Sumatra: 13-16th October 2018

February 06, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

In October 2018 I went on a very short visit to Gunung Leuser National Park in northern Sumatra. The trip was intended as a recce for a school trip due for December, however the tragic Lion Air crash on 29th October lead to the school trip being subsequently cancelled. The trip itself was brief but incredible - I can't believe how much I saw in just 3 days!

My flight was from Bali to Medan via Kuala Lumpur. Due to my first flight being delayed by 2 hours I actually missed my connection in KL and had to spend the night at the airport. The generous staff at AirAsia even made me pay for an alternative flight the next morning...a good start to the trip!

I then had a 5hr drive to my destination of Bukit Lawang in Gunung Leuser National Park. I had booked the 3D/2N camping trip through a company called 'Local Guides' and I was met on arrival by the company's chief guide known as 'Jungle Edie'. He who explained a few things to me and introduced me to 'Adi' who was my guide throughout the trip.

After filling up my water bottle and donning my leech socks (which actually weren't needed!) we then set off for the forest. The first part of the walk was through some rubber plantations and almost straight away we saw our first mammals of the trip - small groups of silvery lutung (Trachypithecus cristatus) and Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi). I have seen silvery lutung several times before (in Sarawak and Peninsular Malaysia) so I didn't make too much of an effort to get photos. They were also rather distant. The Thomas's langurs got more of my attention - they are endemic to Sumatra and I hadn't seen them before - so I spent quite a bit of time trying to get photos of them. I later realised as the trip went on that they are locally quite common so got some better shots later on. These are the photos I took at this point:

Silvered langur (Trachypithecus cristatus)Silvered langur (Trachypithecus cristatus) Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi)Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi)

As mentioned, these sightings were fairly distant so I just focused on getting some 'nice' portraits (aka 'guide book photos'!). The challenge with these sorts of monkeys is that their tails are very long - getting the whole animal in one photo isn't always easy!

After spending about half an hour with them we said farewell and headed off in search of the big draw of the area - Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii). Basically all of the orangutans that you encounter in the area are rehabilitated. They are free-living but whether you consider them 'wild' or not depends on your own definition. 'Semi wild' seemed the be term used by the guides. Either way - they are amazing creatures to watch and we saw a few early on in this trip. The 'truly wild' orangutans keep to themselves and tend to hide deeper in the national park.

One early encounter was with a mother and its baby (NB - presumably born there so surely at least that counts as 'wild'?!):

Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii)Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii)

This was one of the few times in my experience of wildlife photography where the subject was actually too close! I was using my 300mm prime lens at this point and I was so excited by the whole experience that I completely forgot that I even had any other lenses...eventually I remembered that I also had my 90mm macro so I managed a photo with the whole orangutan (why on earth did I sell my 70-200mm...!):

Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii)Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii)

Most of the rest of the day was spent trekking around with the occasional orangutan sighting. During our lunch stop we had another encounter with a Thomas's langur. This individual sat quite close to us (probably waiting to pounce on some scraps of food) so I managed to get a couple of closer-up portrait photos. By not trying to include the tail in these ones I managed to capture much more detail than before:

Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi)Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi) Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi)Thomas's langur (Presbytis thomasi)

After that we headed on to the first campsite. On the way we came across the first of many lizards - a juvenile great anglehead (Gonocephalus grandis):

Malayan crested lizard (Gonocephalus grandis)Malayan crested lizard (Gonocephalus grandis)

The campsite itself was by a small river and it was in a really serene and beautiful area of forest. Despite the limited cooking facilities the cook managed to provide an amazing meal.

When the sun set I went on a short but fruitful night walk. These are some of my findings, all from within about 50 yards of the campsite:

Whip scorpion (Order uropygi)Whip scorpion (Order uropygi) Malayan crested lizard (Gonocephalus grandis)Malayan crested lizard (Gonocephalus grandis)

Chalcorana parvaccolaChalcorana parvaccola GrasshopperGrasshopper Huntsman spider (Heteropoda sp.)Huntsman spider (Heteropoda sp.)

Borneo river toad (Phrynoidis juxtasper)Borneo river toad (Phrynoidis juxtasper) GrasshopperGrasshopper Sumatran torrent frog (Huia sumatrana)Sumatran torrent frog (Huia sumatrana)

The next morning we got up, had breakfast then set off in search of more wildlife. The focus for the morning was on seeing gibbons which had been heard calling somewhere in the forest. We climbed a very steep hill (I should probably have already mentioned that Bukit Lawang is very hilly!) to get a good vantage point. On the way up we stumbled across this beautiful little twin-barred tree snake (Chrysopelea pelias), posed as you see it right by the trail:

Banded flying snake (Chrysopelea pelias)Banded flying snake (Chrysopelea pelias)

...and another lizard, this one a Sumatran forest dragon (Gonocephalus beyschlagi):

Sumatra forest dragon (Gonocephalus beyschlagi)Sumatra forest dragon (Gonocephalus beyschlagi)

Within about 10 minutes of reaching the top of the hill we saw the gibbons - a group of at least 3 lar gibbons (Hylobates lar) moving through the trees in front of us. I just about managed one photo - though even this was a real challenge - they were quite distant, fast moving and nearly always backlit by the sun!

