KPRC2's journey to Borneo to save the wildlife

By Dawn Campbell - Exec. Producer, Planning/Special Events
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KPRC2 meteorologist Justin Stapleton, senior executive producer Dawn Campbell and photojournalist Allen Reid are saving wildlife in Borneo. Below is a blog chronicling their journey and adventures there.

DAY 8

I made a note in the middle of the day that I would write that this would be the day we all got "leeched." (That's not an official word by the way, but it seems fitting to describe the day we all had leeches come after us.)

By the evening though, the most monumental aspect of Thursday was that we saw 5 of the region's 10 primate species. They were all remarkable. 

The morning began with a boat ride to Lot 2 of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. Once again, we trekked into the jungle. It was muddy but a lot easier than our elephant excursion.   

We hiked until we came across a woman sitting on a log with a clipboard by her side staring up into the trees. We followed her gaze to two orangutans overhead. 

The woman is Mislin, pronounced Miss Lynn. She's been working to protect wildlife in the sanctuary for 20 years.   

We spent some time getting video of the momma orangutan and her little one, who we were told is a couple years old. 

We found ourselves looking up to see the orangutans and looking down to pry the small forest leeches off our clothes and skin. 

I'm typically pretty squeamish and admit I may have flailed when I felt the first one attached to my arm, but overall these little blood suckers were small and nothing more than a pest we just had to pick away. 

(The leech that surprised me yesterday in the shower at the Field Center was much more freaky.)

There are dozens of orangutans in Lot 2. The locals that make up the conservation team watch where they "nest" at night so they can lead groups of tourists and an occasional TV crew to the right spot in the morning. 

Mislin was a bit nervous going into our interview. She was not confident in her English but once she got talking, her passion for the animals and her work was crystal clear. She talked by name about her favorite orangutans and even told us how one may have saved her life... you'll have to watch our show to hear that incredible story. 

After learning much more about the conservation work being done in the Sanctuary, it was time for Justin to shoot some lines for the show. 

Justin, who was sporting a very cool Altuve shirt, accidentally left his Channel 2 polo back at the homestay, so we improvised and Ryan literally gave Justin the shirt off his back... at least for a few minutes.

We headed back to the homestay for lunch and so Justin could grab his own shirt.

There's not much down time when you only have a week in Borneo, so our afternoon included a visit to see one of the ways the local conservation group, HUTAN, is helping this region. We drove to a field where hundreds of small trees had been planted. This is a reforestation project on land that was once cleared for a palm oil plantation. The workers planting the trees and carefully caring for each one are all women. This is hard work, in the heat and humidity,  and they are doing it proudly. The woman we interviewed has 10 kids and 13 grandchildren. She is by far tougher than any of our crew. She knows what her work means for this region and for the generations to come.  

The women invited Justin to plant a tree. It took one woman 27 seconds to dig a hole and plant a tree. We'll have to go back and look at the footage to see how long it took Justin, but I can tell you it wasn't 27 seconds.

Our day wasn't over. An evening boat ride to the Resang Tributary off the Kinabatangan River was what made this day stand out even more. 

We entered the calm water of the tributary hoping to see primates. We got more than we expected.

Long tailed macaques and Pig tailed macaques greeted us on opposite sides of the river bank. They were down feeding by the water and didn't seem to care we were floating by them. 

A little ways down farther back from the water, a group of Silver leaf langurs were perched in a tall tree. 

We emerged back on to the river pleased with our four primate sightings for the day. Suddenly, our boat stopped and we were treated to the sight of proboscis monkeys scattered through the trees. 

These monkeys are funny looking. There's no other way to put it. The males look like  Muppets characters and the females look both weathered and wise. 

I got fantastic pictures of all that I can't wait to share in full resolution when I return, but for now I'm including what I can get you in this post. 

The evening wrapped up with another group dinner at the homestay and I showered...not the easiest facilities to use but I got clean and there was no leech keeping me company here.  

