Up close with the Dutchman

By Cheryl Poo

MALAYSIA - Twack! The proboscis monkey jolted violently as a tranquillising dart sank into its flesh.

It was a matter of seconds before it went limp and crashed into an outstretched net below.

The Danau Girang Field Centre research team acted quickly; they only had an hour with the creature before it awakens. They had two tasks: extract bodily samples and tag it with a satellite collar. An intravenous needle was inserted for a blood sample, the creature's hair combed for parasites, a finger stuck into its anus for faecal samples and saliva harvested for bacteria and virus detection.

Minimum sedative is preferable as the operation team has to wait until the darted animal is alert, otherwise a carnivore might kill it in its stupor.

At 24kg and 1.2m, this was the biggest proboscis monkey the team had encountered so far. It is probably head of its clan.

Dr Senthivel Nathan, Sabah Wildlife Department senior wildlife veterinarian, had described the tranquillising operation to me during a recent brief excursion into the Kinabatangan forest reserve in Sabah.

I had left the hustle and bustle of city life for a couple of days to find out more about the endangered species and experience our Bornean forest before it disappears. Earlier, my request to tag along the nocturnal mission was met with a firm no.

"Far too dangerous for you," said Senthivel, shaking his head dismissively. He probably did not want to startle me with the possibility that I could be mauled by a clouded leopard or swallowed whole by a crocodile in the wild.

That was the first proboscis monkey to be tagged with a satellite collar, to enable the research team to monitor the primate's location and environment.

The Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC) is located in a 27,000sqkm parcel of wetlands, known as Lot 6, in the lower reaches of the vast Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in Sabah. To get to the field centre, I had taken a 30-minute boat ride downstream from Batu Putih, a village 90km south of Sandakan.

It is where Senthivel works closely with conservationist and DGFC director Dr Benoit Goossens, who was previously involved in the conservation studies of other endangered wildlife such as the orang utan in Sumatra, black rhinoceros in Zimbabwe as well as red and giant pandas in China.

Bisected by the Kinabatangan river, the wildlife sanctuary comprises 10 fragments of primary to secondary forests, significantly impacted by villages, agriculture and oil palm plantations.

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