Lar gibbon (Hylobates lar)Lar gibbon (Hylobates lar)

After about 20 minutes the gibbons moved on and we headed back down another steep hill. The next few hours were a case of 'punctuated equilibrium' - long periods of nothing but slogging up and down hills punctuated by sudden periods of drama when orangutans seemed to appear out of nowhere - making the guides quite nervous! Our lunch stop was interrupted by the arrival of 'Mina' - one of the resident orangutans who seems to like posing (I later discovered many other people have taken almost the same photo of her so she clearly likes doing this):

Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii)Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii)

The afternoon was fairly quiet and there no additional animal sightings of note. After several more hours of slogging up and down hills we arrived at the next campsite. This one was quite a bit bigger but also by a river and a small waterfall. There were numerous water monitors (Varanus salvator) patrolling up and down the river but that didn't put anyone off from bathing in it!

Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator)Asian water monitor (Varanus salvator)

Once again, the area in the immediate vicinity of the campsite was fairly 'alive'. There was an orangutan that hung out just outside (though it kept disappearing whenever I got my camera out so I have no photos of it!) and that ubiquitous Southeast Asian species - the long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis). As usual, these monkeys provided plenty of entertainment for everyone with their antics which included dive-bombing in the river and trying to steal everyone's food!

Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis)Long-tailed macaque (Macaca fascicularis)

There were quite a few squirrels running around on the trees within the campsite. These are two that I managed to get photos of:

Slender squirrel (Sundasciurus tenuis)Slender squirrel (Sundasciurus tenuis) Prevost's squirrel (Callosciurus prevostii)Prevost's squirrel (Callosciurus prevostii)

The river was also very rich in insect life and I spent a bit of time dusting off my macro lens to photograph some damselflies:

Aristocypha fenestrellaAristocypha fenestrella Stream glory (Neurobasis chinensis)Stream glory (Neurobasis chinensis) Heliocypha biforataHeliocypha biforata

After dinner, I went on a short night walk around the campsite though it was generally fairly fruitless, only yielding one interesting find - a large female Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri):

Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)

...and a few insects such as this one:


The next morning we packed up, had breakfast and set off in search of one final 'target species' - the Siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus). Like yesterday, they had been heard singing (whooping?) in the distant forest so we slogged up a big hill in search. This day, however, we were not in luck and didn't manage to spot any. Quite frustrating as I have heard them numerous times before in the Cameron Highlands and Fraser's Hill in Peninsular Malaysia but sightings of them have eluded me each time! In fact, all I saw that morning was one butterfly:

Powdered baron (Euthalia monina)Powdered baron (Euthalia monina)

In the late morning we 'tubed' down the Bohorok river back to Bukit Lawang itself where I checked in to my hotel. Feeling a little restless, and keen to see more wildlife after an unproductive morning, I found the contact details of a local wildlife expert called 'Bobi' who put me in touch with the excellent snake guide 'Ipul'. Ipul took me on a nocturnal tour of the local area where I saw more snakes than I could possibly have imagined. I also saw various frog species and three civets. The most common snake species was the Wagler's pit viper (referred to locally as 'moon snake') and I saw pretty much every variety in which they come. These are the highlights:

Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)

Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) Rough-sided frog (Pulchrana glandulosa)Rough-sided frog (Pulchrana glandulosa) Speckle-headed whipsnake (Ahaetulla fasciolata)Speckle-headed whipsnake (Ahaetulla fasciolata) Common Southeast Asian tree frog (Polypedates leucomystax)Common Southeast Asian tree frog (Polypedates leucomystax) Keeled slug snake (Pareas carinatus)Keeled slug snake (Pareas carinatus) Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri)Wagler's pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri) Striped bronzeback (Dendrelaphis caudolineatus)Striped bronzeback (Dendrelaphis caudolineatus) Banded swamp snake (Homalopsis buccata)Banded swamp snake (Homalopsis buccata) Changeable lizard (Calotes versicolor)Changeable lizard (Calotes versicolor) Fejervarya spFejervarya sp Painted bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus)Painted bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus) Specklebelly keelback (Rhabdophis chrysargos)Specklebelly keelback (Rhabdophis chrysargos)

I was very sad to leave Sumatra after an incredibly productive but all-too-short trip but I had also booked a trip to Sulawesi straight after so couldn't stay around any longer.

I missed out on the siamang and, apparently there is also a decent chance of seeing my 'holy grail' species - the Sunda slow loris (Nycticebus coucang) - so I will definitely be back soon!



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