Special night drives in Tabin Borneo – clouded leopard quest

I see that this April A well-known UK tour company is offering two tours to Borneo specifically looking for Clouded Leopard. The tour includes six nights at Tabin, the key difference from a regular Tabin Package being that they have secured long night time / pre dawn drives to look for cats. I wonder if they will get lucky? I wonder too if we had enough interest if we could organise a similar mammal watching tour? 🙂


  • tomeslice

    I was waiting for something like this to pop up 😉

    I wonder why they chose Tabin as opposed to Danum Valley to look for the leopards, but I guess whoever put this together has enough experience and info to have made that call.

    Either way, I’m going to Sumatra with a quick hop to Borneo in a couple of months (super excited, obviously), but without too much explanation I will just mention that I will not be visiting any of the famous reserves on Borneo that you read about on mammal watching trip reports. So I still have to plan a whole trip dedicated to just Sabah, as I already planned to do sometime in the next few years. And when I do… sign me up for this 🙂

  • kittykat23uk

    Yeah I would have thought Danum would be the best bet too, but then the tour companies tend to use BRL which is very expensive. We stayed there and at DVFC and at Tabin. Not sure how open DVFC would be to long night drives, I did some drives there but I had to book them on the day and if they were either full or not enough people going I was out of luck. Not sure what the rules are at DVFC if you take your own vehicle in. anyone know?

  • brugiere dominique

    I think it is possible at Tabin. But I dont think it is possible at BRL (a place I didn’t like). I wanted to book this tour but was unfortunately informed it was full. It may be good to check if if is possible at the Danum Field Center (far cheaper than the lodge). Last time I was in Malaysia I met a dutch who saw a Leopard laying on the road in full day light at this last place.If they are people interested to do this tour I would be very interested to join them.

  • SLahaye

    I think it must be possible to organize this at DVFC. While we were there in May 2013, the staff proved to be rather flexible – at least once we managed to get into the center. At the HQ in Lahad Datu the flexibility was nihil, but at the center itself we arrange night and dusk drives with the ranger without any problem. During our stay, we also saw another couple that drove in with their own rental car. Hence, it must be possible to get a permit to drive to the DVFC with your own car. Probably this must be arranged at the HQ at Lahad Datu. Unfortunately, I didn’t ask them. I think it would be best to arrange any permits by phone, because the staff doesn’t answer very well to emails. The road to the DVFC was very much ok, but I guess that after heavy rain of after logging activity it may be a mess. There is a checkpoint a few km into the main road towards DVFC and BRFL, where you’d probably have to show a permit for a rental car. I don’t remember the distance from the checkpoint to the cross roads towards DVFC, but it was probably around 20km or so. From the main road, it’s about 7-10km along a smaller road until you reach DVFC. There is a gate at the cross roads. I think they close this gate somewhere in the evening. The closing of the gate may be an issue for a self-drive night spotting tour. However, especially in the low season when there are almost no tourists, I think it must be possible to arrange something at the DVFC itself. The short road towards the DVFC may be interesting as well. We saw some civets, mouse deer, Argus pheasant and lots of elephant droppings, but others have seen cats here.
    If I can get vacation off from work, I’d certainly be interested in a mammal watching trip to DVFC!


  • Jon Hall

    I was going to say the same as Stefanie. So long as you can get a permit to get your rental car into the the DVFC (through the gate) then its fine. I did a night drive there with a British researcher and we saw a bunch of stuff though nothing all that exciting. But with a few more days there is a lot of possibility. Tabin was a very annoying place to stay (because of the poorly run lodge and useless guides) but with freedom to get away from the lodge guides and your own vehicle it would be a lot better. A mate of mine saw a Clouded Leopard there in the middle of the morning … and Marbled Cats are meant to be relatively common. So my hunch is it might be better for Clouded Leopards than even the Danum.


  • tomeslice

    The bottom line is, it’s good to see this type of quest coming through. Similar to how finding a snow leopard was (nearly) impossible until the quests to find it came about, this seems like a positive step in terms of wildlife trips in Borneo.

    Any trip with extended night and pre-dawn drives in Borneo will attract mammal watchers and wildlife watchers across the globe. Hopefully it doesn’t become the Giant Panda circus which eventually led to the shutting down of the reserve.

    I saw a video from like 2009 of a group of retirees with pocket cameras and Hawaiian outfits trekking for the Giant Pandas in Foping, which kind of made me a little happy that it is no longer an option. Not that I have anything against retirees or hawaiian clothing, but this group had no business trekking for giant pandas, and should have stayed at the mega pool in their resort.

