestone hill it lives in. If this hill is quarried and this species is found nowhere else which at this point is what we believe, it will go extinct.”
Tiny land snails flourish on karsts because the calcium-rich soil favours their growth and reproduction. Conservation scientist Dr Reuben Clements says limestone hills in Kelantan are likely to harbour undiscovered species of micro-snails as they have never been adequately surveyed. He has found a new species of the tiny mollusc at Chiku 7, yet undescribed.
This bent-toed gecko, seen here cleaning its eye with its tongue, is a new species found in a cave in Chiku 7. - DR LEE GRISMER
This bent-toed gecko, seen here cleaning its eye with its tongue, is a new species found in a cave in Chiku 7. Photo: Dr Lee Grismer
Unique snails 
Three species new to science have also emerged in karsts close to Chiku 7: one Diplommatina species from Chiku 4, another one from Felda Paloh, and a Philalanka species from both hills.
Mohammad Effendi Marzuki, who had collected the snails, are describing them. “Every hill will have one or two different species,” says the plantation management researcher with a keen interest in malacology (the study of molluscs). “Even on hills near each other, I found very different species. Chiku 7 has not been thoroughly studied, so it is likely to have new species as micro-snails are highly specialised. The Diplommatina for example, lives only on limestone walls. If Chiku 7 is destroyed, any information on its diversity of species will be lost.”
Clements has found some 40 species of snails in the Chiku area. Most no bigger than a pinhead, these snails are often ignored but they are ecologically important – they recycle nutrients when they feed on plants, and are themselves food for other animals. “These snails require humid conditions to survive. When you clear the forest for plantations, the environment dries up and the micro-climate of the hill is disrupted, so all these endemic species cannot survive,” he explains.
Karsts generally have high floral richness. In Peninsular Malaysia, some 130 plants grow only on them. Botanists from the Forest Research Institute Malaysia have surveyed Chiku 7 recently but they declined to be interviewed. It is learnt that they have found some rare plants which are representative of the north-eastern region.
In the 1990 report, the authors Dr Geoffrey W.H. Davison and Dr Ruth Kiew wrote that limestone flora often have different morphs. In Chiku, they said the balsam Impatiens opinata has blooms of pale yellow with red spots and white. Elsewhere in Kelantan, the colours range from canary yellow with red spots to peachy orange and claret-red. “These populations represent evolution in action and conservation of the various forms is necessary to conserve their full genetic complement,” they wrote.
Unique cave formations, shaped over millions of years, can be a tourism-draw. - ALI SHAMSUL BAHAR
Unique cave formations, shaped over millions of years, can be a tourism-draw. Photo: Ali Shamsul Bahar
Foul air
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia professor Dr Maketab Mohamed says the main pollution problem from cement plants is dust. He says particularly worrying is minute particles which can be inhaled, which can cause lung diseases in the young, old and sick. Such plants also discharge mercury.
Though the amounts will be low, Maketab points out that the cement plant is located beside Sungai Chiku, a tributary of Sungai Galas which is tapped for public water supply. According to the DEIA, the project sits upstream of several water supply schemes, so discharges will have to meet strict rules.
For the villagers of Felda Chiku 7, it is not just their health that is at risk, but also their livelihoods.
“Dust pollution can reduce the yield of oil palms,” says smallholder Che Asfaizul Che Rahim. “This has happened in the quarrying of Bukit Sagu near Kuantan. It affected the Felda plantations nearby.”
He says over three-quarters of the 1,400 villagers disagree with the project due to concerns over air, noise and water pollution, the anticipated influx of migrant workers and interruptions to the tranquil village environment. “During dialogues with ASN Cement and the local authorities, we have asked for assurance that there will be no pollution, but they cannot give us that guarantee.”
There is another point to consider: carbon dioxide is generated during cement production and this will inflate the country’s carbon footprint. Based on the production of 3,100,000 tonnes of clinker a year, the DEIA states that the plant will emit 1,581,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. So the question arises: should we allow an industry that threatens the climate?
The landscape of Chiku has changed drastically from forests to farms, so much have already been lost. Let’s not allow for more losses.
“There is more reason now to preserve the limestone hills as they are the only natural areas left,” says Laili.

Surprise, surprise, our black leopards have spots after all ;BY TAN CHENG LI

Tigers have stripes, leopards have spots, right? Wrong. Oddly, leopards in Peninsular Malaysia are jet black in colour, leading many to assume that the country does not have leopards, but panthers.
The fact is, there are leopards here; it’s just that their distinctive “leopard print” is harder to see under their black coat. However, under certain lighting conditions, the spots show up.
Black coloration or melanism is found in some mammal species, especially big cats, and is caused by the agouti gene which regulates the distribution of black pigment within the hair shaft.
But scientists have no idea why the condition predominates in Malaysian leopards. Melanistic leopards are found in Java and southern Thailand as well but both places also have the spotted leopards.
In Peninsular Malaysia, the leopard’s all-black colouration prevents researchers from telling individuals apart when photographed by camera traps. This hinders population estimates. But researchers from Rimba, a group of biologists researching on threatened species and ecosystems in Malaysia, have found a way to solve the problem – by manipulating the mechanism of camera traps.
Normal photography shows the melanistic leopard as black, looking much like the black panther. Photo: Rimba
“During the day when no flash is used, the different leopard individuals are indistinguishable,” says Dr Gopalasamy Reuben Clements, associate professor at Universiti Malaysia Terengganu. “However, at night, the characteristic spotted pattern of leopards can be seen on their coat. All we did was place a piece of sticky tack over the light sensor of the camera. This fools the camera into thinking it’s night even during the day, so it always flashes.”
With the infrared flash firing, the seemingly black leopards suddenly showed complex patterns of spotting, enabling the scientists to discern between different animals, and to gauge their numbers.
They used the method in the Kenyir Wildlife Corridor in north-eastern Terengganu, a forest reserve near Kenyir Lake and Taman Negara National Park. From the camera trap images, they concluded that the area has three leopards per 100 sqkm. The findings were recently published in the Journal of Wildlife Management.
“We could accurately identify 94% of the animals, which enabled us to get an estimate of the population size. We can now monitor this population each year to get a sense of whether leopards in the region are increasing in numbers, or whether they are in decline,” says lead author Laurie Hedges of University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.
Infra red photography reveals the secret of the melanistic leopard’s black coat: they’re spotted after all. Photo: Rimba
The researchers want to use their new method to study leopards elsewhere in Peninsular Malaysia for, as with tigers, leopards are being poached. Carcasses of leopards with injuries inflicted by snares have been discovered. Also, leopard skins and body parts are showing up in wildlife trading markets in places such as on the Myanmar-China border. Suitable habitats for the leopards are shrinking as forests are cut down for timber and replaced with plantations.
“Some places where I have camera-trapped relatively abundant levels of prey and forest cover, alarmingly, turned up little or no evidence of leopards,” says Dr Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, an associate professor based at the University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.
The researchers believe their novel technique will also benefit researchers in Thailand and Java, where melanistic leopards can also be found.
Note: A black panther is the melanistic colour variant of any Panthera species. Black panthers in Asia and Africa are leopards (Panthera pardus) and black panthers in the Americas are black jaguars (Panthera onca).