The author’s expedition partner, Daniel,
collects Betta chini in a blackwater peat
swamp of northern Borneo.
Lo Shiang Huei (Michael Lo) photographs by the author
During the monsoon
season in 2005 my good
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
where 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 a 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