Tomorrow morning, Farina, Peter, and a lively French man named Marc who leads the HUTAN project will meet with a palm oil plantation owner to see if he will allow us to get video of elephants on his property. This is a very sensitive request and could easily be rejected.   

As the outsider from Houston, Peter says the decision could depend on how well the plantation owner likes him. Peter's a nice guy. Fingers crossed he makes a good first impression. 

DAY 7

Today is the day we knew we had to trek until we found elephants. 

While we waited for Farina to check the latest GPS coordinates, we did an interview with snake guy Rich. Before we were done though, a young research assistant approached us politely to notify us that a couple of orangutans were just down the path. We politely wrapped up with Rich and hustled to get footage. It was a mom and baby moving across the tree canopy down to the river. It was a surprise visit that seemed to even excite the Field Center staff. 

After the orangutans moved on, we did too down to the boat dock. I think we were on the water for about 45 minutes before we pulled ashore and began the hike to find the elephants. 

It turns out yesterday's walk was just practice for today. This was tougher, longer, and more exhausting. We pushed through the dense forest following elephant tracks. There was trampled vegetation, fresh dung, and giant footprints in the mud.  

These are pygmy elephants, a type of Asian elephant, but they are not a small creature. These animals are still massive and strong, so as we got closer, Farina gave us a safety briefing that included talking about an escape plan. She said Allen should go with her first to get footage and get a sense of the animals' temperament. We could already hear the elephants talking to each other. Farina said they knew we were there.  

Farina,  Allen, Ryan, and a local trail guide went first. The rest of us found a small clearing to wait and listen. We could tell our team was getting closer to the elephants because the vocalizations increased. Peter said a male trumpeting meant the animal was about to charge. We continued to listen.  

Things got quiet. The elephants had settled down...and Allen got video.   

When they returned, Justin and I followed Farina in. The elephants again began to vocalize. I first saw the trunk of one tearing away some of the vegetation that separated us and them. While I began to think about that escape plan,  Farina signaled us to walk in more.   

The elephants were there behind the brush. I could see an ear flapping and a trunk moving up and down. While African elephants live in dry, wide open spaces, Asian elephants stay hidden in the forest. They are elusive and can be very quiet. Peter says it's almost as if they tiptoe because they could walk right by you without you knowing.  

We watched them for awhile and then walked back to rejoin the group. Satisfied with the reward at the end of the long trek, we began the difficult walk back.

After making a good amount of progress, I was hit with the frustrating realization that my personal video camera was missing. It had been attached to a strap on my bag that crossed over my chest. I had been using it every day of this trip. I can only assume a sticky vine or branch claimed it. The two locals with us attempted to retrace our steps to see if they could find it. They returned with the disappointing news that my video camera now belonged to the forest.   

We had to move on. We still had to get out of the forest, on to the boat and back to the Field Center. We would have about an hour when we got back to shower, shoot a couple interviews, and pack up. We were moving to a new location for the remainder of our trip.

The transfer to the Village of Sukau involved another boat ride followed by an hour in a car.  

We arrived at the homestay (the equivalent of a B&B) just in time for dinner with the others staying here.   

The rooms are modest and Allen, Justin, and Ryan are now sharing a room with a man named Terrance who has helped us every step of the way here. The perk of being the only woman on the trip is that I get my own room. A Disney princess blanket makes me think of home and my two young daughters. 

The bathrooms are in a separate small building. There are small shower heads near the toilet along with a large bucket and small pail. I guess I'll find out tomorrow how it works.

DAY 6

We woke up not knowing exactly what our first adventure would be today. We were set with Farina to try to see the elephants again, but if one of the croc traps was successful, that team would need the bigger boat first to get help tagging the animal and to bring the empty trap back.

At 7am, the croc crew set out to check the traps. We waited for word. We ate breakfast. Farina checked elephant coordinates.   

Then someone ran up the steps yelling "crocodile!" Before long, several Field Center team members as well as us were on our way. 

