Sitting in a dug-out motorized boat, being led here and there by the experienced hand of a guide to spot wildlife is an amazing experience but what caught my attention was how the guide could spot these wildlife from a distance, even at night.
My guide Tong-tong is only 19 years old but has a wealth of experience as a wildlife guide. He started working part time for Uncle Tan when he was 14 and turned full time only 2 years ago. Kegayan by race (a Sabah ethnic minority) and Muslim by religion, Tong-tong is a cheerful guy with a very easy-going and relaxed disposition.
Q: How did you start working as a wildlife guide?
TT: My uncle got me a job as a part time kitchen helper at Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventure. After working for a few years, they asked me if I want to be a guide so I agreed. The camp manager himself trained me. And I’ve been a full time guide for 2 years now.
Q: What do you like about your job?
TT: I get to meet friendly and interesting people from around the world. and the tranquility. There’s nothing like it anywhere else; the only sounds are from the crickets, frogs and the playful macaques.
Q: How many people work in this camp? How is life like in the camp?
TT: There are 17 of us plus the camp manager. We get along well and are like a family. We each have our duty but we try to play football every morning. It’s a way for use to relax and forget work for a while.
Q: How often do you get days off? Do you go home?
Every month we get 6 days off. But if it’s a busy period, then we don’t get any. I usually go to my uncle’s house near Sandakan because my parents live very far away. Moreover all my brothers live at my uncle’s too.
Q: What are the most commonly seen animals in these river cruises and jungle treks?
TT: The most common are long-tail macaques, proboscis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys, orangutans, gibbons, hornbills, kingfishers, eagles, flying foxes, monitor lizards, civet cats, owls, night herons,etc. You can encounter long-tail macaques and civet cats at the camp ground itself.
Q: What do people generally want to see?
TT: Different people want to see different animals. But most want to see orangutans, proboscis monkeys, clouded leopards, slow loris, tarsiers, blood python, pygmy elephants, basically all kinds of rare animals.
Q: How do you spot wildlife from a distance and at night? Are they always at the same place?
TT: I look for shape, I’ve been taught and learnt how to see the shapes of different animals and birds. And at night, every animal’s eyes reflect light, so with a sweep of the torchlight, if you can see a reflection then there’s an animal there. For example, crocodiles, owls, etc. However, we find sleeping birds such as kingfishers by going to the same place where they are normally spotted as they don’t usually move.
Q: What’s the biggest threat to the wildlife?
TT: Deforestation. Since logging started, the habitat of the wildlife has been shrinking. Timber companies chop down the jungle for wood then plant oil palms. Almost all of Sabah’s jungles are secondary jungle. The lack of habitat also disturbs the food chain. Increase number of predator and reduction of food source are driving some species to the brink of extinction.
Q: Where are the tourists from? Since the camp is really rustic and basic, do they complain about it?
TT: The majority of them are from Sweden, The Netherlands, Australia, France, Germany, U.S.A, Japan and China. Yes, they mostly complain about the bathroom and the room. As we don’t have running water so they are not used to taking shower with brown colored water from the river. And most feel a bit uneasy when they find out that the huts have no doors, with only mosquito nettings as they only protection.
Q: As a guide, what kind of questions do tourists commonly ask you?
TT: They ask me about the jungle, everything and anything about wildlife, oil palm plantations, tribes living in the area and about the Kinabatangan River.
Q: Are you happy?
TT: Yes. I live in the nature and the work is easy and fulfilling. It’s a very interesting life for me. But in the future I would like to go and study. Hopefully get a degree in Business Management from a university. But for now, I am happy.
If you are considering doing one of the river cruise on the Kinabatangan River. Check out Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventure http://www.uncletan.com/.