Borneo Herp Trip 2019

The rainforests of Borneo, considered by many to be the crown jewel of biodiversity in Sundaland. We start our story in Kuching, the capital city of Sarawak, Malaysia. As the wheels of the plane touched the ground, I felt a surge of excitement swell within me. I was finally in Borneo once again! After not having visited for more than a year, Shiva, Sankar, Wei Yang, Wen Xuan and I finally found the time to put together a short trip! Unbeknownst to us, this would turn out to be one of the best trips ever.

It was a 45-minute car ride from Kuching International Airport to our destination, Kubah National Park. Kubah is known in Southeast Asia for its incredible diversity of frogs and palms. This national park is also home to the legendary Frog pond. This natural pond is one of the best places in the state to see frogs.

Image by Law Ing Sind

We arrived late in the afternoon and checked into our accommodations in the national park itself. We took a short walk up the main trail before heading out for dinner.

After returning from dinner, we headed up again in earnest. Waiting for us at the foot of the hill was a Spiny Hill Terrapin (Heosemys spinosa). It was surprisingly quick and shot off into the undergrowth before we could take more photos.

Spiny Hill Terrapin (Heosemys spinosa)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

Our first destination was the Frog Pond. This was a 45-minute uphill walk from the accommodations. Stepping onto the boardwalk that surrounded the pond, we were greeted by the calls and eye shines of hundreds of frogs! The species that was by far the most numerous was the Harlequin Flying Frog (Rhacophorus pardalis). There were tens of them scattered around the pond calling to their hearts’ content. As their name would suggest, the extensive webbing on their feet allows these frogs to glide from the treetops in a controlled aerial descent!

Harlequin Flying Frog (Rhacophorus pardalis)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

While photographing the frogs, I noticed eye-shine coming from the canopy. Tt was coming from a Small Toothed Palm Civet (Arctogalidia trivirgata) which was probably wondering what we were doing in its home. It stayed around watching us for quite a while and eventually scurried further into the canopy.

Small Toothed Palm Civet (Arctogalidia trivirgata)
Image by Law Ingg Thong

As we exited the frog pond, I noticed a patch of Narrow-lidded Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes ampullaria) growing on the other side of the trail.

Narrow-lidded Pitcher Plants (Nepenthes ampullaria)
Image by Law Ing Sind

Upon investigation, we found tadpoles of the Bornean Chorus Frog (Microhyla borneensis) in some of the pitchers! These frogs are one of the few species whose tadpoles develop in pitcher plants!

Bornean Chorus Frog (Microhyla borneensis) tadpole
Image by Law Ingg Thong

We decided to call it a night and head back to the accommodations. While walking down the hill, Sankar called out in excitement. He had found a rare Fox-faced Gecko (Aeluroscalabotes felinus)! It was a significant find for the trip as none of us had seen that species before. We ended up finding two more individuals in the following nights. We were careful not to disturb them too much as they are known to eject their tails when stressed.

Fox-faced Gecko (Aeluroscalabotes felinus)
Image by Toh Wei Yang

The next morning, Sankar and Shiva woke up early to take a short walk. They found a squirrel, which was creating alarm calls. They realised that the squirrel was alarmed at the presence of a Red-tailed Racer (Gonyosoma oxycephalum) resting in a branch nearby. By the time I had woken up, it had moved off into the forest.

Red-tailed Racer (Gonyosoma oxycephalum)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

For some reason from that night onward we were plagued by an almost constant barrage of Night Wasps (Provespa sp.). These large wasps are attracted to bright lights! One even managed to get into our accommodations on the last night, resulting in plenty of shouting, panic and a flurry of curses.

Despite that, we decided to visit the frog pond again for a while. This time, we found a beautiful juvenile Black-headed Cat Snake (Boiga nigriceps) sleeping on a sapling.

Juvenile Black-Headed Cat Snake (Boiga nigriceps)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

Seeing as it was still early, we decided to continue past the frog pond and visit the waterfall. On the way, Wei Yang found an Ampat Lawang Dwarf Reed Snake (Calamaria cf. leucogaster) crossing the road. We spent some time admiring its beautifully iridescent scales.

Ampat Lawang Dwarf Reed Snake (Calamaria cf. leucogaster)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

The walk yielded quite a few frogs. The most notable of them was a large Malayan Horned Frog (Megophrys nasuta) that I almost stepped on (it was sitting right in the middle of the trail). The trail, whilst great for wildlife and plants, was a tough one for me and we turned back after some time.

