Notes about mammal watching at Deramakot, Way Kambas and Gunung Leuser: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

I wanted to attach this as a comment on Jon’s trip report but you can’t add attachments in comments so I will just attach it in a different post. Make sure to read Jon’s trip report first, to know what we saw and where. My notes are meant to help future mammal watchers in these places know what to expect, and also get into the detail of the mammal-watching strategy: what worked and what didn’t work. Going to the right places often isn’t enough, the strategies and behaviors in the field may affect the success rate. Enjoy.



  • vdinets

    Sorry, I just have to ask: have you guys considered not using local guides at all? To me it sounds like you’d do better by yourselves. There are a few places on Sumatra where you can walk around without a guide. Or just hire me next time, I’ll certainly find you more stuff 😉

    • Israel

      that’s what I always think when reading these reports! A lot of the parks in Indonesia do require guides which is really frustrating, but you don’t need one at Gunung Leuser or Kerinci-Seblat. Way Kambas is crap for independent wildlife-watching, I don’t know why everyone always raves about it. I stayed inside the park at the HQ, and it was far too expensive (although only a tiny fraction of what Satwa Lodge seems to charge!!), but most aggravating is that they don’t let you go anywhere without a guide – not even just walking the road – and they (at that time) would only do two hours in the morning and two in the evening, and each two hours cost as much as a full day at other parks requiring guides. They caught me one time when I snuck off by myself, and they were not happy about it!! I only took the boat once, to get to the swamp where the white-winged wood ducks hang out, and it was ridiculously expensive (I did see rhino footprints and wallows there, though).

      The really big problem with local guides in Indonesia are some of the things pointed out in the post. They generally don’t know what they are doing, they either walk ahead and scare animals away or trail uselessly behind talking loudly, and if they do see something they either tell you it is something that it clearly is not, or they tell you after it has gone!

      With Borneo I don’t know why anyone would use a guide anyway because it simply isn’t necessary, unless you are going somewhere that requires one for access.

      • vdinets

        As of 2009, you are not allowed to go into GL without a guide. But there are certain options at the periphery.
        Kerinci has not just the summit trail where everybody goes, but also a few lowland sectors with nice roads. I haven’t checked those out, but they should have pretty much everything.

  • Israel

    ah, I was at Gunung Leuser in 2009 and I had no problems wandering around alone.

    • vdinets

      Technically, it was illegal. If you ran into park guides or rangers deep inside the park, you could get in trouble. Of course, you could always say you got lost and didn’t even realize that… what else to expect from a farangi 😉

      You can actually get into Way Kambas the same way. If you are interested, I can send you the details.

      • Israel

        the guards I walked past didn’t seem to mind at all 🙂

        I doubt I’ll be back in Sumatra for a long time though. Too many other places to go!

  • Richard Webb

    Sorry for the length of this response but to address the specific question about Marbled Cats there are a number of important points that come into play here. Firstly successful mammal watching is a combination of a lot of effort and even more good luck. I remember back in 1995 in Cameroon during two consecutive nights’ spotlighting south of Waza in the same weather conditions at exactly the same time of night, on the first night we saw 14 mammals of 8 species including three cats of two species on the second night two individuals of two species. That’s the challenge of mammal watching.

    I’ve spent 17 nights spotlighting in Way Kambas compared to the four spent on this trip, that increases your chances. On the first trip I saw the first Marbled Cat on night 8 although we’d seen a probable the night before. We did tend to alternate driving with walking but found all the Marbled Cats from the moving car. Secondly in Way Kambas using a small spotlight rather than a large one works better because of the thick vegetation, you are looking for eye shine not shapes so a thin focused beam works better. We did have a quieter vehicle as Tomer suggested, the open-back vehicle is a new introduction, the boats were in better shape as well.

    I’m with Vladimir and prefer to go things alone when I can but you are stuck in WK although it is fortunate that Hari is as good as he is. However you need to remember that mammal watchers are rare and the drivers won’t necessarily have been out with mammal watchers before. It’s therefore essential that you really explain what is expected up front and bring them into line if they aren’t able to deliver. I’ve had drivers changed more than once. However on the other side of the coin remember that the drivers are paid a pittance, on my first trip to Danum we were paying 100 dollars for an extended night drive and the driver/guide was being paid 5 dollars. Consequently their motivation is not high particularly on long night drives so if you find a good one tip him well and he’ll want to come out with you and work hard again and again. If a driver knows he will benefit from driving well ….