When we arrived, the trap was in the water still. It didn't take long with all the extra help to pull it onto shore. This crocodile was big and unhappy. The research team worked quickly so they could release him. The staff first secured the croc's mouth, then they pulled it out of the crate to secure its feet and dangerously powerful tail. Once it was safe to approach, Kerisha took measurements, Rich helped with implanting a microchip, and the seasoned croc crew attached the tracking device. This 14 foot crocodile could help Kerisha better understand the species' movement and how man-made influences are impacting the croc population.

Once the croc was released and back in the water, we returned to the Field Center.

After lunch, Rich took measurements on the python he caught with us. He also scanned it for a microchip. It hit. This snake had been caught by Rich in October. He says 10 percent of the snakes he catches have been caught before. This is helpful because he can monitor growth, diet and how far the python is moving. He also carefully picked ticks off the snake, helping it before releasing it back to its home in the river. 

We left Rich to his work because it was time to search for elephants. Farina listened to her telemetry radio at multiple spots along the river. There were no beeps, but we couldn't not try to find them so we jumped off the boat and entered the dense jungle. We walked through tall grass, soggy mud, thorny vines and thick vegetation. We crossed creeks with mushy bottoms wearing tall rain boots we borrowed from the Field Center. 

Unfortunately, Justin didn't pick the best pair. As soon as he stepped in the water, the water filled both his boots. He vowed to choose ones without holes tomorrow.

Despite a tough effort, we didn't find the elephants. Or as Farina said, we didn't find the elephants... yet.

We headed back up the river ready for dinner and an evening walk through the woods near the Field Center. As we got close to the dock, something happened. The boat stopped. The locals on board began to talk. I interrupted to ask what was wrong.  

We had run out of gas and the current was pushing us back downstream. Our boat operator resourcefully used one of the benches on the boat as a paddle to get us to the river bank so we could tie the boat to a tree. It was now dark. No one at the Field Center was answering their phone and the macaques in the branches above us weren't happy we were there. Finally, one of our guides got through to someone and within minutes a boat with fuel pulled up beside us. We gassed up and made it to the dock.

After dinner, we strolled through the night woods using headlamps and flashlights to spot a variety of animals. We saw strange bugs, unique frogs, and bats that flew right near our heads.   

After another full day, it was time to hit the hay and to rest up for an even bigger day tomorrow.  After all, we haven't found the elephants... yet. 

DAY 5

The jungle is a busy place at six in the morning. Monkeys are chattering, birds are singing and bugs make it sound like there's electricity running through the trees. This is what we will wake up to each day we're here. 

We begin with breakfast. For me, it's white bread and peanut butter. Others have attempted oatmeal, but the "hot" water didn't quite do the trick.

By 8am, we were headed down to the boat dock. The dock is about 1/3 mile from the Field Center so each expedition begins with this walk down a slippery moss covered sidewalk. It's a sidewalk that seems out of place amid the trees. It was constructed years ago and the cracks and exposed rebar show its age.

At the dock, we boarded one boat. A second boat had two large metal traps with buoys on either side balanced  on top. The goal of this mission is to set the traps and catch crocodiles.

We are following a young, local scientist named Kerisha who is just setting her very first traps. 

The traps were dropped in two locations on either side of a large man-made bridge that traffic passes over. The theory is the bridge is creating a divide in crocodile populations. Placing a GPS tag on larger crocs to track their movements will allow the team here to see if the theory holds true.

Once in the water, the traps were loaded up with stinky chicken guts and then we headed back to the Field Center for lunch. We were told it could be several days before a croc took the bait.  

After lunch, we met up with Farina. She is an amazing local woman who is tracking elephants and working to reduce human-elephant conflict. 

She has tagged elephants so she can track their location using GPS. She checked for the elephants' coordinates and then we walked to the boat dock again. We once again traveled through the many bends of this deep river.

