GTT Trip Report

Natgeo Photo Ark scientific advisor

Dear Green Teen Team members,

Before telling you more about how wonderfully well my Photozoo Asian Lecture trip went, I would like to thank you again for your support and your dedication. Know that the Green Teen Team has been an important part of my presentations in zoos and universities around Mainland Malaysia and Singapore. The introduction slides made a positive impact on people and I was asked questions about GTT in all my lectures.

Thanks to the Green Teen Team support, I was able to go back to South-East Asia for 3 full weeks and, not only have I been delivering presentations about my job, the National Geographic Photo Ark and the Green Teen Team, I was also blessed with many sightings of rare species. Amongst these, more than 50 are completely new for my Photozoo project and some have seldom been documented since their description.


One of the main purposes of this trip was to attend the SEAZA (South East Asian Zoo Association) yearly conference held in Manila. The whole event lasted 3 days and there were two additional days for workshops dealing with animal welfare and nutrition. Overall, the conference was a great success and the Philzoo Association (hosting this event) did an awesome job. We were greeted by cultural performances from indigenous tribes, local food and, most important of all, presentations and workshops done by worldwide known specialists such as Dr Francis Cabana (from Singapore Zoo) on primate nutrition and Dr Angel Alcala (from Philippines) on the conservation of Philippine wildlife and the work of late conservationist William Oliver.

SEAZA: During the Natgeo Photo Ark talk

On the second day of the event, I had to deliver a 15 minutes presentation of the National Geographic Photo Ark project (a partner of Green Teen Team). This presentation was very well received and I was awarded a certificate by the CEO of WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquarium), Doug Cress, who attended the whole event. I was glad to see that this lecture seems to have made a very positive impact on many members of the audience, including conservationists from the Philippines who were moved by the awesome pictures of Joel Sartore, showcased in my presentation.

This event allowed me to meet with many people working in zoos around Asia and to prepare the grounds for potential shootings for Joel Sartore in different Asian countries such as Thailand, China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Myanmar. Some European zoos were also represented, one of them was Tierpark Berlin (one of Europe’s biggest zoo collections).

The third day of the event was spent outside Manila, in the campus of the University of the Philippines, about 2 hours away from Manila, near a protected natural area. I was lucky to spend time with the curator of the reptiles and insects collection of the Museum of Natural History on the university’s grounds. I provided insights in keeping of live pitvipers (especially on feeding) and documented endemic stick insects and frogs. While most zoo officials were enjoying a break away from the heat, I scouted the grasslands nearby the Rice Museum and was lucky to spot a juvenile Philippine toad, an endemic species that still remains poorly known to science.

The rare endemic Philippine toad that I found near the rice museum

Together with Wroclaw Zoo’s President, Dr Radoslaw Ratajszczak, we chose to spend our last day in the Philippines visiting Avilon Zoo (Philippine’s biggest zoo and home to Philzoo association who hosted the SEAZA Conference). Wroclaw zoo is now the world’s second biggest animal collection and Dr Ratajszczak is involved in conservation programs around the world. Getting to spend a whole day with him at Avilon Zoo was a blessing. We talked about his upcoming projects, including the very difficult Saola breeding center project in Vietnam and he showed great interest in the work carried out by the Green Teen Team. Although I already knew Avilon Zoo’s collection well (it was my fifth visit to this zoo, second one this year), I was still surprised as they just collected a very poorly known carnivore mammal species known as the Palawan stink-badger. This very peculiar looking animal has never been displayed in any zoos around the world so Dr Ratajszczak and I felt very fortunate to see and document this exciting species.

Philippines Avilon Zoo: The very rare Palawan stink-badger

Our day at Avilon Zoo ended with the visit of the backstage areas of the reptile breeding center located on the zoo’s grounds. The work done here is famous as this center is the place where the endangered Butaan, known also as Gray’s monitor, has been bred in captivity for the first time. This endangered giant lizard species has a very small range and feeds mostly on fruits (this behavior is only known from three monitor species, all of them endemic to the Philippines and threatened). We were greeted by the curator of the center who showed us the latest hatchlings and incubating eggs of the Butaan.

Philippines Avilon Zoo: The endangered and so particular Butaan, known as Gray’s monitor

On a more personal point, this visit to Avilon Zoo was also important as it allowed me to further discuss the details of a possible joint captive breeding program (Europe and Philippines) on endangered and endemic pitviper species. We are now in the final stages of preparation before starting the captive breeding program, first in Philippines, then in European collections (both private and public). Thanks to the Green Teen Team support, this conservation breeding project is now one step closer from becoming reality.


