Chris Watson


A Visual Celebration of Borneo's Wildlife

Review, Tourism, BirdingChris Watson

by Fanny Lai & Bjorn Olesen

Edited by Yong Ding Li

450 pages, $70 hardback

Published by Bjorn Olesen Wildlife Photography, Singapore


Fanny Lai and Bjorn Olesen started with Borneo the way many people do: the trek up to the summit of Mount Kinabalu. As Bjorn explained to me via email the other week:

After the climb we spent a few days at the Kinabatangan River in Sabah watching the incredible wildlife diversity there.  This was our first encounter with the Bornean Orangutan and the Bornean Pygmy Elephant; thus began our addiction to Borneo.  

That was in 1998 and it was enough to put the hook in them; they’ve been returning regularly ever since. A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is a photographic tribute to this captivating island and its unusual fauna. But it offers much more than a coffee-table experience of flicking through images. The photographs are accompanied by blocks of text providing more than mere captions; more than a visual celebration, there is genuine scholarship here too. There are chapters dedicated to the various habitats found around the island and specific destinations within them. Introductory pages pay tribute to the great naturalists of the region: Alfred Russel Wallace, John Whitehead, and Charles Hose. The depictions don’t focus only on the spectacular and celebrated animals of Borneo, but also direct attention toward the lesser-known. There are chapters covering marine fauna, invertebrates, amphibians, and the botanical wonders of Borneo as well.

Bornean Crested Flameback. Bjorn Olesen. Used with kind permission.

The book has a heavy focus on conservation. Royalties from the sale of the book are being donated to Fauna & Flora International (FFI): an international organisation which has fostered an innovative approach to conservation since the early 1960s. Fanny and Bjorn’s connection with FFI goes back several years:

We have worked with Fauna & Flora International in Southeast Asia on a pro bono basis since 2013, and we are impressed with their conservation work in the field. FFI was founded in 1903 and is the world’s longest established international conservation body, working now in more than 40 countries around the globe, mostly in the developing world.

An important partner to conservation initiatives is ecotourism and it can be argued that the income provided by ecotourism is particularly important in developing nations. This happy marriage of conservation science and ecotourism is something I’ve seen at work in numerous countries and it seems that Borneo is no different. Bjorn goes further, suggesting that conservation in many areas of the island would be lost without it:

For conservation projects in Borneo to be successful, it is now recognised that the involvement and participation of local people and communities is integral. It is imperative to find ways to generate some form of economic benefit from the ecosystem and doing so in a sustainable manner. In other words, conservation needs to be linked to improving the standard of living of the local people, so that they have a personal incentive in sustaining those conservation actions. It is here that ecotourism has an indispensable role to play for the continued existence and well-being of the natural areas and their wildlife in Borneo.

In Sabah, Borneo eco-tourism has been particularly successful and is employing a substantial number of local people and attracting international investments.  However, it is a long battle as for instance the palm-oil companies in Borneo also have a significant influence.

In Borneo, ecotourism has tremendous potential with the natural attractions and rich cultural traditions of the resident communities. Ecotourism can offer alternative ways to generate sustainable employment opportunities and income for the local communities, and provide unique tourism experiences, while creating incentives to protect habitat. While many challenges lie ahead, the experience from other parts of Southeast Asia shows that it may be the best way forward.

True to its conservation focus, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife doesn’t shy from facing the numerous impediments to conservation. One in particular might be difficult for Australian readers to fully grasp. The illegal trade in wildlife is naturally clandestine in nature but it is underestimated here in Australia. In South East Asia it is more blatant and what regulations there are tend to be poorly enforced. The nature of the market increasingly targets animals the rarer they become. It’s a savage feedback loop that currently has numerous species on a trajectory toward extinction. Bjorn elaborates:

In Borneo, trade in animal products and parts have been going on for centuries with China. Highly priced products like horns from the Sumatran Rhino and edible birds’ nests are in exceptionally high demand. Illegal trade in pangolin parts has decimated the population, and the Sunda Pangolin is now classified as Endangered.

The latest example is the ‘ivory’ casque of the Helmeted Hornbill, which is directly carved on or cut into ornaments.  Based on reports of confiscations and Asian trading websites between 2012 and 2013, it has emerged that up to 500 Helmeted Hornbills were killed every month in the province of West Kalimantan, Indonesia alone. The heads of the Helmeted Hornbills were subsequently smuggled out via Sumatra and Java to Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.  For this reason the Helmeted Hornbill was classified as Critically Endangered in 2016.

To make a long story short, illegal trading in wildlife is still a big problem in Borneo and the rest of Asia.

There are some species in the book which will be a genuine treat for birders. The pittas, of course, are true “birders’ birds”; they’re both difficult to see and wonderfully coloured. The grip-off factor is dialled up to eleven here as all Bornean species are depicted and stunningly captured by Olesen. When you appreciate how hard it is merely to glimpse these birds, it is flabbergasting to see them photographed so beautifully. Another stand-out in this regard is the Bornean Ground-cuckoo. This species permitted only the most fleeting of glimpses when I visited the Kinabatangan wetlands in 2015 and I was grateful for that. Again though, Olesen has triumphed with some marvellous shots of the species.

....and it's not all about the birds. Bornean Keeled Pit Viper. Bjorn Olesen. Used with kind permission.

For these birds alone, A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife will be worth the asking price for most birders and there is much more besides to recommend it. Australian birders will find a thoroughly informative text providing an excellent foundation for birding trips in the region as well as information on all the other fauna and flora to be found on the island.

Fanny and Bjorn are already working on their next large-format publishing project which I am told has a working title of Asia’s Wildlife: A Journey to the Forests of Hope. The authors tell me it visits eight different ‘forests of hope’ in eight different Asian nations and is due for publication in mid-2018.