At one point, Farina asks our boat driver to stop. We're close to the last recorded GPS coordinates for the elephants, so she pulls out a seemingly simple radio and begins to listen. Beeps are the key to knowing the elephants are close enough that we can reach them by walking. This time, there are no beeps. It's too close to dark to continue to search,  so Farina says we'll get them tomorrow.

We head back to the Field Center and another group meal.  

Our full day wasn't over. After dinner, we boarded the boat again. This time we were led by a young man from England named Rich. He is the "snake guy." We slowly cruised the river at night using head lamps to look for pythons along the banks. We looked and we looked and we looked. We saw owls and other small birds. We didn't see snakes. I personally was dozing off on this ride. Blame jet lag and the peacefulness of the evening boat ride. Just as we nearly reached the boat dock thinking we were out of luck, Rich spotted a snake. It was well-hidden amid the grass. We couldn't see it until Rich reached off the boat and actually grabbed it by the head. I asked him how he saw it and he smiled and said "a lot of practice." He secured the snake to bring back to the Field Center. After taking measurements and gathering other scientific data, Rich tells us he'll use GPS coordinates to return the snake to the exact same spot tomorrow evening. 

By now, we're all ready for bed. We have a big day searching for elephants ahead and who knows, we may even catch a croc. 

DAY 4

It's now Monday afternoon at the Danau Girang Field Center in the middle of the jungle in Borneo. It's a land that's muggy and majestic, filled with wonderful wildlife.

But wait, I need to back up a few steps to fill you in on how we got here. 

I last wrote about leaving Hong Kong for Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia. We made it there with time to explore the airport before our final flight. The short version is we passed up an opportunity to try dried sea cucumber and toast with a variety of toppings including "chicken floss" and Justin snuck in a quick "nap"  (or photo opp) while Allen patiently waited.

Our plane out of Kota was not tiny, but it was smaller than the rest. After walking outside to board, we sat on the stuffy plane for awhile. It would seem the delay was in part because of all our gear. Eventually they loaded Allen's oversized tripod case IN the cockpit. With every one and everything finally onboard, we were off.

This flight would only take about 50 minutes. We landed in Sandakan, Malaysia and were greeted by team members from the Field Center where we are staying. We THOUGHT we just had a boat ride left. Nope. A two hour drive in a van awaited us first.  

The drive allowed us to see the businesses and villages that make up this region. Goats, chickens and stray dogs mill dangerously close to the quickly passing traffic here. The road was windy and bumpy.  Dozens of young Malaysians zipped around us on mopeds. It's not anywhere we would have felt comfortable driving ourselves.

Upon arrival to the dock, our gear was loaded on one boat, our group was loaded on another. Here we met up with another member of the Houston Zoo's conservation team, Peter Riger. He's been to Borneo multiple times and helped prepare us for the trip.  

He is also the calm one who continued to teach us about elephant grass when our boat first puttered out and then began taking on water. 

That's right, on our first ride down the mighty Kinabatangan River... at night... our boat began to fill with water.  A pinched fuel line was quickly resolved. 

As for the water, Houston Zoo social media guy Ryan is also apparently pretty good at bailing water. Bucket after bucket, he tossed water back into the river so we could keep moving.

Ryan noticed a hole had been punctured through the boat causing the water to pour in. (This would be plugged the next day with a perfectly sized stick.)

The first evening at the Field Center involved checking out our accommodations, meeting the team that works and studies here,  and getting the mandatory safety briefing... which includes wearing a life vest at all times on the boat and not making eye contact with the macaques, a variety of monkey that may feel  threatened by a stare down. 

Ryan,  Allen  and Justin are bunked in one room. My roomie is a adventurous young veterinarian from the UK who contacted Field Center on a whim while visiting Borneo and asked if she could come stay for 10 days. 

After getting settled in, we discussed our game plan for our first full day here. A day that will include setting crocodile traps, searching for pygmy elephants,  and trying to capture a reticulated python. 

Let the real adventure begin. 

