Exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian

 

A few weeks ago I had the great honor of having a 30-image photo exhibit on display at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. The exhibit was titled “From the Andes to the Amazon: Conservation, Culture and Diversity” and was produced in partnership with the Amazon Conservation Association and the Peruvian Embassy. The prints were up for 8-days in the entrance hall to the museum and an estimated 36,000 people visited the museum during that time. It was an incredible opportunity to share the story of local conservation efforts in the Andes to Amazon region of Southeastern Peru. As a complement to the exhibit, I gave a 45-minute lecture at the museum on my photographic work in Peru, highlighting a few of my favorite conservation projects, from Brazil nut harvesting to Peruvian-run ecotourism efforts.

Here are a few images of the exhibit for my friends across the world:

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Monkeys and Monkey Cups

Sunset at Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

Sunset at Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

Bako National Park, the most popular park in the State of Sarawak, is one of the easiest places to see mammals in Borneo. Home to endangered proboscis monkeys, flying lemurs, and bearded pigs, it is a great place to see a lot of animals in a short time. Since our mammal sightings in Borneo have been rare – gibbons in the tree tops, the backside of porcupines, and the eye shine of civets – we decided to spend five nights at the park. This turned out to be a great decision and our enthusiasm for the park was only slightly dampened by the 95 degree weather and the 100% humidity.

To get to Bako, we took a quick taxi ride and then a 30-minute boat ride out to the park headquarters. Built on a beach, the park has a number of hostels and lodges and is surrounded by a great system of hiking trails. We stayed in a nice private room for around $25.00 per night and ate in the canteen provided by the park.

Although the trails are extensive, we did not have to go far to see wildlife. In fact, we had most of our best sightings immediately around the park headquarters. Each evening between 3pm and 6pm, a group of proboscis monkeys would sit in the trees near the canteen, munching on leaves and taking naps. After they had their fill, they would leap over our heads, swinging off to other trees for the night. The beautiful silvered langurs also stayed near park headquarters, their sleek silvery fur offset by the red fur of their young. On our first night, while distractedly making a cell phone call, I was even interrupted by a giant bearded pig. He was ambling up behind me when Rick pointed at him, looking both amused and alarmed.

 

Proboscis monkey, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Proboscis monkey, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Bako is also home to at least six species of pitcher plants (Nepenthes), which were often found in the most open and muggy areas. The main loop hike took us up a steep hill, which was covered in stunted trees, shrubs and bare rock. It was there that I found wild orchids in bloom and four varieties of wild pitchers. One afternoon, I hiked up alone and spent an hour photographing Nepenthes rafflesiana – my favourite species. I watched closely as large drummer ants balanced precariously on the lip and lid of the pitcher, foraging for nectar. When disturbed, they would drum their abdomens against the plant. Despite their wild movements, they managed to eat without falling into the watery and toxic mix of juices below. Interestingly, a common name for these plants is “monkey cups” since they were once believed to be the goblets of thirsty monkeys. Although there were lots of monkeys and lots of pitchers, we never saw the two interact.

Nepenthes rafflesiana, Bako National park, Sarawak, Borneo

Nepenthes rafflesiana, Bako National park, Sarawak, Borneo

Drummer ant in Nepenthes rafflesiana, Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

Drummer ant in Nepenthes rafflesiana, Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

At Bako, we also spent hours looking for vipers (to no avail) and went birdwatching on the trails. One night we chased the sound of a hooting bird up and down the beach until we caught a brief glimpse of the buffy fish owl. Another day I observed the display of an eager male olive-backed sunbird as he courted an uninterested female. Puffing up his little chest, he hopped back and forth, chittering in an agitated manner and flashing her with the iridescent blue on his throat. One of my favourite sightings of the trip was a pink bridal veil fungus (Phallus multicolor) that we found in a very fresh state. These mushrooms grow and deteriorate in less than a day. While taking photos, a butterfly just happened to land on the top, coming back and forth to feed on the slime-coated cap.

 

Butterfly on top of bridal veil fungus (Phallus multicolor)

Butterfly on top of bridal veil fungus (Phallus multicolor)

For me, the only bad part of Bako was the bands of long-tailed macaques. Unlike the amusing proboscis monkeys or the shy langurs, the macaques are both aggressive and cunning. One day I walked down toward the canteen with a bag of almonds tucked into the side of my backpack. A corner of the package was poking out and this was enough to provoke three macaques to pursue me. I was actually jumped by monkeys. With one barking at me from the front and two actually hanging on to my backpack, I was soon relieved of my almonds and, unfortunately, my audio recorder. After they figured out that the audio recorder was not edible, it was dropped, unharmed, on the ground. The almonds however were quickly consumed and created some tension among the pack (quite understandably – they were honey roasted).