    Finally one thing that I actually disagree on is the importance of photos. It can be important but more important is knowing what to expect beforehand and what to look for and getting good views of things. I take relatively few photos at night as I haven’t worked out how to hold a spotlight with one hand (I prefer to find things myself), binoculars with another and a camera in my mouth. That doesn’t mean that I or anyone else who does not get a photo of something didn’t see it. I know tour guides who have seen Clouded Leopard in Way Kambas on two occasions, I haven’t seen photos, and I didn’t see them myself but I know they saw them. As it happens I’ve got photos of two of the Marbled Cats, one taken on Hari’s phone but they are not good enough for the report and I don’t just include photos for grip value. However photos can be useful Jon sent me a photo of the possible Flat-headed Cat for comment and it clearly is a Leopard Cat, structurally alone it’s completely wrong for a Flat-head.

    Finally although Way Kambas is hard work don’t be put off. The effort pays dividend in the end.

    • vdinets

      I think it should be possible to rent a car in Jakarta or on Bali, drive it to Sumatra and into WK. I mean, all their “safety concerns” about night walks wouldn’t work for drives, right? And that would solve so many problems at once, including the tendency of Indonesian drivers to use any road trip is an opportunity to do all kinds of family business. Car rentals in Bali are really cheap nowadays, and I’m so fed up with other local transportation options, I don’t even want to think about them. There are car rentals in Kota Kinabalu, too.

  • Richard Webb

    A further comment as I’ve just read through the original note again. Your experience of Hari seems totally at odds with mine and others who have used him since my original trip. I know two groups who travelled with him last year and this and raved about him. The description of someone jumping out of the car, running towards an animal and yelling is not the Hari I know and suggests that something else was wrong on this trip. As with drivers working successfully with a guide is about building rapport and teamwork. The best guides become friends not simply guides.

    As regards the lack of photo opportunities that’s the reality in a lot of forest sites especially on trails or narrow jeep tracks. I’ve got very few photos from forests but plenty from open country sites. I’ve found that since the digital era arrived people who previously stopped to enjoy things through binoculars don’t even bother to look at things nowadays and are totally dissatisfied unless they have a photo of everything that moves. Seeing something well is often far more rewarding than simply starting the motor-drive and only appreciating what you’ve seen when you view the photos later.

    Watching things rather than photographing them gives you more appreciation of what they do and how they behave and makes it easier to realise when you have actually found something different to the norm than just looking at pictures.

    I’ve taken this approach ever since I realised how much time I wasted swapping lenses rather than watching the animal when I saw Snow Leopard in Kazakstan and how I’d hardly looked at a family of Pumas in Chile as I’d spent the whole time trying to photograph them. I’ve got great photos of the Pumas but much better memories from two subsequent encounters with Pumas where I didn’t get the camera out.

  • Jon Hall

    I too wanted to weigh in on this having just read Tomer’s comments about Sumatra. He and I will have to agree to differ on aspects of the trip and his comments are his own (just as my trip report reflects my thoughts). In particular I thought Hari was a great guide and I didn’t feel he frightened anything away … animals get spooked for all sorts of reasons. For instance, I’d have been impressed if the Otter Civet had heard anything above the racket of the outboard. Nor would I say that running towards a tree, which may have housed a Marbled Cat that was already bolting, was the wrong thing to do. Maybe… maybe not. Its very hard to say. I also agree with Richard that Way Kambas, in particular, was not an easy place for photography. Its quite scrubby dense secondary forest and animals were seldom in the open. But I am pretty sure I have never seen as much diversity in 5 days in SE Asia as we saw there.

  • Livetowander

    It’s quite interesting and useful to read the differing accounts of the trip.

  • tomeslice

    I totally agree with you, Richard, that it’s more valuable and enjoyable to see an animal than to take pictures. It’s also very important for me to emphasize that I’m not doubting anyone’s report or specific sightings, I was just kind of expecting to come to Way Kambas and have linsangs, pangolins, rhinos and leopards all throwing themselves at me. Ok, not literally, but I did expect to see more of the rarer megafauna. But with over 60 species, I certainly can’t complain.
    Whenever encountering an animal, we all would first looked through the binoculars before attempting to take pics. None of us makes a living from the pictures we take, and we are indeed just enjoying nature. This is why nobody took any picture of the first, very close, clear-as-day banded civet until it was too late. The second, third and fourth time we saw one we concentrated more on photographing it. But even if you “know what to look for”, your brain sometimes tricks you into thinking you saw something slightly different (and more rare) than what you actually saw – hence the example I gave with the flat-headed cat/leopard cat which you mentioned as well. You should have seen how confident we all were that this was a flat-headed cat, and we had substantially more than just a glimpse of it. But I also see your point about observing the animal and studying its behavior. However, if you see an animal long enough to study its behavior, then maybe you can also snap a picture 😉 But yeah, I have one of those cannon point-and-shoots with a 50X megazoom so I don’t need to change lenses.. My pictures are also consistently not as good as others’ who actually have DSLRs with real telescopic lenses. So in fact my conclusion is that I don’t know which method is better for identification, but I still am leaning towards pictures.