The next step of my trip was to go on the island of Borneo, particularly in the north-east area called Sabah (A province that belongs to Malaysia). The purpose of my visit was mostly personnal as I wanted to document more Bornean endemic animals for Photozoo, and in particular two jewels: The Bornean Bristlehead and the Whitehead’s trogon. Those two bird species are known to occur within the protected areas of Sabah and there are reliable sightings on them at places I chose to visit during my short stay.

I first started by spending a day around Croker’s range. This mountain range is still home to a reasonable amount of protected forest although finding animals there is quite a challenge. The reason of my coming was to take a few pictures of both intact and disturbed habitats for my presentations on animal conservation and visit the Kipandi Butterfly Farm. This remote place houses a nice collection of endemic butterflies from Borneo and some beetles according to the season. They do great breeding and conservation work with Bornean butterflies as they release most of the specimens bred at the farm each year.

A view of Mount Kinabalu and surrounding primary forest

The second day was devoted to the Kinabalu Park. This very large protected area is home to the last untouched primary forest of north-east Borneo and most high-prized mountain endemics can be found there reliably, including one of my targets, the Whitehead’s trogon. The breathtaking views of Mount Kinabalu and its forest are already enough to justify a trip there (it takes about 2 hours by car to drive from Kota Kinabalu city to the park’s headquarters). Mount Kinabalu is South-east Asia’s highest mountain, towering at an impressive height of 4095 meters above sea level and still growing.

Borneo Croker Range: view of the good areas of forests from the road in Croker range, Sabah, Malaysia.

Unfortunately, because of heavy rains during the last days, the main trail of Kinabalu Park (and the only place where Whitehead’s trogon is reliably spotted) was closed to public and we could only walk around the secondary trails. The trogon remained hidden (but I haven’t given up… I will be back !) but I was fortunate to spot the last of the Asian green treepie species I needed to see, the elusive and poorly known Bornean green treepie, recognizable by its clear eye. A pair was gathering nesting material around the trail and paid little to no attention to me and my guide. Overall, spotting wild birds in the rainforest is a very difficult task as most of the species join what birders call “mixed flocks”. One can literally spend hours around not finding anything, not even hearing a chirping sound, when suddenly, a group including many different bird species will come out of nowhere, feed in nearby fruiting trees and then will disappear as fast as it showed up.

The rare Bornean green treepie in Kinabalu Park

My last day on Borneo (but not in Malaysia) was spent around the town of Sandakan, located an hour of plane away from Kota Kinabalu. This town is famous as nearby is found the protected area known as Sepilok, a wild orangutan rehabilitation center that is open to the public. The place attracts lots of tourists each year, flocking to see wild rehabilitated orangutans. My visit had a slightly different purpose as I headed to Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center to try to spot the elusive and endangered Bornean Bristlehead from the watchtowers and the canopy boardwalk located in a nice patch of secondary forest. The bristlehead was nowhere to be seen (it takes a great deal of luck to even hear one these days) but I was greeted by a nice flock of Bushy-crested hornbills (a species not displayed nor bred in zoos outside Asia) feeding in a nearby fruiting tree.

After a whole morning of fruitless bristlehead quest, I decided to head out of the Rainforest Discovery Center and check out Sandakan Crocodile farm (one of the last zoos in Malaysia I haven’t visited yet). The place didn’t gather many positive reviews so I thought it would be a relatively quick visit. At first, things went as expected with many crocodiles (including some huge specimens) kept in big exhibits. I was far from imagining that this place would end up yielding two very rare Bornean endemic birds found in nearby aviaries, namely the Strickland’s shama and the very rare Sabah partridge. Seeing the partridge seemed almost unreal for me as the species has been so poorly known and little documented. It is probably the first known occurrence of this species occurring in a captive environment.

The very rare Sabah partridge, never displayed in zoos before

After exhausting the possibilities that this facility had to offer, I chose to head, with my driver, to Labuk Bay proboscis monkey sanctuary to spot wild proboscis monkeys in their environment. This Bornean specialty is now endangered in the wild. There are a few protected areas where this species still occurs but it is usually difficult to find unless the troop has been habituated (usually by the means of regular feeding) as this is the case in Labuk Bay. Seeing free-roaming proboscis monkeys is always a treat of course but during this trip, I was also blown away (in a very negative way) by the extent of deforestation in eastern Borneo. Thousands of hectares of forests have been cleared to give way to Palm tree plantations, used for palm oil extraction. There is little to no lowland forest left in eastern Borneo and even Sepilok reserve is now under threat as the forests nearby are now cleared as well living very little space for lowland specialists (such as the Bornean Bristlehead).

