Hunting for Wild Bettas in Northern Borneo

Author: Lo Shiang Huei (Michael Lo)

The author ventures into the dark and mysterious jungles of his homeland in search of legendary wild fighting fish.

Finding an Unidentified Species

During the monsoon season in 2005 my friend Daniel Nussbaum of Switzerland ventured deep into the jungle of northern Borneo and unexpectedly found an unidentified species of wild fighting fish in a crystal-clear jungle stream. It was a betta of the unimaculata group that looked like the common Betta ocellata. Daniel told me about what he had found, and I just had to see it for myself.

About a year later, Daniel returned to Sabah, Malaysian Borneo—and this time he brought me along. I booked the airline ticket as soon as he offered to take me to the spot where he found the fighting fish. I was incredibly excited and intrigued, as I had researched the subject extensively, and there was no prior record of fighting fish in the Kudat area of Sabah, which was the location Daniel claimed to have found them.

Searching for Bettas in Blackwater Canals

On the second day after I arrived at Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of Sabah, Daniel and I rented a car and headed southwest to Beaufort in search of Betta chini, a small betta of the akarensis group known to inhabit the blackwater rivers of Beaufort. Due to development and land being cleared for agriculture, the peat-swamp forests in Beaufort are almost gone. The loss of natural habitats has caused the fish population in the area to decrease drastically. About two years ago, another one of my friends came to Beaufort to look for Betta chini. He failed to find it, as the natural habitat (the peat swamps) of Betta chini had been completely destroyed and replaced by the huge oil palm plantation.

About half an hour later I reached a small town called Papar. From there we headed in the direction of Beaufort. I could see that the rivers in that area were mostly blackwater. To me, it was depressing to drive along the road and see first-hand the rubber and oil palm plantation my friend had told me about.

The search for Betta chini was a challenge, as there were almost no natural habitats in the area. I spent more than an hour looking, but I didn’t find any fighting fish that morning. The only fish we caught in the blackwater canals were Rasbora caudimaculata, Puntius sealei, Rasbora einthovenii, and Trichogaster trichopterus—all very common species in Borneo.

You Forgot What?

At noon we drove back in the direction of Papar and stopped our car near a disturbed peat swamp beside a blackwater river. I had a strong feeling that it would be a good spot to look for bettas. Less than five minutes went by, and I scooped up a juvenile Betta chini into my net. I asked Daniel to pass me a plastic bag to put the fish in, but he looked at me with a very strange look. He left his bag of equipment (including, of course, the plastic bags for keeping fish) on the roadside near one of the blackwater canals at Beaufort. The excitement of finding Betta chini suddenly disappeared, and without thinking twice, both of us ran into the car and drove back to Beaufort to search for the bag. About 20 minutes later, we found the bag near the roadside. I told Daniel to be sure to remember our belongings from that point on.

Deep in the Mosquito-Filled Forest

We went back to the swamp, and this time we walked deep into the disturbed peat-swamp forest. It was not easy to collect fish inside the flooded swamp, as the plants there had mostly thorny leaves, and the peat soil was too soft to step through. A swarm of mosquitoes flew out from the darkness and surrounded us; it was tough to collect fish while slapping away the many mosquitoes that were resting on our hands and trying to suck our blood.

The fish population in the blackwater swamp turned out to be very small. After a half-hour of collecting we left with some young Betta chini, Trichogaster trichopterus, and a forest walking catfish Clarias teijsmanni. Most of the fishes we caught have the ability to breathe in the low dissolved-oxygen water of the acidic swamp. On our way back to the capital city of Sabah we stopped at some other locations, but we failed to find any interesting fishes.

Borneo Suckers and Betta ocellata

The following day we headed north to Kudat from Kota Kinabalu. At about 11 a.m. we stopped our car near a clear, fast-flowing stream at Kota Marudu. Here we were able to collect Borneo suckers, fish endemic to Borneo that have the ability to cling on the submerged rocks in the fast-flowing water. The two species of Borneo suckers we collected here were Gastromyzon cornusaccus and Protomyzon cf. whiteheadi. Both of these species are only found in northern Borneo. The Borneo suckers were busy grazing on the green-algae-covered rocks. They did not swim away even though we stood only inches away!

I found a small pool at a corner of the stream. When I pushed my net up to the submerged tree roots at the base of the pool, I was shocked to see a few fighting fishes swim into my net. It was a unimaculata-group Betta later confirmed as Betta ocellata. These bettas are a very common lowland species found mostly on the east coast of Sabah. Daniel was surprised to see these fish, as he did not find any bettas in this stream during his previous visits. He may have simply overlooked them in previous times, as they are good at hiding under the submerged vegetation or tree roots, either to ambush prey or to keep themselves away from would-be predators.

Ikan Solong

We continued our journey to Kudat after our lunch at Kota Marudu. I suddenly got a fever, so Daniel had to take over driving duties. In the late afternoon, he stopped the car at a small village near Kudat. The village was home to people of the Rungus tribe, a native tribe of northern Borneo. Behind the village was the stream where Daniel had found the fighting fish, known to the locals as Ikan Solong.

There were no bettas in the lower part of the slow-flowing clearwater stream—we only caught a juvenile barb (Puntius sp.). There was a trail along the stream that led upriver. The upper part of the stream was fast-flowing and covered by the shade of a tropical rainforest canopy. Here we found some Betta ocellata hiding under leaf litter and submerged rocks. Surprisingly there weren’t many species of fish here, only the bettas and some shrimp.

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