Sunday, 11 December 2016

Book Review: The 100 Best Birdwatching Sites in Southeast Asia

Li, Yong Ding & Wen, Low Bing. (2016). The 100 Best Birdwatching Sites in Southeast Asia. John Beaufoy Publishing: UK. Pages 328.

Reviewed by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

From the humid lowland rainforests to the cool cloud forests of Southeast Asia’s tallest mountain, this book is a kaleidoscope of Southeast Asia’s biodiversity. However, this is not a coffee table book for armchair travellers. Its portable format suggests that it is intended to be a trip planning guide and one which some people may take with them for reference if they are embarking on a multi-country, multi-week big trip to the region. In this internet age, is such a book useful? Absolutely. Of the 11 countries covered in this book I have visited 6 of them and I know that internet research for identifying good sites is both time consuming and unreliable. The unreliability comes from a number of factors. Good sites may be masked in internet searches from poorer sites receiving better coverage because of a local patch birder or local community of enthusiasts who give it a higher web footprint.

Sometimes sites receive outstanding billing due to the work of months or years of scientific expeditions, but are virtually inaccessible on logistics for visiting birders. It helps enormously when local experts are able to write a compilation of top sites which take into account the relative richness of sites as well making a judicious and informed decision on site selection based on factors such as ease of access, food and lodging, etc. Such a compilation then can become the basis for more detailed research and for more current research using the internet.

One audience for this book is people who are not going on an organised birding tour and want to know if on a general tour, (e.g. a family holiday with children) if they can fit in some top birding and wildlife sites. Malaysia and Singapore are two countries with excellent sites that can even be fitted in on a day trip. Books like this can help to build confidence amongst visitors and even act as an eye- opener to the larger mainstream travel companies. This results in more visitor traffic to these sites which can be important for conservation when locals see their forests as a resource for income and careers. It also helps the hard-core birders who benefit from uplift to the quality and range of accommodation.

The book is edited by Yong Ding Li and Low Bing Wen. However, behind the cover page attribution to the two editors, an expert team has been brought into play with a number of locally based and visiting researchers, birders and professional tour leaders. An impressive 28 people are contributing authors. Members of the UK-based Oriental Bird Club will recognise familiar names from articles published in Birding Asia and Forktail.

The front sections introduce the reader to Asia's climate, geography and bird habitats. Not always found in site guides, is a useful overview to the families of birds found in the region.  For example, one learns that 7 species of megapodes, 105 pigeons and doves, 68 owls, 11 frogmouths, 11 nightjars, 45 kingfishers, 27 species of hornbills, etc. are found in the region. Each country has a map marked with the handful of chosen sites with a brief overview of travel practicalities of climate, health and safety logistics. The birdwatching highlights and the key facts box (number of endemics, number of birds in country list and top 5 birds) is a useful introduction to anyone who has not birded in that country. The site accounts also have boxed key facts and a high level local orientation map. The access & accommodation is clearly written by people who visit these sites and provide a useful baseline for further research using trip reports. I have learnt to be wary of any information published by local tourist authorities. Therefore, books like this and trip reports by people who have been actually out in the field are necessary for serious birders and photographers in planning their own trips. Although it is billed as a guide to the top 100 birdwatching sites, needless to say, this will apply to wildlife in general.

The end sections include an index to help locate species and sites. It also has a list of tour operators. I would have liked to have seen a bigger list arranged by country and those that operate regionally. Internet searches can be hit and miss in finding suitable tour operators. This is another reason why trip reports with recommendations are useful. Another good source of finding out specialist tour operators are the advertisements in the publications of regional bird clubs such as the Oriental Bird Club, African Bird Club, Neotropical Bird Club and the Ornithological Society of the Middle East.

