Friday, June 5, 2015

In the Field in Sabah : Imbak Canyon

Imbak Falls in Sabah -- a dramatic hike from the Tampoi Research Camp

Finally, Sabah! Sabah is on the north-eastern most part of Borneo, famous as the ''Land Below the Wind" (meaning that it is supposedly safe from typhoons). It is lush and green place, laced with hills and mountains and deep valleys. We were especially excited to be going to the Imbak Canyon Conservation Area (ICCA), a protected zone full of primary rainforest and fauna. Our project there was to meet with the resource managers/rangers at the station, show them a few of the basics about collecting plants in the field, and to talk with them about their plans for a future field herbarium. We also relished the chance to hike the rain forest there!

Imbak Canyon and Danum Valley are the two triangles at the north-eastern end of Sabah in Borneo. Imbak is slightly more to the north and west than Danum.
Imbak is an extraordinary example of one of the few primary rainforests remaining in Borneo -- along with a stunning array of plants, it is roamed animals such as gibbons, Bornean pygmy elephants and even the very rare Sumatran Rhinoceros. The surroundings are greener than the Land of Oz and you get the daily and nightly rainforest soundtrack of birdcalls, singing frogs, insects that never tire of their own high chirps and drones, and the reverberating long and short calls of male and female gibbons.

Welcome to Tampoi!
We stayed in the Tampoi Research Station, a rustic no-nonsense working research centre staffed with friendly people and situated in the forest right along the Imbak River. The forest and the camp were sometimes hard to distinguish!  
Research Officer Taufiq Saadudin & Ranger Joori Abiri oriented us to the camp and helped us plan our activities. Imbak is in the process of building a top notch research facility (to open in early 2017) & wants to create an herbarium with documented specimens for visiting researchers as well as teaching specimens for educational purposes.

With Taufiq and Joori (in blue) in the field

It didn't take long to get started collecting the next morning. Collecting in the rain forest is the ultimate challenge for botanist.  You are always looking for fertile plants (i.e. in flower or fruit) -- and you must be able to actually reach these structures! But in the rainforest most flowering occurs HIGH in the canopy -- 50, 60 or 70 meters high! Needless to say, we stuck to understory plants.  

Taufiq & Joori learned to collect and document flowering plants and fertile ferns, as well as make labels and supplement the collection with images. Here's a documented specimen of the well-known Eurycoma longifolia, known  commonly as Tongkat Ali.

This squid-like flower, Strophanthus caudatus,
comes from a woody liana, climbing in the canopy
high above but invisible to us below.

 But a hike in the rain forest can be full of  mysteries. On this occasion the forest floor was scattered with flowers and fruit that fell from high above and you can't tell if they came from a tree or from a liana climbing the tree. It will make even the most accomplished botanist ask the canopy in exasperation, "Which one of you lost this leaf or flower or fruit?''
One of the first things you learn in the rainforest is that it is an ecosystem to be studied on its own terms.
There were other treasures on the forest floor that actually came from there, like this marvellous Maiden Veil (Dictyophora sp.) fungus. It also bears the evocative but slightly less poetic name, "Stinkhorn!"
Look at the beautiful lacy surface of this Maiden Veil fungus!
While we were hiking Joori and Taufiq pointed out a particular Dipterocarp (the tree family that predominates in Borneo) that was oozing a clear resin that they called damar.

When burned, damar produces a fabulous scent, something like frankincense. Some types of damar (but not this one!) are so valuable that they attract damar-poachers from all across Sabah and even Kalimantan to Imbak to take it. Joori is burning some in the video just below.

Joori leads the way over a suspension bridge.
The rest of the trail took us through the untouched primary rainforest and all sorts of terrain, over creeks and along ridges, and over suspension bridges every time we came to the Imbak River.

Imbak and really all of Borneo are fabulous places for bird-watching. We were lucky enough to see a pair of Hornbills while we were there. It also helps when you have guides who can mimic bird calls as well as Joori and Taufiq!

Joori and Taufiq and the Big Belian.
One of the beloved features of Imbak is the "Big Belian,'' (Eusideroxylon zwageri called sometimes ''Ironwood'' or "'Borneo Ironwood") an exceptionally old and very large tree located not too far from Imbak Falls. Belian grows very, very slowly and produces a remarkably durable and heavy wood; as you might expect, it is a highly sought and over-logged tree in Borneo.  
Finally, at the end of the hike we reached the iconic Imbak Falls, one of the main features that attracts visitors to the conservation area. What a beautiful place to enjoy!

It was such a delight to see and hear the falls, and to get a chance to relax a little before it was time to head back to camp. When we finished at Imbak Canyon we headed over to Danum Valley, but that's for another blog! Join us there soon!

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