Recreating Tiger Tops in the tropics

The beginnings of Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Sabah followed the Chitwan model from Nepal

The canopy walkway at Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley.

I never met any during my time in Sarawak, but the Penan people were one of Asia’s last true nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, championed by anthropological and human rights activists against being settled by modern Malaysia during the early 1990s.

Sheltering from the rainforest downpours and damp under plaited leafs and twig canopies, they were skilled weavers making rattan mats and baskets. Hunting with blowpipes, and eating plants and small animals, the Penans were noted for practicing molong which means never taking more than necessary. They survived in the ever-shrinking patches of rainforest that had evaded the devastating decades of logging that made British Borneo, later Malaysian Borneo, wealthy.

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Ironically it was a Malaysian logger who first invited me to Borneo in 1991. Rudy Tangit Kinajil was one of the ‘big boys’, head of Sabah State forestry and a stalwart of Malaysia’s timber industry but remarkable in that he came from a local tribe, the Kadazan-Dusun, and had risen through the ranks. Rudy wanted help create a natural history lodge, and had decided that it should be modelled on the wildlife conservation concepts pioneered by Tiger Tops Nepal, but adapted to his tropical Borneo environment.

Sunk in the deep leather seats of Rudy’s vast silver BMW, we drove the private gravel logging roads into the back blocks of Sabah through a green tunnel of towering trees as he showed me the realities of his world. Where the trees had been felled, there were great glaring gaps of open light.

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I was horrified by the destruction of biblical proportions, the Armageddon of devastation left by the loggers and their massive machinery. The loamy ruined soil was rutted naked to the sky, erupted roots exposed and discarded branches left to rot on the beleaguered battlefield. Rudy surveyed the wreckage and waste with his rueful smile.

Borneo logging concessions are valuable, government organised and highly controlled by the State but the inevitable result is forest loss, not only for the indigenous people who depended on it, but for the 10,000 species of plants, nearly 300 species of birds, and a medley of animals ranging from the tiny pygmy squirrel, the iconic orangutan and 12 other primates, and herds of elephant. Amongst the unique flora are some 3,000 types of trees, 2,000 orchids, pitcher plants and the foul-smelling Rafflesia, named for Sir Stamford Raffles, the world’s largest flower with a diameter of one metre. The huge trunks of the dipterocarps are reduced to plywood in the sawmills that Rudy showed me by the coast, then loaded directly onto ocean-going cargo ships to feed the world’s  need for building materials.

Rudy was trying to do his best. He hired Clive Marsh as the Sabah Foundation (Yayasan Sabah) eco-warrior and social conscience, a gangly enthusiastic British biologist from Cambridge University. Together they pioneered the early practice of carbon trading, the innovative idea of exchanging environmental impacts across the globe. For the first time improved and less-damaging forestry techniques in Borneo were offset against power company effects in North America.

Under Rudy’s watch, 43,800 hectares had been set aside as the Danum Valley Conservation Area, an island of untouched and unlogged tropical rainforest, protected for its undisturbed biodiversity and complete with a research facility managed by scientists from the UK’s Royal Society.

The Field Centre and its pristine setting was attracting so much attention from curious visitors that Rudy and Clive felt a separate tourist lodge would allow the scientific work to continue in peace. Clive was despatched to Nepal to visit the famous Tiger Tops and seek our assistance in planning the new lodge. A suitable riverside site had been selected nearby, and designs commissioned featuring forest materials, river stones, Dusan-style chalets, and an airy main building with spacious verandas set on columns of belian, Borneo's famous iron wood.

Rudy insisted the buildings be set well back in case of flooding – he never forgot the childhood trauma when his village was washed away in a flash flood. Otherwise, Clive and I were given a free hand with the market positioning, wildlife operations and nature-based activities. Malaysian staff were sent to train in Chitwan, Nepali naturalists visited to run courses and perfect the programs, I prepared a marketing strategy, and Borneo Rainforest Lodge opened in 1994.

For the uninitiated, the matted undergrowth and dense vegetation makes it hard to see much in tropical rainforests except the occasional dung beetle, butterfly flash, strange snail or huge centipede, but sound effects are a cacophony of bird calls and a melodic screech of insects that span every note on the scale. Clive designed thick cotton ‘leech socks’ to protect guests on guided rainforest hikes. From the suspension bridge near Danum Valley Field Centre a flying squirrel glided every evening on his parachute-winged legs, accompanied by a symphony of six o’clock crickets.

Wildlife viewing from the network of nature trails and canopy walkways that Clive built at Borneo Rainforest Lodge was more rewarding, and especially when the jungle became habituated to the increasing flow of visitors. Borneo rarities include the Sumatran rhinoceros and Bulwer's pheasant, and Danum is still one of the best places to spot the highly endangered orangutan, the beguiling ‘person of the forest’, living in the wild.

Lisa Choegyal


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