    Israel and Vladimir – I agree that sometimes it’s not necessary to take a local guide, especially if you have time, and especially if you already know a place. But the benefit of having one is that sometimes you have a limited time, and a local guide who knows where certain animals have been seen repeatedly etc. is useful. Also our guides came with drivers, food, and full-board services, which were all conveniently arranged by the companies/lodges we used. Jon, Jean-Michel and I did in fact do a lot of the spotting ourselves and the guide was often just another pair of eyes on the field (which is also good). But at other times, the driver was also someone who knows the local language, and helps with logistics which could have otherwise turned into a headache. Vladimir, you’re more than welcome to join my next trip, be it with whomever, but I can’t afford paying for another person’s flights, accommodation, food etc.. so if you can join as a participant I’m sure we’ll be more than happy to have you. Perhaps if you spot significantly more stuff than the rest of the group, we can tip you at the end 😉

    Richard – I knew my review of Hari would stir up a little emotions.. lol! But I had to write it because that was my experience. I 100% agree with you that a good guide also becomes a friend. We had that with Mike at Deramakot, and to a lesser degree with Johan in GL. Perhaps we caught Hari at a bad time; perhaps he felt too pressured to show us the animals because he knows the website and knew the trip report would end up there.. and he only had 5 days (5 nights) to do it; perhaps the presence of a noisy car and boat pressured him even more. I don’t know, I just wrote my observations, and didn’t sensor myself, though perhaps I should have. It’s also a good point about tipping the driver as we go, perhaps that’s the way to do it. Also, next time I’m out mammal-watching I will make sure to discuss the strategy and the specifics with my guide upon first meeting him/her, before our first excursion into the field. Again, we had that with Mike from Deramakot, and in addition, Mike kept asking us how to improve our success rate, like “whenever we see terrestrial animals, do you guys want us to stop first? Keep driving slowly towards it? Drive fast towards it before it disappears?” he also appointed Jon as our final decision maker so that if there is any question about what we want to do, Jon will give the final say. This worked great.

    I shall also mention that we had a lot of laughs, lots of good mammals, and a lot of good times on this trip, but the only thing I think we disagree on (Jon and I, at least) is our experience with Hari (and perhaps with the other two guides as well). So it’s not set-in-stone, and maybe if we had more time in WK (and quieter vehicles) we would be less pressured which would take some of the pressure off Hari. Specifically about the otter civet encounter, Jon – I will agree with you that it was probably more bothered by the sound of the boat and the smoke, than from Hari’s “loud whispering”, so we can remove that one from my list of complaints. Lol.

  • tomeslice

    For anyone who is wondering: I revised my write-up quite a bit. After talking with Jon, and from what little feedback I received, I think I was a bit harsh when describing my experiences in Way Kambas, specifically. I also let my naturally sarcastic writing style affect the report and I really “got into character” with this one. For some it might be amusing, while others might find it offensive.

    I also apologize if I offended anybody with my hilarious use of the “f-word”, or with my emphasis on “correct identification”. Again – I’m not referring to anyone specifically, nor am I trying to call people out on what they have or have not seen. Quite the opposite – I think it’s awesome that people see rare stuff and I will be interested (and also jealous) to read about your next encounter with clouded leopard, sumatran rhino and 3 pangolins all in the same day at Way Kambas.