I would recommend Bako as a destination to anyone interested in wildlife or in botany. We only explored a small part of the park and we still saw an impressive number of creatures. Borneo continues to amaze me – the landscapes are so varied that I would need a lifetime to truly explore this place.

Flying lemurs, Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

Flying lemurs, Bako National Park, Sarawak, Borneo

 

Lantern bug (fulgoridae) with wings outstretched in a threat display, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Lantern bug (fulgoridae) with wings outstretched in a threat display, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Rick Stanley under a giant pandanus, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Rick Stanley under a giant pandanus, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Nepenthes albomarginata, Bako National Park, Sarawak

Nepenthes albomarginata, Bako National Park, Sarawak

In Praise of Pitchers (and Other Plants)

Of all the fabulous places we have explored over the last five months, Kinabalu National Park is one of my favourites. Having found inexpensive lodging here, we have stayed for nearly two weeks in the park, first near park headquarters at 1500 meters in elevation and now at the Mesilau Nature Resort at 2000 meters. As the tallest mountain in Southeast Asia, Kinabalu is home to many endemic species of plants and animals, from giant pitcher plants to elusive forest birds like the Whitehead’s Trogon.

This morning, we paid 10RM each for entry into the naturally growing Nepenthes Garden near Mesilau Nature Resort. Nepenthes is the Genus name for the pitcher plants in this region, which are unrelated to our pitcher plants in the United States (a fascinating case of convergent evolution). We arrived at the nature center early in the morning to sign up for a walk and had a great interaction with the visitor’s center staff: Upon arrival, we were informed that the garden was closed temporarily. When we asked why, we were told that the bridge leading to the gardens was dangerous (no details were provided on what that meant). After a few moments of staring, the woman relented and told us that we could go if we paid the fee and signed an indemnity form. Basically, the garden was only closed to those not willing to relinquish all claims on the Sabah Park Systems if they fell to their death on an unsafe bridge.

Since we came all the way up here just to see the endemic Nepenthes, we decided to risk it. We made it safely across the bridge (which was hardly more dangerous than the moss-covered stairway to our cabin) and met up with a Sabah Parks Guide along the way. He agreed to lead us around for the morning, looking for pitcher plants and other species. Walking along, he would pause in mid-step to point out wild begonias, wild ginger, and the delicate blooms of tiny orchids. At one point, he even spied a single slipper orchid hidden amidst thick grasses.

Our goal on the hike was to find Nepenthes rajah – the king of the pitcher plants. Endemic to this area, rajah holds the record for the largest pitcher in the world, holding up to two litres of water. An expert on pitcher plants, our guide recently located a fresh pitcher and offered to take us directly to it. After trudging up a hill and delicately skirting a landslide, we found ourselves in the presence of one of the most impressive plants in existence.

Rick walks on the trail near Nepenthes rajah

Rick walks on the trail near Nepenthes rajah

If you think the pitcher plants look like toilets (I sure do!), you will be interested to learn that tree shrews actually do use them as waste receptacles. There is some evidence that Nepenthes rajah is used as a toilet, but it is definitely confirmed in Nepenthes lowii (which we have not observed in the wild). In fact, N. lowii is thought to get most of its nutrients from this unique mutualism (the tree shrews get nectar from the lid – effectively having dinner while using the toilet).

Close-up of the pitcher of N. Rajah.

Close-up of the pitcher of N. Rajah.

After photographing N. rajah, we went on to see four other species of pitcher plants along the trail. For me, the delicate N. tentaculata, a smallish species with both ground-dwelling and hanging pitchers, was particularly delightful. We also found a handful of orchids in bloom, some growing out of fallen logs and others dangling from branches.

Nepenthes tentaculata growing along the Summit Trail, Mt. Kinabalu National Park

Nepenthes tentaculata growing along the Summit Trail, Mt. Kinabalu National Park

I do not always pay attention to plants – the movement of birds in the forest canopy distracts me or the sound of a frog draws my attention. Plants are all around us and yet they blend into the background, their individuality obscured by the uniformity of their greenness. It is often only when bright blooms scream out for attention that we turn our heads. Some scientists have even coined the term “plant blindness” to describe our inability to recognize the importance of plants and to discern individual species.

For me, Kinabalu has been the perfect place to fight back against this blindness – to delight in botanizing. As we hiked back down the trail today, I paused to observe things I had missed on the way in – oddly shaped leaves and the massive tree ferns growing in the canopy. I had, in small way, started to see.

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Rafflesia keithii near Kinabalu National Park

Rafflesia keithii near Kinabalu National Park

Understory vegetation near Poring Hot Springs, Kota Kinabalu

Understory vegetation near Poring Hot Springs, Kota Kinabalu

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Begonia berylleae, endemic to Kinabalu National Park

Begonias, endemic to Kinabalu National Park