    With “difficult” hours, I hope these trips don’t start attracting the wrong crowds. Just to be safe, I will have to do a month in Borneo in the next couple of years… before they start regulating.

    • tomeslice

      **I don’t mean to sound like a snob… all I’m saying is that hopefully only people who are genuinely interested in wildlife and have respect for nature, and are able to remain quiet and leave minimum impact on the rain forest should go on this and future trips 🙂

  • Richard Webb

    The reason that the tour is at Tabin is that they have access to the core area where rhino researchers say that Clouded Leopard is not uncommon. In addition a lot of research has been conducted in Tabin. They are prepared to run private tours, friends were planning to go in late May but cried off as the price kept going up.

    Having said that leopards are just as common in Danum and I know several people who have seen them during the day there. On both my visits to BRL we did long 4-hour plus night drives on several nights seeing some good stuff including Otter Civet, Binturoung, lots of Leopard Cats, civets, flying squirrels etc. The first time it was reasonably priced, the second time a total rip-off. To put things in context we were charged USD100 for a 3 hour drive on one night at BRL yet the guide only got paid USD5! It says it all. Cheaper drives were available at DVFC but only shorter ones. Using your own vehicle is permissible with the necessary permits as others have said but the lodges hate it as it costs them revenue.

    The lodges are all geared up for people wanting a – night jungle experience and prepared to pay for it, not for hardcore mammal watchers wanting to stay for a long time. In fact when I tried to book 5 nights at Tabin I was told you only need 2 or 3 nights, you’ll be bored if you stay longer.

    I think it’s worth considering other sites as well such as Deramakot and Imbak Canyon, accommodation and fees are much cheaper and IC has the highest density of leopards in Sabah. Taking your own vehicle is even encouraged. I will certainly be including it in my 7th attempt for the leopards.

    One final comment. The suggestion that only hardcore mammal watchers should have a right to see top quality mammals, tongue in cheek or not, is ridiculous. I know of lots of people with a passing interest in wildlife whose enthusiasm for wildlife was fired by such encounters and who become hardcore mammal watchers contributing a lot to conservation funds along the way. Although I agree it’s frustrating if you are stuck in a group with people who don’t know how to behave around wildlife I know plenty of hardcore mammal watchers and birders who are far worse getting way too close to things to get a photo. Everyone has to start somewhere and we should be encouraging people to become interested.


  • kittykat23uk

    Hmm, sounds interesting Richard, do let me know if you’d like some company at some point! I guess the other issue with own vehicle is the practicality of it, you really need one person to drive and one to spotlight, but then if you want to have a chance of photographing the animals you see it’s not going to be easy to juggle either, speaking from our experience in China, this was certainly the case and was where an open vehicle with dedicated driver would have been beneficial..

  • tomeslice

    Haha! I knew my comment was going to spark some controversy (which is why I added the second comment).

    Note I didn’t say “hardcore mammal watchers” (who am I to judge who is “hard core” and who is not?)

    Let’s put it this way:
    –On one end of the scale, I wouldn’t want people who’s intention is to hunt/poach the animals to go on such an excursion. This is obviously extreme and wouldn’t happen.
    –Not as extreme on the scale – I personally wouldn’t want to go with people who sing loudly the entire ride/spotlighting session, who could care less what “cat breeds” we run into, because this disturbs the natural balance of the forest and scares away the animals (which is good or bad, depending from which angle you look at it…)
    –On the other end of the scale, I would love for any nature lover who is respectful to nature, and who researches/donates/volunteers/etc. in conservation to go.

    You and I (and everyone else here) are somewhere between these extremes.

    Just to note from the Panda video that the animal, despite being in its own natural habitat, was clearly distressed and unhappy with the vocal photographers that surrounded it. Of course the trip was deemed a “success” and the company made good money from it, and the guests left happy. And while I am dying to see a giant panda, I’m very happy this group can’t come back.

    That was the only thing I was implying by “people who have respect for nature”

    Yellowstone is well-regulated, and despite receiving 100,000s of visitors a year the wildlife is thriving there, as there are 100s of rangers.

    Hemis National Park (almost exactly half the area of yellowstone) has 2 rangers if I remember correctly.

    I don’t know how well regulated Tabin or the Danum Valley are.. but I was just commenting that this is a good step for wildlife watching, as long as it’s not negatively taken advantage of. All I said was “people who are genuinely interested in wildlife” “people who leave minimum impact on the ecosystem” “people who have respect for nature”… those stipulations aren’t too much to ask for, and certainly don’t only include mammal watchers 😉

    Sorry if it came out sounding elitist or snobby.


  • vdinets

    I think the best solution to this problem is niche partitioning. Tours for dedicated mammal-watchers should be run (or self-run) separately from general tourists whenever possible.