    Cheers and happy mammal watching!
    Tomer Ben-Yehuda

  • Richard Webb

    Tomer, Fair enough. One further thought about your comment on the value of photos. Where they are really important is in terms of getting sightings accepted by the scientific community. A lot of reports get excluded from the scientific record because there is no ‘supporting evidence’ which is a shame because a lot of mammal watchers have far more experience of a species than the scientists studying them and do see a lot of good things. I know of researchers who have studied species for several years without observing them once in the field because they don’t actually go out looking and rely on camera traps etc.. However even if someone has a photo it doesn’t mean it’s been identified correctly. Fishing Cat is shown as occurring on Sumatra on the basis of two photos that were misidentified and subsequent provided to be Leopard Cats. Will Duckworth and others having seen the photos correctly re-identified them and consequently concluded that there are no proven records of Fishing Cat on Sumatra proving the value of photos albeit retrospectively. Richard

  • tomeslice

    Jason – first of all, good to hear from you! I’m still looking forward to having you and James here in Israel if it’s still relevant :-). Secondly, I agree with you, and had I seen a clouded leopard, pangolin or sumatran rhino in addition to all the cool stuff we did see on my very first trip to the region, I would have been one spoiled brat. We did hope to repeat your success at Deramakot with both sun bear and marbled cat in just 4 nights (we also spent 4 nights there) but like you said, that could just be pure luck, and it came after a 6 weeks of mammal watching! On the contrary, it would be outrageous and ridiculous of me to say that Deramakot was not a huge success, at least for me personally, with all the new lifers I acquired there including binturong, banded civet, yellow-throated marten, slow loris, proboscis monkey, orangutan (my very first wild ape, lesser or greater), Bornean Gibbon (my second ape), leopard cat, first ever flying squirrel (3 species), first colugo (4-5 of them), first Asiatic elephant… etc. The list literally goes on and on. I even saw my first monitor lizard, broadbill, paradise flycatcher and several new hornbill species there.

    Richard – You’re actually touching on an important point I was going to mention and forgot! I have been meaning to say that there are in fact no fishing cats on Sumatra (well, that are recorded by science at least). The picture of the fishing cat instead of flat-headed cat on the board at Satwa Lodge is just an internet picture.. I had to see it to understand the concept – they just have a map of the park, and around it are names and pictures of animals you might find there, including mammals, birds and reptiles. But the pictures that go along with the names are all just internet-printed pictures, not pictures they specifically took inside the reserve, so any mismatch is just that. But again with your example of the re-identification, I still think it strengthens my point on having a picture – it gives you the ability to have more people look at it further down the line and reevaluate it, whereas if you didn’t have a picture, the memory would be long-gone and all you would be left with is a deceased person (eventually) who is certain they saw a fishing cat on Sumatra.

    Since we’re already on the subject of cats, Richard, Jon tells me you’re a wild cat expert.. so I have been wanting to ask you if you heard of the supposedly “common” golden cats in Kerinci. I talked at least 5-6 people who have repeatedly seen golden cats hunting pheasants on the main trail going up Gunung Kerinci, early morning or late afternoon. Supposedly there are 2 individuals that can be seen, one of which is mellanistic. Have you ever been able to confirm or revoke this hypothesis?

  • Richard Webb

    Tomer, hi. I wouldn’t go as far as referring to myself as a cat expert but I’ve had a lot of success looking for cats other than Clouded Leopards although it’s taken a lot of time and money and I think that Vladimir has seen more than me. Check out the following page .

    On the subject of Golden Cats there is a photo from Kerinci in 2013 in the report in the first link below. This photo and another photo is on Surfbirds. If you go to the second link and type Golden Cat in species, and Hutchinson in author it should bring up the other photo from 2006. I think they are easier to see at Kerinci than anyone else but still not easy. It’s another species along with African Golden Cat (my only missing African cat) that’s high on the wanted list. Hope this helps. Richard .

  • mattinidaho

    It was interesting reading these 2 reports of the same trip. Glad you both posted. There is another perspective that we don’t get to read — that of the guide.

    I have talked to enough guides to know that some clients come with completely unrealistic expectations. They want to see a saola, a Yeti and a woolly mammoth, all in 2 days, without leaving the lodge, in camera range — and preferably all fighting each other.

    I have never found wildlife spotting to be particularly easy in tropical forests. It’s not the Serengeti. A glimpse is the norm. Photography is difficult, even for professionals.You need to have realistic expectations in these environments. The people who are really seeing a lot of cool stuff in tropical forests are often taking a lot of time and have excellent field skills. Even then, luck doesn’t hurt.

    I’ve spent my whole life crazy about outdoor/nature pursuits, and one of the big lessons I’ve learned is there are no guarantees. That may overly schlocky and simplistic, but it’s surprising to me how many people forget that. T There’s no substitute for developing your own field skills. Even then, things don’t always go as planned. That’s what makes it fun.