DAY 3

The Christmas decor all around the Hong Kong Marriott was impressive... a stunning and tall Christmas tree greets guests in the lobby and soon kids will get to visit Santa in his house made of gingerbread. There seem to be signs of the holiday season all around and it's all been done beautifully. 

I was hoping though to see just a little more of the city so hopefully at least one person on this trip will be up for a little exploring on the 12 hour layover we have in Hong Kong on our way back home next weekend. 

This morning the Hong Kong airport felt massive. It's like a mall. There are restaurants and stores packed in on multiple levels. We even spotted a two story Rolex shop.  At 6 a.m. when we checked in, most were still not open for the day so the guys opted for the tried and true, always available McDonald's for breakfast. The menu here didn't fully match what we're used to in Houston. I was tempted to order a crunchy ovaltine latte just to see what it was about, but since I recently tried to break my coffee addiction, I instead opted for hot tea and a muffin. 

After a few trips up and down the lift (elevator) and the people mover (escalator) and then discovering what we thought was our gate was just the door to the shuttle that would take us to another section of the airport, we finally sat down at our gate.  

In daylight,  it's easier to see the mountains and water that sit so close to the runway. Last night,  it appeared the plane was going to land in the water. The wheels touched down just feet from where the water ends and the runway begins. 

Just after 8am Sunday here, we lifted off again. Allen, Justin and I are seated together on this flight. Ryan is a few rows up with his tiny carry-on bag that seems to have magical qualities because of the amount of stuff he's somehow fit in it.  

Meal service on this flight included eggs and sausage for the guys and noodles with shrimp, squid, and something else I didn't recognize for me. It was pretty good for airline food. 

To pass the time, the guys talked Texans and Jimbo for a bit, before Allen switched on his downloaded Netflix videos and Justin tackled the next generation of Candy Crush. 

I'm writing... because that's what producers do. We write, we plan, and we try to envision how an entire project will come together. It's not always easy, especially when you're not quite sure what you'll encounter when the camera actually starts recording. 

We'll land in a few hours in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia which is still not our final stop. Later we'll board one more small plane and then a boat. That's when this journey should get wild... and I mean that literally. We will meet up with another member of the Houston Zoo team there and then the true mission of this trip will begin. It's about education and conservation. Those two things can't exist without each other and we're soon going to see firsthand how Houstonians are saving animals in this part of the world. 

We're getting excited. Stay tuned... 

Day 2

We've arrived in Hong Kong and it's now Sunday.  We've checked into a hotel near the airport so we can try to get some rest before the final 2 flights and boat ride to our destination.

I got a decent amount of sleep on the plane but Justin and Allen weren't as lucky.   Hopefully they're catching some zzzz's now.  Zoo social media guy Ryan seems to be a pro at this kind of travel. His bag for this ten day trip is about the same size as my kindergartner's backpack. Suddenly my 40 pound duffle bag (packed only with necessities of course) seems huge.  

Aside from a rookie travel mistake by me of not getting a luggage receipt in Houston, technical problems stopping me from seeing the end of "Wonderwoman" on the plane, and a couple wrong turns getting out of the Hong Kong airport, this trip has been fairly smooth so far. (Guess Justin's Red Vine luck is helping us all out.)

We don't really know how connected we'll be on the next stretch of this trip.  We will not have power at some points and wireless connections are questionable.  Keep up with Justin and KPRC on social because if we can get through, you'll see it there first.

For now,  I'm settling in to my room... doing some writing and enjoying some room service. No time to explore Hong Kong but I definitely couldn't leave without enjoying a meal here. 

So good night from here and good morning to all of you. Enjoy your weekend!

Day 1, Continued

If you're following KPRC2 Justin Stapleton on Facebook, a couple things have been revealed since my first post.  One, the first leg of our journey had us rushing through the San Francisco airport to catch our next flight.  And two, we're not going on this journey alone.  

A fourth person caught up with us in San Francisco and now we're all soaring above the Pacific Ocean on our second leg of this marathon travel itinerary.  