At the start I said this is not a coffee table book. However, it has plenty of beautiful images of highly desirable birds to want you to go out to the wilderness areas of Asia. It is also laid out professionally with a design that makes navigation intuitive. It makes good use of space to pack in a lot of content without it feeling busy or too crammed. It's a very different product to some of the self-published site guides (not to take away from them as these are helpful too). What is perhaps not obvious to the untrained eye is that a book like this brings together a few hundred man-years of field time. Hopefully the publisher will extend this approach to other geographical regions. The obvious audience for the book is birders and wildlife photographers. But it will I am sure, also be a helpful resource for travel industry personnel in mainstream as well as nature specialist companies both in-country and overseas. The appetite for travel to the wilderness is growing and many mainstream tour operators may want to fit in an element of wildlife tourism into a standard cultural or round-trip tour. This book will provide ideas of what is possible and build a connection between mainstream travel and the more specialist birding and wildlife tours. As I mentioned before this can only be a good thing for the specialists who will benefit from an enhanced infrastructure. We see this even in the G7 countries such as the in the UK. The London Wetland Centre is a superb example of a prime nature reserve which is possible only because a huge volume of ordinary visitors generate the cash flow to maintain a nature reserve which is a jewel for birders and photographers.

So in conclusion, not a coffee table book, but a well-designed, fairly compact, fact packed guide to whet your appetite and give you the confidence to explore Asia's biodiversity whether you are a visitor or local to the region.

Useful Links





Advertising in the London Bird Atlas

The document 'Key Points for Advertisers' is being maintained here on this private blog page to make it easy for me as the Chair of the London Bird Club to update it frequently in response to questions and queries received.

(The LNHS is run by volunteers and I am being mindful of not asking for frequent changes on the official LNHS website from the web administrator who is a fellow volunteer).

 To email me, please return to the LNHS website.

LBA Key Points for Advertisers

Sunday, 13 November 2016

London Bird Club Talks: Autumn 2016- Spring 2017

All of the London Bird Club’s talks are listed in the full programme. For ease of reference, the season’s programme and details of the venue are listed below.  

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Field Notes: Yala from the Katagamuwa Entrance

[This articles was first published in the Autumn 2016 Quarterly Newsletter of the UK-based Friends of Sri Lanka Association].

On a visit to Sri Lanka in August 2016, I was an invited guest at Mahoora’s tented safari camp in Yala. It allowed me the opportunity to compare the two options for entry. The traditional entrance gate is via Kirinda and Palatupana. The larger tourist hotels by Jetwing and John Keells are just outside the buffer zone from the Palatupana gate. A large number of safari vehicles also arrive with guests from other hotels in the South-east, especially from Tissamaharama. On a diagonally opposite corner of the park, the route to the Katagamauwa entrance shares the public road to Sithulpahuwa, a well known Buddhist complex with a long cultural history and of archaeological interest. The accommodation that is presently available from Katagamuwa is mainly small guest houses and private bungalows, situated about half an hour’s drive from the national park entrance. Most of the properties which are permanent constructions (as opposed to being mobile) are not big enough to handle large tourist groups. Furthermore, most of them are not of a standard to be offered to tourists by the better known tour operators. The only facility that is presently available for large tour groups is the Mahoora tented campsite. Up to 70 tourists can be accommodated in luxury tents in what are actually two adjoining sites each accommodating around 30 plus tourists. Because the numbers are split between locations, and the tents are screened by thorn scrub it does not feels crowded. Mahoora has been operation for over a decade and is one of the pioneer tented safari camp operators. Their operation is well oiled with staff and facilities that emulates a tented safari experience modelled on offerings in East and South Africa. The tents have beds with fans and en-suite toilets. The meals were delicious with local produce and the presentation was good. Starters are followed by a main course and dessert with coffee or tea.

The camp service was good and mirrored African tented safaris with a wake-up call. You had the option to a breakfast pack on a safari. Most of the safari vehicles are booked by them through a local safari vehicle operator. They do have two of their own vehicles. Standards across the safari vehicles are fairly consistent with comfortable forward facing seats. At the time of my visit, they had two naturalists in residence who will need to be specially booked in advance. The Mahoora experience is not cheap and the clientele is almost entirely foreign tourists as many locals for that price prefer the hotels on the Palatupana entrance. Mahoora is however not the most expensive either, as other tented camp operator now provide air conditioned tents in an even higher price bracket.

There have been a number of criticisms raised recently that the park is over-crowded with safari vehicles. As the person who led the publicity to brand Sri Lanka as a destination for Leopard safaris and branding Yala (and more generally Sri Lanka) as a multi-day safari destination, I continue to receive a lot of criticism. My view always has been that the existing traffic can be managed and in fact substantially increased without over-crowding by managing the entire Yala Protected Area complex of 1,500 square kilometres for conservation and tourism in a strategic way rather than the present system of funnelling all visitors to Block 1 which is only 140 square kilometres. That is a topic I have discussed elsewhere. In this set of field notes, I want to discuss the ‘Katagamuwa experience’.

