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Diary of a Marathon Ape Man

One of the world's leading great ape conservation experts Ian Redmond will be running in the Flora London Marathon on Sunday April 18th 2004 in aid of the Ape Alliance and Born Free Ape Projects - from Gentil and other chimp orphans at Lwiro Sanctuary in Congo, to the UN Great Apes Survival Project.

Born Free will be monitoring his progress as he juggles his vital conservation work with preparation for the great race and Caribzones is proud to be associated with this worthy cause.

February 25th 2004

Today saw my sixth training run, and for the first time I was really looking forward to it. No, not because I've suddenly joining the ranks of the super-fit - after my ill-conceived idea of jogging downstairs from the 24th floor of my hotel in Kuala Lumpur last week, my legs still ache at every step even when walking. My delight at the prospect of this morning's run was on account of its location.

Last week at the CBD CoP in Kuala Lumpur, I learned of a BBEC conference in KK - that is the Bornean Biodiversity & Ecosystem Conservation conference in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah, East Malaysia - from Tuesday to Thursday this week (for comers to the 'fun with initials' website, please see earlier diary entries for unexplained acronyms). I'd not come across BBEC before, but as Born Free had asked me to visit Sabah to look into an elephant issue and all of the key people I needed to see would be at the conference, I put my name down on the list. Good move as it turned out, in more ways than one.

The two and a half hour Air Asia flight from KL to KK took most of Monday, what with getting to and from airports and the interminable hanging around and security checks. I rang some contacts while waiting, and arranged to have dinner with Mike Steel, a KK based environmental consultant, and his wife Judy. It was two years since my first visit to Sabah for GRASP, and I was keen to catch up on local s.

We were joined by Emily Blackwell, from the Woodmark office in Bristol, who by chance was in KK for a separate meeting with WWF on FSC certification (that's the Forest Stewardship Council, which certifies timber from environmentally sound sources, and whose logo (right) should be on any wooden product you buy!). That seemed quite a coincidence, especially when we recalled we had met each other once when I visited her office a couple of yeas ago. But more was to come: during the course of the evening it emerged that Emily had lived for over a year next-door-but-one to my home in Bristol. It is a sad reflection on city life, but we'd never bumped into each other during that time (though she remembered seeing me doing some job or other up on the roof) and that fickle finger of fate made us travel to Borneo in order to have a proper conversation.

The evening ended on an even more bizarre note when we visited the house that Mike and Judy had recently bought and renovated. It has spectacular views over KK and (on a clear day) Mount Kinabalu dominates the horizon, but it was the wardrobe door that was the unlikely focus of our attention. As the layers of old varnish had been stripped away, several pairs of eye-like knots peered out, and once polished, the surrounding grain looked eerily like a community of suspended orangutans, keeping watch over anyone who slept in the room. Judy reckoned it was a message from the forest itself to save the orangutan; definitely an item for the Fortean Times Simulacra Corner.

Mike kindly gave me a lift to the BBEC conference the next morning in his very elderly but well maintained BMW (Borneo Motor Works, he claims that stands for). The venue was Nexus, a huge five-star resort some way out of town. I left my luggage in reception and headed straight for the conference hall, barely taking in the opulence of the dining room and pool area, or manicured gardens with ponds and fountains.

Datuk ChongWhile waiting for the Chief Minister to arrive and open the proceedings, I managed to have a word with Datuk Chong Kah Kiat, Sabah's Minister for Tourism, Culture and Environment, with whom Born Free's David Jay had been corresponding about the elephants I had come to see.

Datuk Chong Kah Kiat, Sabah's Minister of Tourism Culture and Environment takes a strong stand against development that is un-environmental.

The elephants had reportedly been captured in an attempt to reduce crop-raiding and were slated for shipment to zoos in China until a public outcry caused a rethink (see article). Born Free had offered to help in deciding their fate, hoping to see them released back into the wild, along with support for reducing human-elephant conflict. The Minister thanked us for our concern and offer of assistance, but before we got to the nitty-gritty, the Chief Minister arrived and we had to take our seats.

By lunchtime, the battery in my video was completely flat so I rushed off to locate my room to recharge it. Typical - it was almost the furthest from reception along an open, winding 4th floor corridor, with rooms on the left and a view of the Spa and golf course on the right. At intervals, there were gaps between the blocks of rooms and I was wafted by soft sea air and the sound of surf. Gradually, despite being in my MMS (Meet the Minister Suit, with a DFGF gorilla tie) I could feel my body relaxing and my mind edging into holiday mode, especially when I entered my room and opened the sliding doors onto the balcony: palm trees, blue sea, gentle waves on long white beach… aaah, yessss! Er no, NO, NO!! Focus Redmond - plug in battery charger, straighten tie and return to networking over lunch. From that moment on, my anticipation of this morning's run grew by the minute.