Ryan Draper - the clever social media guy for the Houston Zoo - is seated about 20 rows in front of me.   Now that should be a pretty big clue what this trip is all about.  In 2015, KPRC2 sent anchor Andy Cerota into the jungles of Rwanda to showcase how Houstonians are saving gorillas there.  In 2016, anchor Rachel McNeill and her family trekked through Madagascar to explain how conservation efforts by the Houston Zoos are saving the animals and the people there.  Now, as 2017 nears a close, we're on our third adventure... and this time I'm along for the ride.

I haven't been on an international trip in ten years and now I'm on my way to a destination far more remote and rugged than anything I've ever experienced.  It's exciting and a little intimidating.   We don't really know what to expect.   

I can tell you we're as ready as we can be... I'm armed with loads of bug repellent, a first aid kit, and over the counter meds for just about any ailment we may face.  Allen has 5 bags of gear needed to record the incredible footage you'll soon see on KPRC.  And Justin, well Justin.... has Red Vines.  The candy that apparently brings him good luck when he travels.  (I asked and he has nothing against Twizzlers by the way. He just always travels with Red Vines.)  He also has a chocolate supply, so I would say we are definitely ready. 

Fortunately, the only bumps in our travel so far have been a tiny bit of turbulence.  And even more fortunately, the dramamine I popped at 9 a.m. seems to still be doing it's job! 

We've been on this plane for four hours so far and if there's an indicator that we're still a long way from our destination, it's that we were just served dinner but it's already breakfast time in the place where we'll eventually land.

VIDEO: Sorbet turbulence

With dinner and dessert complete, I think it's time to start thinking about getting some sleep.  We have a 12 hour layover in a renowned international city before our third flight so we're going to try to do a little work and explore what we can there without going too far from the airport.  It'll be Saturday evening when we arrive at our next stop, Saturday morning for all of you back in Houston.

Fifteen hours in... just about 25 more hours of traveling to go....

Day 1

Hello, Houston!

My name is Dawn Campbell and I'm an executive producer at KPRC. That means I'm always behind the scenes working to bring you Channel 2's special programs. Most of the time, I do that from my desk. Occasionally, we get some fresh air and scout out locations around town. That's what we call a "site survey." And yes, to all my colleagues who question how much actually gets done on site surveys, we do work.... (But a team's gotta eat too.)

Today, I'm embarking on the ultimate site survey for a show and I'm in good company. Along for the adventure are KPRC meteorologist/podcaster/good guy Justin Stapleton and the immensely talented and hardworking photojournalist Allen Reid.

I'm writing this from high in the air aboard our crowded plane. Justin and Allen are seated in different rows behind me. We like each other but a little space early on in this journey is probably a good thing. There will be plenty of time to hang out in the next TEN DAYS.

We pulled away from the gate at Bush Intercontinental Airport a little before 10 a.m. for the first leg of our journey. The first leg of FIVE! We have four flights and a boat ride before we will get to our destination. Did I mention this is an adventure? We'll finally get where we're going after nearly 40 hours of travel. And if you're noticing that I haven't told you where that is yet, that's not a mistake. Remember I'm a producer and part of producing a story means not giving away the ending right away.

I can tell you I expect this trip to be incredibly tough and incredibly rewarding. It required vaccines and medication to protect us from diseases we don't see in the states. I needed to get hiking boots, rain gear, and a whole lot of other things I don't need for my typical weekend adventures with my family. And speaking of family, I'll be away from my two little girls longer than I ever have before. (I'm certain and hopeful it will be harder on me than them.) I know my husband will do a great job keeping them entertained. The big challenge for them will be whether or not he can successfully put our three-year-old's hair in a bun for her dance recital next week.

This trip, this journey, was not one I could pass up. I cannot wait to share video and stories of the things we see, the people we meet, and of course the reason we're going.

All that's coming soon, but first we have a very short window to make our connecting flight. Gotta get ready to run! 

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