Entry from the Katagamuwa side has two advantages. Firstly, it is much shorter to the Talgasmankada-Meda Para area which I used to dub ‘Leopard City’ when I used to take journalists in the beginning of the 2000s when I was branding Sri Lanka for leopard safaris. This area still remains outstanding for leopard sightings and the much shorter access time and distance is a terrific advantage.  Some of the much complained about heavy traffic from the Palatupana side has petered out somewhat by the time one reaches Talgasmankada and this also helps as one does not feel that you are in a race with other safari vehicles to get to the best area. The second big advantage is in the evenings. As the Katagamuwa entrance is closer to Talgasmankada and Meda Para, one can leave much later improving the chances of a leopard sighting. 

Yala always seems to have a cub or sub-adult or pair of them that perform for the cameras. In August 2016, a pair of cubs were being seen at a small waterhole, about 15 minutes plus after the entry gate at Katagamuwa. On one game drive we saw the pair, followed by a sub-adult stalking a troop of Hanuman Langur at Warahana followed by another sub-adult which crossed the road past Ehelawala, all within a few kilometres of each other as the crow flies. Yala is always rewarding and besides leopard I enjoyed observing crocodiles hunting in Korawakka Wewa, the first of the man-made lakes encountered when you enter from Katagamuwa. This was the first time I had stayed on the Katagamuwa side and I am a convert to its advantages.

Useful links



de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2016).  Notes from the Field: Yala from the Katagamuwa Entrance. Friends of Sri Lanka Association (FOSLA). Autumn 2016 Quarterly Newsletter. Pages 9-10. Issued 2 October 2016.
Yala National Park from the Katagamuwa entrances and staying with Mahoora in their tented safari camp. Encounters with leopards and crocodiles.


Saturday, 3 September 2016

'Foxed Unearthed' Interview with author Lucy Jones

‘Foxed Unearthed’ published in 2016 provides a richly balanced account of an animal that is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Whether it is in the tabloid press or in nursery rhymes, attitudes to it vary from deep affection to fear suspicion. In Britain, it receives media attention not received by any other animal. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne discusses the background to a timely book with Lucy Jones author of ‘Foxes Unearthed: A Story of Love and Loathing' in Modern Britain' published by Elliot & Thompson in London.

How did the idea of a book come about and how long did you work on the book?
I was approached by Jennie Condell, publisher of Elliott & Thompson, who had seen my wildlife blog Wildlife Daily and was looking for someone to write a book about foxes. Already fascinated by the fox and how it had been perceived over the centuries and in the modern day, I was immediately interested, pitched how I would go about it and got to work! It took around 8 months to research, write and edit.

How did you go about finding a publisher?
I was very lucky that they found me!

The book covers a huge number of topics from history to countryside management. Many of the issues are complex, political and emotionally charged. Were there moments when you felt what you had taken on was too big a task to fit into one book? How did you manage to keep going in those dark moments?
I relished it. It was a pleasure to do lots of reading and learning around the subject, particularly in ecology, conservation and the history of how animals have been treated in Britain (often quite galling, to be honest) and the culture of hunting. It was often a challenge to present the closest approximation to the truth around various issues, such as the evidence that the fox suffers in a hunt, or the conflicting studies and arguments around whether culling foxes actually makes a difference to their numbers because they self-regulate their population, but I aimed to approach the subject journalistically and present all sides to allow the reader to make up their own mind. I recall a conversation with the anthropologist Garry Marvin when I was feeling a little frustrated about trying to find ‘the truth’. He said to me, ‘there is no truth, just different interpretations of it.’

What makes the book interesting is that you went out into the field to meet scientists, conservationists, hunt saboteurs and a raft of people whose lives have been touched by foxes. What was the highlight of your time out in the field?
I love interviewing scientists and meeting Dawn Scott was a pleasure. They are always so generous with their time and passionate about their research. After years of interviewing bands who don’t particularly like opening up, it’s a real joy! In terms of field trips, I found the day I spent with hunt saboteurs fascinating. It’s a really interesting sub-culture that’s been going since the mid-60s and it was unlike anything I’d experienced before. I enjoyed finding out why they do what they do even when it can be dangerous.

