Elephants and Owls

Pablo A. Alba-Costas


The sun rises once again over the kingdom of the big male long tailed macaque. While most of the land’s creatures are still emerging from the treetops to shower the forest floor with a wealth of different wake-up urines, he’s already on the move. It’s unreasonably early even by rainforest standards, but that doesn’t stop Dr. Matt Struebig from waking us up with the king of the macaques. Walking from the student barracks to the mess hall I glimpse the long tailed ganglord prowling the man-made jungle alley towards me, shoulders swinging in time with his testicles. I feel sorry for him, really, but I still step off the path until he has gone by unchallenged. It must be a constant struggle to keep the rest of macaque high society from pulling your tail or biting your balls. Dusk until dawn. I almost want to ask him to help me in understanding his life, but he’d probably just run me out of town for throwing my weight around. What weight? He’d sneer on my pink furlessness, squaring up to his full bulk, and then he’d throw a long fang at my disproportionately small scrotum for good measure.

                Sitting defeatedly in front of my flimsy plastic bowl of stale cereal, my foggy morning eyes are pointed through the mosquito screen in the far wall of breakfast mess and into the busy tree line beyond. I’m all alone at 5:15 am, and I’m thinking of all those elephants migrating through town while I’m stuck in here. It makes me feel like a blind crocodile with quick-footed bearded pigs scratching their bellies on the ridges in my head. I really want to see a Bornean pygmy elephant, I think to myself, while every soggy chocolate flake in my bowl slowly looks more and more like a little brown pachyderm, laughing. Then the voice of treacle bubbles up from the darkening milk: “We just don’t want to be bringing your trampled bodies back to university. Think of all that paperwork!”. The voice belonged to Zoe Davies, butterfly expert and expedition mum. She even made us take in our most colorful laundry last night in case it would enrage some ‘dozer tusked bull.

                Let me give you some context. The Jungle Times headlines this morning revolved around a herd of 130-odd pygmy elephants, who were reportedly making their way down the ankle high river water that runs through our front yard. Migrating elephants move like peaceful protesters, excepting the occasional angsty youth who splits off into the forest to vandalize a defenceless municipal tree. The name of this species rolls off the tongue, Bornean pygmy elephants, led on their annual migration by the river’s lifeblood. But don’t be fooled by the ‘pygmy’ part of the name! Would you still feel as safe if I presented you with a pygmy sabre tooth or a pygmy tank? Yes, I know elephants can be cute. I’ve also seen that YouTube video of the little African elephant doing the helicopter with his trunk. But from the way nana Davies makes it sound, Borneo elephants hate humans. Especially if they’re carrying clipboards and wearing oversized jungle trousers with the tags still attached. Maybe they blame us for all that palm oil that forces them to get their ankles wet when they migrate. The wind changes beyond the mosquito screen, and the smell of six buckets of loxodont repellent (burning wellies) says ‘elephant’ louder than a swinging trunk coming at you like the front of a truck. But under that there’s just the usual cacophony of heated avian debate and the occasional screech of a stupid macaque falling out of a tree. I’m not in the best of moods, and the dregs of the cereal crate don’t do much to raise my spirits.

                Thankfully, I did manage to nip out before anybody else was up to sit in the beached old expedition dinghy by the oxbow lake, but I saw little more than the usual first light commuters. I’d barely slept with all the gratuitous tooting and uprooting as the elephants came within earshot late last night, but now all 130 of them might as well have been hiding one spider pit, sniggering through their trunks at me. Not even the hide-and-seek squeaking of otters, always one splash ahead of your quickest look, could make me smile in my landlocked boat. I was there for the elephants. With the university-loaned 8x42mm Nikon bins that English student tuitions paid for, I found a bearded pig trying to suck up the lake on the far bank, while sour old Lord Macaque in all his invisible regalia ran around just out of sight swatting away confused herons. I dread to think what punishment would have befallen me if he had found me hiding in his favourite wooden toilet. Just before I had given up my vigil to drag myself to breakfast, there had been a monitor lizard tracing languid ‘s’ shapes over shallow water. I almost missed the sinuous death-stalk of the wrinkle-necked dinosaur, but once my eyes did chance upon her form I was mesmerized by the slow drip-drip of viscous drool into the placid oxbow of sunrise silver. Long minutes passed where I shared her frustration, but that ancestral poise soon bore fruit. Suddenly, she had a fat white fish in her mouth. I guess that was kind of cool.

                So I’m stuck indoors, idly fingering my field journal entries for yesterday and seriously considering going for a snoop in the more biodiverse regions of the bathroom stalls. If the elephants can abandon a patch of forest as quickly as they can enter it, I’m seriously worried about my chances of seeing the chunky grey beasts before the two weeks are out. The sound of somebody shaking the toaster to dislodge a baby gecko snaps me out of my reverie, and I look around to find that my cereal can no longer be distinguished from its milk and that people are slowly pouring into our dining room/living room/lecture theatre groping for their coffee.