    And the other overtly simplistic lesson: It should be FUN. I know we all have different ideas of a good time. But if you are on holiday and come home with high blood pressure and a migraine, is it really worth it? You are spending time in a cool place looking for cool critters. A lot of people would give their left arm to do that, even if the conditions and guides are less than optimal.

    OK, end of lecture. Good discussion here.

  • tomeslice

    Thanks Richard, and yes, how could I forget Vladimir has seen almost all the cats in existence? Vladimir – any info on these golden cats?

    Matt, those are very valid points! Of course I’m only reporting on mammal-related observations and not on all the conversations and laughs we had throughout the trip. Trust me, it was fun!

    Like I said, I may have taken it too hard on Hari (and on Way Kambas in general) but go back and read my reviews of Deramakot and Leuser… I considered Deramakot to be extremely awesome because the system worked and we were able to identify most mammals both on the road and in the trees. Yes, a clouded leopard and a sun bear would have been nice, but I was thrilled and ecstatic to have seen all the things we saw there, and I had 0 complaints 🙂
    Maybe the physical structure of the ecosystem in Way Kambas (dense, reforesting undergrowth) just makes it more difficult to spot animals than in Leuser and Deramakot. But I have no doubt that had we had a quieter boat, a quieter vehicle and a more responsive driver we would have spotted and identified more animals! Even if they all turned out to be mouse deer and leopard cats. Then we could have really blamed it on luck.

    What was frustrating isn’t that a clouded leopard wasn’t chasing a marbled cat up a tree and disturbing a resting pangolin on the way up… what was frustrating was that if that had happened, I felt like we would only get a quick glimpse of it while our driver is driving us into a ditch on the side of the road. Lol. But I see how my writing style may have made it seem like I was uptight and not having fun, when in reality, not only was I having a blast with Jon and Jean-Michel, and with the mammals we saw and caught, I was also a happy camper walking around and taking pictures of trogons, broadbills, hanging parrots, malkohas, pittas, kingfishers and small squirrels while my buddies were catching and measuring bats.

    This is why I revised my “essay”, but I’m happy with any feedback, positive or negative. It’s all about sharing mammal-watching experiences, even the frustrating ones. I’m more than happy to be called out and stand corrected. Perhaps this discussion brings out issues that have not yet been discussed in the community 🙂

  • tomeslice

    One last thing that just came to mind as I’m re-reading my own responses… Everyone mentioned about having fun and becoming friends with your guide.

    I’m 100% on board with that. In Deramakot, Mike cooked the food and also ate with us. He also just sat with us before he went to bed and we chit-chatted about whatever, and among other things discussed our successes, high points and low points (there weren’t really any) and looked at our pictures. Similarly, Johan in Leuser ate with us and joked with us, shared stories with us, etc. Granted we only had like 2 days with Johan but he was pretty cool. Maybe if Hari would have sat down with us for lunch, or talked to us outside of the actual guiding sessions, we could have formed an acquaintanceship and also naturally discuss what was working and what needed to improve.

    Again, I’m not blaming him for not wanting to sit with us for lunch, as he probably used up every free minute he had for sleeping so that he can be aware and awake on our mammal watching sessions. But him not sitting with us or talking to us outside his guiding sessions probably didn’t improve our guide-customer relationship.

  • vdinets

    tomeslice: I’m still missing marbled cat, African golden cat, and Sunda clouded leopard. A few more species are on my “better view desired” list. Also, the systematics of small South American cats are in flux and I might end up missing something there.

    Richard: we saw fresh, 100% certain golden cat tracks along the summit trail in Kerinci in 2009.

    All: There are, of course, cases when getting a photo is pretty much essential. I have to admit that I still don’t remember the facial features of all horseshoe-nosed bats 🙁

    • Richard Webb

      On the subject of Sunda Clouded Leopard Rob Hutchinson who took one of the golden cat photos had one last week along the Tapan road in Sumatra just walking along the roadside at dawn. This is the same site where Pete Morris took his amazing photo of Sumatran Tiger last year!

      • tomeslice

        And add that to the picture of a Sunda Clouded Leopard that was just recently taken there and posted on Facebook 2 days ago by a birdwatching guide.. I need to get there ASAP.

        Also on Tapan Road you obviously don’t need a guide

  • Daan Drukker

    I cannot seem to download the report, which might still be interesting since it sparked so much discussion. Also: were there any squirrel pictures in the report?

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