Malayan Horned Frog (Megophrys nasuta)
Image by Toh Wei Yang

As we trudged back, I saw some movement of what I thought looked like a large rat scurrying away from us. It turned out to be a Long-tailed Porcupine (Trichys fasciculata)! It swiftly climbed up a rock face and disappeared to the other side. This was quite a fascinating sighting as most encounters with this animal are on camera traps. Sadly, we only managed to get 2 sub-par photos of it. We slowly made our way back whilst swatting and dodging night wasps every step of the way.

Long-tailed Porcupine (Trichys fasciculata)
Image by Law Ingg Thong

Just as we were about to head out for lunch the next day, Wei Yang told us that he had found a Cohn’s Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis striatus). It was a beautiful adult individual and a lifer for us all. We ignored our rumbling stomachs and admired this spectacular individual.

Cohn’s Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis striatus)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

That day, we decided to try something different and headed for the summit of Mount Serapi. The journey up was rather uneventful, but when we reached the top, a heavy fog fell upon us. The visibility at the peak was bad to say the least. So, we decided to listen for frogs instead of looking for herps. We managed to find a bright orange Variable Sticky Frog (Kalophrynus heterochirus) calling from the leaf litter!

Variable Sticky Frog (Kalophrynus heterochirus)
Image by Law Ingg Thong

As we headed down the mountain, we stumbled across a juvenile female Sumatran Pit Viper (Trimeresurus sumatranus). We were very cautious when photographing this species as they have potent venom. This particular individual was quite defensive and started striking even as we maintained a safe distance. Due to this, we decided not to photograph it for long and left it alone after a short while.

Sumatran Pit Viper (Trimeresurus sumatranus)
Image by Toh Wei Yang

The next day, we headed up to the summit once more to try and catch the total solar eclipse that was scheduled to occur that afternoon.

Shiva testing a pair of UV glasses
Image by Sankar Ananthanarayanan

Sankar was interested to see how the frogs would react to the sudden darkness and if they would start calling. To our dismay, when we reached the summit, the sky was completely overcast and the sun was nowhere to be seen. We had hoped that the sky would be clear enough for the eclipse to be visible. It did eventually clear and the ending eclipse was visible to us for about 2 seconds. But most of us were distracted and didn’t see anything. The frogs were thoroughly unperturbed by this whole affair.

The view from Gunung Serapi
Image by Shivaram Rasu

So far, it had been a fruitful trip, but things were going to be taken to another level. Considering that it was the last day, we decided to herp as much as we could. It was off to a rough start and we didn’t find much. The most interesting find up till that point was a Kuhl’s Gliding Gecko (Geckko kuhli). This was a pretty cool sight in and of itself.

Kuhl’s Gliding Gecko (Gekko kuhli)
Image by Toh Wei Yang
Kuhl’s Gliding Gecko (Gekko kuhli)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

Things took a turn for the worst when we heard thunder and the sky threatened a downpour. We quickly headed to a hut to find shelter. On the way to a hut, Sankar and I simultaneously noticed a slender lizard perched on a branch. We were initially confused, as it did not look like anything we had seen in the guidebook. Closer inspection revealed that it was a female Bornean Horned Lizard (Harpesaurus borneensis)! This is one of the rarest lizards on the island of Borneo!

Bornean Horned Lizard (Harpesaurus borneensis)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

To make things even more interesting, while we were photographing it, it gave birth to two babies! This species is unique among agamids in that it gives birth to live young. We were ecstatic to not only find such a rare species but to observe such unusual behaviour as well!

Juvenile Bornean Horned Lizard (Harpesaurus borneensis)
Image by Shivaram Rasu

As we walked back, excited and giddy from the encounter, it actually began to rain. Luckily, it was not as heavy as we thought it would be. We still picked up our pace to a brisk walk, so as to keep our camera gear dry. Wen Xuan stopped me suddenly and told me to be careful of the frog hopping across the trail. I initially wanted to keep going ignore what looked like a common frog. But there was a lull in the rain. So I looked closer. That was perhaps the best decision I made during the trip. It turned out to be a male Smooth Guardian Frog (Limnonectes palavanensis) carrying its tadpoles on its back!

Smooth Guardian Frog (Limnonectes palavanensis)
Image by Law Ingg Thong

The frog itself is quite a common species. However, this behaviour is rarely seen! It had a glob of tadpoles on its back!

Smooth Guardian Frog (Limnonectes palavanensis)
Image by Law Ingg Thong

Seeing this spectacular behaviour was actually one of our targets for the trip! Males of this species are known to care for the eggs and wait for them to hatch. When the tadpoles hatch, they climb onto the male’s back. The male then ferries his children to a suitable catchment of water to deposit them.

We headed back, completely thrilled by our finds. The next day, we packed up and left Kubah National park and headed to the airport. That concluded one of the best herp trips we’ve ever had!  

Group Photo at the summit of Gunung Serapi
Image by Sankar Ananthanarayanan

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