A male proboscis monkey in the sanctuary

Before catching my plane to Kuala Lumpur (on mainland Malaysia), I decided to go back to Sepilok Rainforest Discovery Center for a few minutes of additional birding. Still no bristlehead but the visit yielded nice views of the Collared broadbill, a forest specialist that is usually very difficult to see despite its vivid coloration. Even the car park at Sepilok can be full of surprises! As I was heading out, I spotted some movement in a flowery shrub near my taxi. A quick investigation provided cracking views of a male Copper-throated sunbird feeding on flower nectar.

One of the Bushy-crested hornbills found in the morning, in a fruiting tree


The collared broadbill viewed from the boardwalk at Rainforest Discovery Center


The lake located behind the entrance of the Rainforest discovery center


The purpose of my week in mainland Malaysia was to give presentations about Photozoo, my work as National Geographic scientific advisor, the Photo Ark project and animal conservation issues. I was lucky to be welcomed by Zoo Negara (National Zoo of Malaysia) and Zoo Taiping (Malaysia’s biggest zoo) to give lectures about animal conservation. The Green Teen Team slides were included in these presentations and both people working in zoos, volunteers and people working in NGO’s asked questions about the kind of education and conservation programs carried by the Green Teen Team.

Thanks to the education team of Zoo Negara, I was also able to deliver two presentations in front of students at the Nottingham University in Kuala Lumpur and in the beautiful campus of Universiti Utara Malaysia. The Nottingham University presentation was about the conservation work carried by zoos whereas the presentation at Universiti Utara Malaysia in Perlis (north of Malaysia) dealt with animal photography and my experiences as a photographer and advisor.

My time in Universiti Utara Malaysia was particularly fulfilling with the visit of the extraordinary green campus (including patches of protected forests) and the sight of three huge trees known as the “three sisters”. I could also exchange with local conservationists working for the conservation of networks of caves on Sarawak and Mainland Malaysia. These caves, as I could see on their pictures, are amazing both in their composition (some of them are really huge) and the diversity of wildlife they house (some endemic lizards and frogs are found there and nowhere else on earth).

While around Kuala Lumpur, I was also requested to help the Zoo Negara curators to check out the accuracy of the zoo’s inventory and re-identify problematic species and subspecies. This morning was very fruitful as we managed to erase and correct about a dozen mistakes and clarify identification for at least 15 additional animal taxa. I am also going to be involved in the creation of the collection plan of the new reptile house for the zoo (the zoo’s major renovation project, to be opened around 2020).


Singapore was the last stop of this trip. I have been to Singapore on every single trip I made to Asia to document the evolution of the conservation and husbandry programs at the Wildlife Reserves (Zoo, River Safari, Night Safari and Jurong Bird Park). The Wildlife Reserves Singapore is one of South-East Asia’s most prominent actors in wildlife conservation, conservation education and scientific studies about plants and animals. The exhibits found in the four parks are world class and often used as references by other zoos around the world. Being invited by the Head of the Conservation department of the Wildlife Reserves to give a presentation about my work was a real honor for me and a fantastic way to conclude this trip. I didn’t fail to mention the work done by the Green Teen Team during this talk and the education team of Singapore zoo has shown great interest.

Amongst the species observed in their collections were the Lear and Spix’s macaws, the two most endangered species of great parrots in the world. These are part of a brand new conservation project done in collaboration with the Brazilian government. I was also lucky to be able to photograph the Singapore crab, an endemic species only found in the freshwater marshes near Changi Airport and now endangered by loss of habitat and water pollution.

Singapore 1: The Spix’s macaw, inspiration to the animation movie Rio, extinct in the wild.

Last but not least, I also visited my friend Andrew Clarke, manager of the animal collection of the world class SEA Aquarium located on Sentosa Island, near Singapore. The facility houses the biggest collection of animals on display anywhere in Asia with more than 1200 species. They are funding conservation projects linked with sea water habitats and are breeding many of their fishes, including rare sharks. The full day spent in the aquarium yielded more than 1500 pictures for Photozoo!

Pierre de Chabannes

Founder, Photozoo

Natgeo Photo Ark scientific advisor