If the quality of A Visual Celebration of Borneo’s Wildlife is anything to go by the new book should be a lavish treatment of an even wider sample of Asia’s wildlife. I’ll be keeping my eyes peeled for it.



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Review: The Complete Guide to Finding the Mammals of Australia by David Andrew

ReviewChris Watson

“Many of Australia’s unique and beautiful mammals are not easy to find in the wild. Most of them are nocturnal and extremely wary of humans.” – Barbara Triggs, in the introduction to her superb Tracks, Scats And Other Traces: A Field Guide to Australian Mammals.


We could add to Barbara Triggs’ introduction, that many of our mammals are also rare and range across massive areas of remote and challenging country. Throw in our disastrous record on mammal extinction and you might be forgiven for not ever starting a mammal list and sticking to watching the birds.

But then again, would anyone really bother looking for Grey Honeyeaters if they weren’t so bloody hard to find? The thrill of the treasure hunt and the pursuit of rarities is a big part of the allure of birding so there’s no reason to think that the difficulty of finding mammals would have any less appeal. Mammal watching has always lagged somewhere behind birding, at least in popularity but certainly not the ardour of its devotees. But lately it seems to have been gaining ground and this book comes along at an interesting time.

Literally just weeks before the release of Finding the Mammals of Australia we saw the creation of the first dedicated Facebook group for serious Australian mammal watchers. This group rapidly grew to over 200 members and we’ve had hints that the first semi-official Australian mammal big year attempts are already underway. Then, following on the heels of Finding the Mammals of Australia, we’ve had news of another forthcoming release from CSIRO publishing, Australian Wildlife After Dark, also with plenty of relevance to mammal watchers, due in April.

Common Ringtail Possum Pseudocheirus peregrinus, often the first tick on many suburbanites' mammal list.

To give you the executive summary: Finding the Mammals of Australia is an astonishing achievement. It’s thoroughly worth owning if you have any interest in our mammal fauna and if you don’t already have it, eventually, you almost certainly should. David Andrew has done a colossal amount of work here and deserves endless kudos for delivering a long-overdue book.

Moreover, it’s astonishing and reassuring that publishers like CSIRO are continuing to support such releases. Hats off all round. The easy assumption to make is that the technologically adept can these days access all the relevant knowledge they need with a visit to one or more online fora and the magical letters R-F-I. Request For Information.

These three dread initials, I was sure, would snuff the interest in, and relevance of, guide books like this in a matter of a few years. They have already ensured that professional wildlife guiding will never be much more than a boutique industry, in this country at least. Go to any birdwatching forum or Facebook group and it’s quickly apparent that a good portion of posts are preceded by the scurrilous three letter initialism. I’m off to FNQ – where to see this mammal or that bird? It’s my first time in Perth – where do all the critters hide out?

Prefix your subject line with RFI and there is no end to the lengths that any number of friendly and generous souls will be prepared to go to, in order to make available the collected knowledge that they have spent years accumulating through long hours scouring the bush (not to mention the literature) and hundreds of thousands of kilometres behind the wheel. If I come across as at all bitter on this matter, it's only because I know precisely how hard many professional guides work for their site knowledge only to have it broadcast on such public channels, or to have their professionalism usurped entirely and rendered cruelly redundant by well-meaning local amateurs or enterprises like Birding Pal.

But I needn’t be so pessimistic. The same generosity of spirit and genuine love for our fauna has ensured that there is an enduring market for books like this and that seems set to remain the case. My revised appraisal of species-seekers in Australia is that despite having access to endless free information online, most still see the value in having an expert like David Andrew assemble the sum of that web-based colloquy, adding a comprehensive survey of the scientific literature, analysing it all through their own research and expertise and binding it all in a single volume. That, in a convenient nutshell I guess, is the appeal of reference books for most of us.

And of course international visitors without time for thorough research, not to mention Australian mammal listers with particularly recalcitrant bogey-beasts, are still just as likely to desire the services of a wildlife professional. So I should dismount my high horse (still a tickable plastic if you know where to look) and return to Andrews’ achievement.

Finding the Mammals of Australia is set out in a very similar format to CSIRO’s 2011 updated edition of Richard and Sarah Thomas’ Finding the Birds of Australia with Alan McBride and David Andrew as co-authors. This book looks pretty similar to that book, is similarly comprehensive in its geographic treatment and at 419 pages is just a few pages smaller than its birdy sister publication. Navigating it will feel familiar to users of Finding the Birds of Australia; after the introductory sections it goes through sites state by state then follows this with a complete annotated list of the mammals, a glossary and an index. The introductory passages deal in some detail with the notorious difficulties of observing mammals in the wild and the differences in observation techniques between bird-watching and mammal-watching.

Fat-tailed Dunnart Sminthopsis crassicaudata - a tiny marsupial carnivore. A lot harder to get to than a back yard ringtail possum but, happily, still pretty common if you look in the right places.

 The coverage of species is complete enough, although it follows the older mammal taxonomy set out by John Woinarski et al in the 2012 Action Plan for Australian Mammals, rather than the more up to date 2015 taxonomy by Jackson and Groves. The latter splits a few more species here and there (the feathertail gliders and greater gliders come to mind) and is being used by most mammal listers, but this won’t be any sort of impediment to accuracy for the most part.

So if it was the advent of good, cheap binoculars and the fledgling conservation movement that finally transformed the old pursuit of bird shooting into the worldwide phenomenon of modern birding, then perhaps digital photography, LED torches and social media may be doing the same for mammal listing.

If that’s the case, a book like this for the Australian mammal fauna might very well herald the opening of the floodgates.