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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Taman Negara – Malaysia’s First Protected Area

Our final stop in Southeast Asia is Taman Negara National Park, the oldest and largest national park in Peninsular Malaysia. Less than four hours from Kuala Lumpur, the park is one of Malaysia’s last strongholds of tigers, leopards, elephants, and tapirs. Despite the potential for dangerous encounters, tourists are free to roam around the park, using the long trails to explore the lowland rainforest. A guide is only required for the park’s far corners and for climbing Gunung Tahan, the highest mountain in the park and in Peninsular Malaysia.

Having done plenty of trekking, climbing, and camping over the past few months, we decided to skip Gunung Tahan and to take it easy around park headquarters. We rented a small chalet in the park and can pop out at a moment’s notice to see birds or other creatures that roam around the forest edge. From our porch, we can see black-and-red broadbills and hear reddish scops owl calling late into the night.

On our first night in the park, we realized that it is unnecessary to go very far to see wildlife. Sitting in the restaurant, we watched as a palm civet stalked around the lawn. Moments later, we realized that a Malaysian tapir was taking a nap in the landscaped flowers nearby. The tapir, rescued as a baby and released in the park, frequents the hotel on a search for food. On two occasions, it has even tried to enter the restaurant.

Malaysian tapir sleeping under an appropriate sign.

Malaysian tapir sleeping under an appropriate sign.

We have been here three days already and have barely made it past the boardwalks, finding so much within minutes of our cabin. Yesterday, we walked down to the swamp loop where Rick immediately spotted a large green snake, coiled beautifully in a bush. A red-tailed green racer, the snake was non-venomous, but large enough to strike if we got too close. For an hour, we photographed it and observed it, amazed by the number of people who passed by without seeming to notice or care.

Red-tailed green racer, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

Red-tailed green racer, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

On another evening, we went for a hike, and only made it 150 feet down the trail before we saw a blue-eyed angle headed lizard on a tree trunk. Although we have seen the species before, we had never seen one so large and with spikes entirely down the length of its back. The sapphire-colored eye stayed on us the entire time, but the lizard barely moved.

Blue-eyed angle head lizard, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

Blue-eyed angle head lizard, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

When you do make it out of the area around park headquarters, you get what I would call “a real jungle experience.” Outside of the deep Amazon and the heart of Borneo, there are few places I have been that feel quite so wild. This morning we took a boat upriver for 40 minutes to explore a different part of the park. The forest there was thick with vines and massive trees towered overhead. Elephant dung littered the trails, comfortingly old enough to have sprouted mushrooms.

We were looking for some of the elusive ground birds that call this park home – the Malaysian Peacock Pheasant and the brilliantly coloured hooded pitta. We did not turn up any of those species, but we did find a large wren babbler, a small marbled bird that stays hidden in the understory. A little ways down the trail, I was startled by the sudden appearance of two men, members of the indigenous Orang Asli tribe that still inhabits the park. Shirtless and rugged, they nodded to us as they passed by, blowpipes resting confidently on their shoulders.

On our walk back to the boat, we even spotted a cat print, probably that of a leopard cat or another small species. We also heard a low bellow and splashing from the river – Rick thinks it may have been a gaur, a wild cow that inhabits the jungles here. We chose not to investigate, thinking it best to give large, unidentified animals their distance. It was a reminder of the potential for other encounters and I shuddered to think about meeting a tiger while on foot.

As in every place we have visited in Southeast Asia, there are very few Americans. We have befriended an older British couple, sharing our sightings each evening at dinner. Our stories are greeted with exclamations of “Jolly good!”, “Splendid!,” and “Capital!” There are also a lot of local visitors, and the staff of the hotel are very helpful. One of the managers also has an interest in birds and he frequently appears out of nowhere, motioning to us to follow him. He has shown us the nest of black-and-yellow broadbill and a fruiting tree filled with colourful pigeons. Yesterday, he showed us a picture of a paradise tree snake, one of the gliding snakes that lives in park. It had glided out of a tree and landed right in front of a French couple. He had been attracted to it by their loud screams. Rick and I were both very sorry to have missed the snake and the commotion.

My plan for this afternoon was to walk the perimeter of park headquarters, looking for lizards and snakes. I had just rolled my socks up over my pant legs – a deterrent to leeches – when a clap of thunder reverberated overhead. The wind began to blow and the rain started to pour down in a heavy sheet within minutes. So, instead of exploring, I am sitting inside, watching the wet jungle from my window. Tomorrow I will resume my search for the denizen of the rainforest, followed, no doubt, by a slightly larger cloud of mosquitoes.

Red-tailed green racer, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

Red-tailed green racer, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

Death's-head hawk moth, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

Death’s-head hawk moth, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia.

Juvenile true bug, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

Juvenile true bug, Taman Negara National Park, Malaysia

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