It must be incredibly satisfying to finally have the book out in print and well received by a number of prominent wildlife commentators. If you reflect on how the book has impacted you, do you feel it has changed your outlook on how you see people or conservation issues.
It really is; it’s been amazing. I suppose it has given me confidence that the written word can make a difference, however grand that might sound. Many of my messages from readers of the book have expressed how it changed their minds about foxes. They often say, ‘I love foxes now’, or something along those lines. I think it also taught me that it’s always worth acknowledging how differently some people feel to others, and looking at what might be behind that, asking questions and listening. For example, someone who hates foxes in urban areas might seem a bit narrow-minded at first, but there may be a reason behind it: they’ve read loads of scaremongering stories in particular newspapers that paint the fox as a psychotic villain or they’ve heard myths and rumours for years that just aren’t true. I think ecological literacy is so important in changing attitudes towards wildlife and our landscape and the press have a responsibility for that.

If you had room for another chapter, what would it be?
I’d have liked to look at how foxes live and are treated in other areas of the world. I’d love to explore and compare the habits and behaviours of the red fox with, for example, the arctic fox and the fennec fox.

For someone whose career began in writing for a music magazine, this book is a remarkable change in direction. How did this come about and what advice would you offer any aspiring nature writers as a lesson from your own transformation?
I started my career at The Daily Telegraph, where I worked for four years, following reporting at a local newspaper, so I had a pretty good journalistic training before moving to NME and specialising in music. Over the last few years, I started to realise what a dire state the planet is in and wanted to write more about environment, nature, science and wildlife. I set up a blog - Wildlife Daily - and left NME to write freelance for publications and websites like BBC Earth, the Guardian, TIME, Newsweek and others. I think setting up a blog is a really good way of finding your voice and working out what you want to write about. Also it gives you the opportunity to build a community of people who care about the same thing. Keep notes! It can be a good idea to make notes about the things you see on walks and nature trips and the words you like. I wish I’d kept more notes over the years and I’m more diligent about it these days. It’s a bit obvious but reads loads of nature writers, too, to work out what you like. I’ve got a lot of inspiration over the last couple of years from people like Rebecca Solnit, the late Nan Shepherd and Barry Lopez.

Buy the book
Amazon UK

The images below are not from the book. They illustrate foxes in London. Top three images (c) Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne and show a fox that had got through the protective mesh at the London Wetland Centre. The bottom four images are (c) Shehan Silva and show a family of foxes that was raised in a back yard in a suburb of London.

Mammals of Sri Lanka - Special Price

The Mammals of Sri Lanka
Asoka Yapa (author) and Gamini Ratnavira (artist). Published in 2013 by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka. 1,012 pages.

Special Offer: Reduced to 1/3 original price
Priced initially at Rupees 7,500 remaining stocks of the book are now available at a special stock disposal price of Rupees 2,500 from the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka (FOGSL), Dept. of Zoology, University of Colombo, Kumaratunga Munidasa Mawatha, Colombo 3 (Tel: 250 1332).
The Mammals of Sri Lanka' by Asoka Yapa (author) and Gamini Ratnavira (artist) (published by the Field Ornithology Group of Sri Lanka, University of Colombo, 2013) is the first comprehensive book on Sri Lanka's mammal fauna since 1935. A foreword by zoological icon Rohan Pethiyagoda, an introduction to the island's mammals, a survey of Sri Lankan zoogeography, and a review of primary literary sources precede the treatment of mammals. The book introduces the taxonomic orders of mammals in Sri Lanka in their evolutionary, taxonomic, and ecological contexts. Family descriptions follow, after which are species by species accounts that cover morphology, behaviour, ecology, diet, reproduction, distribution within Sri Lanka, and conservation status and concerns. Where there are significant differences among subspecies within the island, these are described and illustrated. For the first time, there are distribution maps for all the terrestrial mammals, drawings of dive sequences for the large whales, and representations of footprints and scat of selected species.

The 1012-page, 20.5 x 28 cm book is richly illustrated in full colour with plates by internationally famed wildlife artist Ratnavira and by the stunning photographs of Sri Lanka's leading wildlife photographers. Most of the illustrations have never been published before and include species that have only recently been discovered. A comprehensive bibliography containing over 500 references will assist those wanting to find out more about Sri Lanka's rich mammal fauna. Written with the wildlife enthusiast in mind, the book will be also useful to students and professional zoologists. The volume was printed and bound in Sri Lanka using sustainably-sourced papers and inks and the authors and illustrators have donated all proceeds to promote wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka.