                After we’ve all watched our cereal turn into molten Styrofoam while we share superstitious sightings of elephant silhouettes in the night, Zoe lovingly herds us around the projector screen and makes sure that we’re all comfily positioned with hot mugs in hand. Quietly though! Don’t want a scary pygmy elephant tearing through the screen doors and fucking everybody up real bad! Between dainty butterfly kisses into her own steaming mug, she tells us how butterflutters only make up 5.7% of all Lepidopterans, the rest represented in the good-for-nothing browns and greys of moths. Barely making the cut to even be called margarineflies, am I right? Made by God to chew a hole in your favourite Calvin Kleins. But her slides tell another story entirely, showing sleek hawk moths that sport intricate Malay air force camo, or a spread Archaeoattacus staudingeri looking like a hypnotic purple death mask out of a jungle drug nightmare. Excited by each one of her slides as if she’s seeing them for the first time, her voice hops along like a big yellow pair of wings against a soft breeze. We’re half way into it and I’m already wondering just how many coffees she’s had…or just how much wing dust she’s snorted.

                “But my favourite are lycaenid butterflies, which by the way account for most butterfly species. Even their caterpillars are just to die for! Will you look at this one! Isn’t she just so pretty! Some of them can even brainwash ants into riding on their backs to bite frisky predators on the subway!” Squeals Zozo, in a voice as sweet as lavender honey and as bright as a thousand rainbows in a composite eye. At the end of the lecture she tells us that if we’re good little larvae and spend all day in the library/air conditioning paradise/elephant-proof bomb shelter, that we might even go out on a night boat as a reward! A reward for letting the elephants pass us by? I thought long and hard on my chances that day, but I think that the aboriginal folklore book I found in the library saved my reckless hide. Soon after the plummeting tropical sundown, I was sitting comfortably in my hard-earned reward on the river drinking in a scene prettier than pachyderms.


Think of suburban darkness, where the world is grey underfoot and black above your head. There’s just enough electric light seeping out this far from downtown to lighten the earth and darken the sky. Remember, greyed world and blackened sky. Well this concept of two-shade darkness was inverted on our river, where the water and the trees are one black mass occasionally broken by the staring reflection of a star glinting out of a tiny eyeball. When you look, the animal has already moved, but it’s so dark that the brief pinprick of light from its pupils was enough to leave a purple mark when you shut your own eyes. Those reflective eyes, like the stars, cast light to Earth long after they’re gone.

                There is an enormous grey polygon suspended far above the boat, smeared with so many white dots that it looks like concrete that was spray painted with the dregs of a can. It feels like the only solid object I can see, and it feels very far away. If the forest and the river are the sky, this grey shape is the floor. And I’m looking up at it. The boat is somehow keeping me stuck to a very high ceiling that is brimming with blackest shadow. The moon is a freshly minted silver coin lying derelict on this distant slab, but in the present moment it has sunk behind a flap of darkness. A false dancing moon with a greenish tint parodies it, projecting from the torch in my hand. I feel marooned in the tiny vessel, with only that empty green puppet of a moon for company. But it deeply disturbs me that I can move the moon with a flick of my wrist. I am perfectly still, slightly afraid at this uncanny new world. And I should mention that it’s not only in the boat that I get this feeling. At home in Canterbury I can hide from the emptiness of the night behind a window pane and duvet. The window is almost a screen with the night time playing on it like a film. But at the lodge, the flimsy mosquito screen and the thin, hot blanket intended purely to protect the legs from bites and to remind us of how we are used to sleeping at home only seem to toss me farther into the blackness outside the tighter that I curl up. There is no comforting divide from the void in Borneo. Some nights I still feel traces of that exposure, knowing how small and insignificant the nocturnal bustle of the city is compared to what lies beyond.

                The motor is dead and I’m floating through space on driftwood. There are also other people, their nervous whispers snatched away by night noise so detailed that it is flat. But in the circumstances, it is easy to forget to listen. An owl is sitting on a branch in the moon, and the yellow rings it has for eyes have swallowed all the light in the world.

(Borneo Jun 2016)

Buffy Fish Owl, Kinabatangan river. Sukau, Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia. Image from Flickr. 

Buffy Fish Owl, Kinabatangan river. Sukau, Sabah (Borneo), Malaysia. Image from Flickr. 

My name is Pablo Alfonso Alba-Costas and I am currently an undergraduate student of Wildlife Conservation at the University of Kent in Canterbury. I was born in Madrid, Spain in 1996 to a Gaditan father and a Puerto Rican mother. Both of these cultures gave colour to my upbringing between the Spanish capital and the countryside and coast of Southern Spain, where I developed my early love for nature.