  • kittykat23uk

    I can sympathise with both viewpoints we were certainly with a rather rowdy crowd on our (rather pointless) trip to the mud volcano at Tabin. But I agree we need to do our best to encourage people to enjoy wildlife.

  • Jon Hall

    Ah Tomer. I suggest you abandon engineering to start “Tomer Tours”. All participants would need to pass a simple Tomer Test to join. That is, will they sit up in the freezing cold for 4 hours in Ladakh waiting to see a bloody Marten that you could probably glimpse from a balmy hotel balcony back home? That will soon separate the sheep from the goats 🙂

    • tomeslice

      This would be a 3-part test, which would also include drinking a whole glass of BUTTER TEA 🙁
      and taking a shot of unknown-quality Rum (you can bypass taking the shot if you spot a Eurasian Lynx)

      • vdinets

        What’s wrong with butter tea? I liked it so much, I developed an American version that I make myself at roadside gas stations during long drives. Mix 1 part strong coffee, 1 part assorted creamers, and 1 part sugar…

  • tomeslice

    Vladimir, there are emoticons on Facebook that would be highly appropriate as a response to that 😉
    Of course it’s all a matter of taste. You would clearly pass the 1st part of the test 🙂

  • Richard Webb

    Vladimir is spot on about separating groups but the reality is that we do have to cater for both. The days when knowing how to see something was purely down to research and cultivating contacts are long gone. Many things previously difficult to see are now easy but thanks to the internet are available to everyone.

    Tomer, I’d be interested to see the panda video. In my experience Foping was anything but a circus. Unless you got lucky and saw one along the boardwalk in it was a real challenge and some people I know reckon it was tougher than looking for Snow Leopards in Ladakh and they’ve been there in both November and February. My own experience is that pandas are incredibly jumpy and will disappear quickly if disturbed. We were successful in part because it was pouring with rain and the panda didn’t hear us approaching.

  • Jurek


    Back to clouded leopards: in Borneo, DVFC in summer 2014, the road going in and out was good quality and the gate not locked. It would be possible to take the rental car and do own night drives. The main problem might be the petrol – there is no petrol station there.

    In August 2014, there were night drives run for general tourists, which were suboptimal, but still got Otter Civet, and many other good stuff. Also the scientists working there did their own, longer night drives and saw a huge male Clouded Leopard when I was there (I missed it). Arrgh!

    I would be very interested in something else: where in Thailand you can easily do night drives on your own? Kaeng Krachan is problematic due to elephant death, and JKhao Yai they close gates at campsites.

    • Stefanie

      Hello Jurek,

      We were in Thailand in September and it was not easy to find a place to go spotlighting.
      We had a bit of success in Mae Wong. It’s a small park with a 30km road that runs up a mountain. We were told that spotlighting is not allowed, but we were practically the only guests in the park and we had no problems taking our car up and down the mountain. We saw “only” small mammals though (7 porcupines, 3 slow loris, 4 common palm civets and one large Indian civet). We did some discrete spotlighting in Kao Yai (the main road through the park is open until 9 or 10pm) but we saw absolutely NOTHING, not even a mouse. Spotlighing on foot around our cabin did reveal a slow loris, muntjacs and sambar (but the latter two are abundant around the HQ). Thung Salaeng Luang NP may be worth checking out in the dry season. There is a long dirt road between camp sites and I don’t think anyone would notice/care if you drove along it. We also did some night driving on the roads next to Kao Sok NP. We saw a leopard cat, slow loris, large owl and a mangrove snake.
      I hope to finish our trip report somewhere next month.


  • Jurek

    About general tourist – sad fact is, that general, poorly educated tourists outnumber enthusiasts and are the main paying clientele in all reserves.

    Too often I have to travel in a van filled with bored general tourists, or find overpriced lodges caring to that clientele. Or all the good sites and trails are closed, because they are ‘too dangerous’ – but they are completely normal tracks for a fit person, although not for 80 year old obese pensioner or an Asian teenager looking only at her smartphone.

    We should lobby that reserves around the world understand the difference between general and specialized tourists and are prepared to cater for both.

  • phil telfer

    Myself and a friend were planning to do this privately via the uk company running the 2 tours but were quoted about £4,000 for a 10 night try for the leopard. £400 per night for Tabin is way OTT.

    But might review depending how the tours get on.

  • kittykat23uk

    Hello Richard and others, have you any idea roughly when you would be looking yo make this trip next year? I am looking at a Snow leopard trek between 15 Feb and 4 March and before I commit I wanted to ensure it wasn’t going to clash with plans for the Clouded Leopard quest! Thanks


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