Priced initially at 7500/- rupees per volume, the book is now available from FOGSL, Dept. of Zoology, University of Colombo, Kumaratunga Munidasa Mawatha, Colombo 3 (Tel.: 250-1332) for the cost price of 2,500 rupees, an astonishing bargain.


''The Mammals of Sri Lanka' is not merely the work of reference its hundreds of pages would seem to make it. It can be read with pleasure from cover to cover and, despite its heft, will prove invaluable also in the field'.
Rohan Pethiyagoda in Foreword to the book.

'(A) sumptuously illustrated opus... exquisitely written...the meticulous attention to detail by the first author has created an encyclopaedic volume on the current knowledge of mammals in Sri Lanka'
Dr. Burton Lim in book review in Journal of Mammalogy (USA).

 '(The book is) lovely, very lovely'
Prof. Hal Whitehead, Professor, Cetacean Science, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

 'An absolutely impressive book. The pictures and painting are superb...the scientific content... is very strong. The sections on bats, shrews and whales, relatively neglected groups in most books on mammals, are absolutely excellent. I love your style: a strong concern for accuracy of facts interspersed with occasional and always relevant personal comments. I particularly enjoyed your anecdote on wild boar curry on page 614' .
Emeritus Professor Cyrille Barrette, Laval University, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

'...a mammoth effort'
Malaka Rodrigo, Sunday Times, Sri Lanka.




Foreword by Rohan Pethiyagoda   11

Encomiums   17

Sri Lanka's Mammals: An Introduction   23

Mammals in Sri Lanka: Primary Sources   35

Sri Lanka: Geology and Biogeography   43

Author's Note and Acknowledgements   51


Sri Lanka's Terrestrial and Marine Mammals   63

   Order Sirenia: Dugongs and Manatees   65

   Order Proboscidea: Elephants   79

   Order Primates: Lorises, Monkeys, Lemurs, and Relatives   121

   Order Rodentia: Rats, Squirrels, Mice, Porcupines, and Relatives   189

   Order Lagomorpha: Hares and Pikas   293

   Order Eulipotyphla: Shrews, Hedgehogs, and Moles   303

   Order Chiroptera: Bats   337

   Order Carnivora: Cats, Civets, Mongooses, Dogs, Bears, Weasels, and Pinnipeds   459

   Order Pholidota: Pangolins  585

   Super-Order Cetartiodactyla: Even-Toed Ungulates and Whales   599

   Order Artiodactyla: Deer, Chevrotains, Antelopes, Pigs, Giraffes, True Ruminants, and Hippopotamuses   605

   Order Cetacea: Whales and Dolphins   685


Introduced Mammals   857

Bibliography   876


Appendix I: Glossary   916

Appendix II: The Cetacean-Watching Industry   930

Appendix III: Dive Sequences of the Larger Whales   936

Appendix IV: Spoor and Scat of Selected Genera of Sri Lankan Mammals   944

Appendix V: Dental Formulae of Selected Genera of Sri Lankan Mammals   954


Addenda   960

Index of Common Names   972

Index of Scientific Names   976

Sri Lanka's Mammals Names: Scientific, English, and Sinhala Equivalents   980

Sri Lanka's Mammals Names: Scientific, English, and Tamil Equivalents   988

Checklist of Sri Lankan Mammals   996

Sunday, 17 July 2016

LNHS Learning: Posters of London's Wildlife

'LNHS Learning' in its present form is a series of educational posters through which the London Natural History Society (LNHS) plans to cover many of the commoner fauna and flora of London. The posters which are aimed at a young audience are intended to be printed off onto A3 so that they can be put up on a classroom wall or child's bedroom. They will also print onto A4. Over time, posters covering advanced topics (e.g. identification of gulls) will also be prepared catering to an older audience.  Anyone is welcome to upload these posters to a private or commercial website or blog as long as the pdf is kept in entirety.

You can drag and drop the entire set of PDFs easily way, from this Google folder. Alternatively open the poster PDFs individually from the table below.