The networking opportunities were fantastic- both for GRASP and the elephants - but all too brief. All the key players were conveniently in one place, but most of the day was taken up with formal speeches and presentations. I managed to present Minister Chong with some GRASP literature and a copy of Wildlife Times (with Pinky, a baby Sri Lankan ele on the cover), but again we were interrupted before fixing a time for a meeting as the next session began. The information presented during the day was something of a revelation; BBEC ( is an ambitious programme of activities designed to build the capacity of the Sabah Wildlife Department and conserve biodiversity, with funding and technical expertise from Denmark and Japan. Given that my next port of call is Tokyo on the coming weekend, the timing could not have been better for me to be meeting officials from JICA, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency.

There were also a number of old friends present, and last night ended with a lively discussion on conservation, plate tectonics and island biogeography over a wee dram or two of Bowmore Surf (best drunk, we decided, with the sound of surf in your ears) on my balcony. It was after midnight when I finally fell asleep with John MacKinnon's Theory of Tealeaf Tectonics swirling round my head (he likened the movement of smaller tectonic plate to swirling tealeaves, in order to account for possible land-bridges affecting species distribution between S.E. Asian islands that can't be explained by the rise and fall of sea-levels during ice ages).

And so to the beach this morning; I eagerly pulled on my running shorts and left my bouncy trainers and T-shirt in their bag. By 06:15 I'd had a quick dunk in the just-right-temperature sea and was running along firm wet sand, in and out of the shallow leading waves, wondering at my luck and delighting in every sensory input. My gaze was torn between the harlequin pattern of sand particles from competing waves at my feet and the pink-tinged cirro-cumulous clouds marking the arrival of dawn overhead. Ghost crabs skittered to the right and left in the half-light - though not always away from my on-coming feet. What seems to the human eye to be an empty stretch of sand is, to the beach's crustacean denizens, clearly demarcated into territories, and woe betide the crab who takes cover in someone-else's sand burrow. In the shallows, every pretty little shell was a des. res. for a suitable sized hermit crab, and in the deeper waves I spotted an occasional greenish swimming crab.

The bay curved slowly northwards, but after some time my intention of running to the headland, was foiled by a river. I turned up-stream and jogged along until the beach ended, just before a built-up area and turned back, lamenting inwardly over the plastic bottles and other 21st century flotsam that pollutes even remote beaches the world over. When will we stop treating the sea as a global litter bin?

By the time I had passed the hotel again, the sun was well up and men with rakes were making sure the beach met the expectations of the five-star guests. By a patch of forest, I greeted Erik Meijaard, an early birder who was excited to have caught a glimpse of an early bird - an olive-backed pipit, a winter migrant from the foothills of the Himalayas, and asked the time. Erik (who had also been in the Bowmore discussion group last night) didn't have a watch either, but I figured I still had a bit of time before the conference. I jogged on to the southern headland, picking my way through broken antlers of bleached stag's horn coral left stranded by the surf. I'd heard that before the tourism development, the reef had suffered from 'fish bombing' - the use of explosives to stun or kill huge quantities of reef fish. The indiscriminate death of non-target species included serious collateral damage to the reef itself, and although the practice has now ended here, the evidence is still washing up on the shore and the rate of shore erosion has rocketed owing to the lack of a reef to break the waves.

Brain coral drain - damaged by fish bombing on reef years ago. Location, Nexus Resort Sabah.

After a final swim and shower, I learned from a leaflet in my room that the beach is 6km long. That would put my run at nearly 8 miles in under one and a half hours, which seems quite encouraging until you think of repeating it two and a quarter times. Still, the London marathon is weeks away yet…

Borneo elephant After a five-star breakfast, the conference resumed, and before the plenary session ended, the organisers kindly allowed me to give an unscheduled presentation on GRASP, which went down well, and I squeezed in a brief mention of the Born Free Sri Lanka Elephant Project and made a public offer of assistance in trying to resolve Sabah's human-elephant conflict.

By the evening, my muscles were seizing up something rotten, so after the day's proceedings were over I called in to the Spa and booked a so-called 'relaxing massage' - for purely therapeutic purposes, I should add. The massage itself wasn't exactly relaxing - being pummelled and kneaded like a batch of baker's dough - but by the time it was over I was ready to drift off into a deep sleep, lulled by the soft soughing of the sussurating surf.

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Born Free is increasingly receiving donations from supporters who have run in other national races including the Great North Run, the Great South Run and the Flora Light Marathon for Women - all raising money for wildlife projects.

If you are taking part in any of these events or others no matter how big or small contact if you would like to raise funds for Born Free.


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