LNHS Learn Poster

High Res version

(Use these versions for high quality printing)

  Email friendly version 

LNHS Learning 10 Birds of London

LNHS Learning 20 Butterflies of London Part 1

LNHS Learning 20 Butterflies of London Part 2

LNHS Learning 10 Dragonflies of London

Note that this is not an official LNHS page. As the series coordinator I am using my blog as a test page.

Thursday, 5 May 2016

Book Review: Phillipps' Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and their Ecology

Phillipps' Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and their Ecology
By Quentin Phillipps and Karen Phillipps. 372 pages. John Beaufoy Publishing Ltd: UK. Published in March 2016

 Reviewed by Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne

This is an extraordinary book and is a paradigm shift from what a field guide should be. It is also likely to generate some debate on the layout. The genre police are also likely to get quite upset with this book which seems to be a handbook, field guide, a rainforest ecology book and a bedside read with various interesting titbits thrown in of ‘…did you know that….’


We all know what a field guide should be. There are text accounts of species and plates with photographs of the species or illustrations usually on a white background. In the bad old days when colour printing was expensive, the colour plates were in a block of pages which required some furious thumbing to and fro to read the text and check the colour plates to figure out how you told apart the ‘Greater Forest-thing’ from the ‘Lesser Forest-thing’  for some guidance (field characters in technical parlance), or how else to figure out ‘Long-tailed Forest-skulk’ from the ’Short-tailed Forest-skulk’ because when you photographed it, it was unfortunately not sufficiently obliging as to bring its tail into view. By and large, field guides to mammals were fished out of the book bag on a ‘need to’ basis and did not result in anti-social behaviour. This field guide runs the risk that some tour participants may find themselves dipping into the field guide for its various insights into ecology or behaviour or historical titbits (e.g. how some animal or plant was collected by a zoological explorer in the 19th century) etc. to the detriment of social interaction with other tour participants.

Would it work as a field guide? I am confident that this book would have served me well on my previous trips to Borneo. The plates are good with many species having geographical races and colour morphs illustrated and the text on identification is clear. But what is more interesting is that users of this book will come away with a dimension that is typically missing in other field guides; which is the wider and possibly more interesting issues on ecology, behaviour and conservation. Many field guides attempt to address this in the front and end sections. As an author myself of photographic field guides, I have introduced text boxes to provide additional detail. What makes this book so intriguing is the degree to which it has introduced additional information. This comes at a cost. It looks busy. I tested the book on others and the initial reaction was the same with people who are used to field guides. It feels too cluttered was the initial complaint. But once the culture shock has worn off, it is not long before you wish all field guides were as informative as this. What is more, unlike a conventional field guide, this is one you will feel like leaving around to dip into. It is a field guide with a lot of extras.

The amount of detail in the book is extraordinary and the author has taken a further leap with departing from the tradition of popular field guides by providing references in the text. This is at odds with the young audience layout style which is used to cram the rainforest ecology into the field guide. All in all, a bold adventure by the author, artist and publisher. The experiment works because the type of person who buys a field guide to the mammals of Borneo is likely to be a well-read and interested adult who will have the appetite for reading this extra content.

I was not initially comfortable with the light yellow shading on the text boxes, and the sheer density of information. But after a few sessions with the book, any discomfort with the packed layout fades away and you begin instead to take in the wealth of material. Normally, on wildlife tours, a heavy field guide may be kept in the book bag in the vehicle and some long form books on the natural history of a country will be in the luggage left behind in the hotel room. This book combines multiple books which makes it a tad heavy. As someone who carries a lot of photographic gear into the field and a bird field guide, I anticipate that birders who are similarly laden with gear will leave this one in the vehicle so that it is close at hand for consultation and carry with them the field guide to the birds of Borneo if they have to ration the books in their day pack. (The same author and artist duo have also published a field guide to the birds of Borneo in which they began their experiment with introducing a lot of text boxes). But if mammals are your thing, I can’t imagine someone not wanting to have this in the field with them.

In addition to the illustrations by Karen Phillipps, a number of photographs are also used, many of which are from camera traps which illustrate something about the nocturnal behaviour or elusiveness of many of these mammals. The text by Quentin Phillipps is first-rate and shows not only the personal insight of someone who has been in the field but the voracious appetite he has for consuming  a vast amount of scientific material and his passion for sharing it with a popular audience.

The book covers the 247 land mammals (an incredible 63 are endemic) and 30 marine mammals. But in several places there are references to scientific papers which hint that the actual number of mammal species may be much higher due to what are known as cryptic species; animals that look the same as another but are shown to be different from studying their genetic make-up. At the end is a very useful guide to 25 of Borneo’s top wildlife watching sites and throughout, the book is richly illustrated with 150 distribution maps. For a book on mammals, there is a huge wealth of material on plants which provides the ecological context for many of the mammals. The front has a visual index to the mammalian orders and the endpapers have a map of Borneo.


Many double-page layouts cover just 2-3 species, indicating a generous allocation of pages. But so many illustrations and fact boxes are included, there is not much white space which may give the contrary impression that the allocation of space per species has not been generous. A number of species have an entire page or even a double page allowing this to be more of a full-fledged handbook in content although in field guide shape and weight for portability. The page allocation allows many subspecies of mammals to be illustrated and their ranges to be shown in maps with text boxes discussing taxonomic issues and recent research on efforts to establish how many species are present. The confusion around Prevsot’s Squirrel with its many forms is one of many such examples which has warranted a useful double page just for this animal. Having a gifted illustrator has also helped whether it is to show a party of Sculptor Squirrels feeding together or the gliding action of the Colugo. A cute mother and baby of the Red Langur illustrates how some babies grow into the adult colour and some do not. Accompanying this is a discussion of asymmetric mimicry. Red Langurs seem to mimic the Orang Utan. With classical mimicry, the model is more abundant. In this example, the mimic is ten times more abundant. Why? I won’t spoil it by explaining it here. You turn over the page and there is the cute Western Tarsier with illustrations of pitcher plants which bring together botany and historical accounts of naturalist explorers; something which the author is very adept at doing.

The double page on the False Vampire Bat and the Hollow-faced Bat is another radical departure from the classic field guide format. Here we have a molecular phylogenetic diagram that shows these two very similar animals actually belong to different evolutionary branches that diverged 50 million years ago. The illustrations by Karen Phillipps and a full-page photo show the remarkable convergent evolution of how two animals that separated 50 million years ago still came out looking so similar. But there is also the even more extraordinary fact that both evolutionary branches evolved the use of sonar independently. It is a bold step by the publisher and author to depart from the classical field guide but the results are wonderful in a book which drives home so many important messages varying from evolution and biogeography to the difficult choices faced in practical conservation. This book also reminds us that the role of the illustrator will continue to remain important in the age of digital photography. It would be so difficult to obtain quality images of a Mountain Treeshrew perched atop a pitcher plant or a cut-out showing a Woolly Bat roosting inside a pitcher plant.  You will need to read the book to understand more of the relationship between these different mammals and the enigmatic pitcher plants or to read about the discovery that a particular pitcher plant species has evolved a special acoustic reflector to enable Woolly Bats to echo-locate them in dense vegetation.

With most field guides, the objective is to help you put a name to a species you have seen. To understand context, you may need the equivalent of a book like John Kricher’s ‘A Neotropical Companion’ (Princeton University Press) or ‘Kenya A natural History by Stephen Spawls and Glenn Mathews (Bloomsbury). Quentin and Karen Phillipps have put together a fascinating field guide which provides the identification information plus useful context for the role of an animal in an eco system or historical or other relevance with topics varying from archaeological evidence to the Economics of Externalities.


Alfred Russell Wallace who independently arrived at the theory of evolution by natural selection spent time collecting in Sarawak (a part of Malaysian Borneo) thereby adding an important historical aspect on how Borneo has influenced thinking on evolution. Borneo is the third largest island in the world and together with Madagascar is especially of interest to botanists and zoologists for the large number of species and the high rates of endemism arising from species evolving in isolation from the mainland. I have long been fascinated by Borneo and its natural history ever since I first visited the island as a backpacking birder in search of the special birds and other wildlife on Mount Kinabalu, the tallest mountain in South-East Asia. I was back again a few years ago with my family in Mount Kinabalu listening to the evocative calls of Mountain Barbets echoing across forested valleys and holding my breath as a Yellow-throated Marten bounded past me. Even if you are not planning an immediate trip to Borneo, this is a book you can dip into, to experience some of the magic of being in a tropical rainforest. If you are going to Borneo take this in your hand luggage so that your in-flight reading is taken care of.


The images of the Colugo and Tourists in Borneo are not from the book. Images taken in Borneo by the reviewer of the book.