A low-lying mist hangs over the water. The sun peeps above the treeline as a family of long-tailed macaque monkeys explore the lower tree branches along the riverbanks. Adults sit surveying the scene as youngsters jump from bough to bough before pausing to select a tender young leaf to chew. It’s breakfast time across the floodplain of the Lower Kinabatangan River. A proboscis monkey yawns, its mouth stretches wide displaying its long incisors beneath its even longer nose, as the rising sun bathes the forest in a golden light.
Deeper in the Borneo jungle the orangutans sit in the treetops munching on leaves and fruits while luxuriating in the sunshine, drying their fur, still wet from the morning dew. Our breakfast is waiting for us at the riverside restaurant of the Sukau Rainforest Lodge but we’re in no hurry. Wildlife watching on an early morning boat ride along the Kinabatangan River is one of the many highlights on any trip to the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo.
Welcome to Sabah, Borneo
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, lies on the equator in the extreme southwest of the Pacific Ocean. The largest portion of the island is Indonesian while the northern states of Sabah and Sarawak are Malaysian. The tiny Islamic sultanate of Brunei is tucked between the two.
Home to the oldest rainforest in the world, Borneo is one of the most biodiverse regions of the planet. Of the 15,000 species of plants found here, some 6,000 grow nowhere else on earth. The number of different animals here is uncountable with new species being continually added to the list. On average three news species are found every month.
Did you know? One tree in Borneo may contain over 1,000 species of insect World Wildlife Fund
Yet this rich ecosystem, that played a vital role in the development of the theory of evolution and natural selection, has witnessed mass deforestation in recent times. These forests are a vital refugee for many endangered, endemic species including the proboscis monkey, pygmy elephants and the Bornean orangutan.
The Kinabatangan River
Sukau Rainforest Lodge
The award-winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge, on the banks of the Kinabatangan River, was our base for exploring the floodplain and the river’s meandering waterways in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah. It is reached by a 2-hour boat ride from the city of Sandakan and the wildlife experiences start long before you reach the lodge.
Featured as one of National Geographic’s Unique Lodges of the World, Sukau Rainforest Lodge, is a shining example of sustainable tourism, giving far more back to the environment and local community than it takes. Tourism, when managed properly, can play an important part in preserving the forest.
From the lodge’s grounds, it’s possible to observe the rich wildlife of the surrounding rainforest. While swimming in one of the hotel’s two pools, I saw macaque monkeys overhead as well as an orangutan mother and baby. One morning, a small flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills visited the gardens next to the riverside restaurant as I tucked into a superb breakfast. Add to this excellent boat and land excursions and we were assured a range of wildlife experiences that we would never forget. Our guide, Rahnan from Borneo Eco Tours was superb, sharing his knowledge of the plants and animals with us. He soon felt like an old friend.
Photographing the wildlife of Borneo
The photographic opportunities were outstanding – even better than I could have ever imagined. Here are just a few highlights from this memorable trip.
The critically endangered proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) sit in the trees lining the riverbanks in the early morning sunshine. The pendulous nose of a dominant male has to be seen to be believed. The reason for its gargantuan dimensions is uncertain but it may act as an echo chamber that amplifies his call, attracting females and warning off other males.
With his harem of smaller nosed females scattered amongst the nearby branches, he spends the night in the trees. The river is their escape route should danger approach.
Did you know? Proboscis monkeys have webbed feet and hands and can outswim the crocodiles lurking in the murky waters.
Endemic to Borneo (they are found nowhere else) the deforestation has fragmented the proboscis monkeys’ range, forcing them to climb down from the trees to move from one area to another in search of food. It is then, while on the ground (a place they would normally never be) that they are vulnerable to land predators. Their meat was once considered a delicacy by some native people, however, they are now protected from human hunters at least.
Borneo Pygmy Elephant
The baby-faced Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) is a subspecies of the Asian elephant. Isolated on their island home some 300,000 years ago, they became smaller with relatively larger ears and longer tails. They are less aggressive than their Asian cousins and, whilst the smallest elephants in the world today, fully grown adults are still over 8 or 9 feet tall. Just 1,500 individuals are believed to be in the wild today, roaming the jungles of Borneo.
Oriental Pied Hornbill
Home to around 200 species of birds, the Lower Kinabatangan River is a birder’s paradise. Possible sightings include the White-fronted falconet (the smallest raptor in the world at around 14 cm), the endangered Storm’s Stork, Dwarf Kingfishers, and the Malaysian Flycatcher. Several species of hornbill including the famed Rhinoceros Hornbill are also found here. These spectacular birds are usually seen in pairs, as the male and female mate for life. The Oriental Pied Hornbill (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos) seen here, is one of the smaller species. It is more tolerant of humans than other hornbills and therefore more commonly seen.
Gomantong Caves | Bats & Bird’s nest Soup
The Gomantong Caves is the largest cave system in Sabah, home to millions of swiftlets and hundreds of thousands of bats. The most populous bat colony, out of the 27 species found here, is the wrinkled-lipped free-tailed bat (Chaerephon plicatus), whose nightly exodus from the caves at dusk is a spectacular sight.
The limestone hill in which the caves are located is also the only known location of the endangered land snail, Plectostoma mirabil, which sadly, we didn’t see.
The caves are, however, most renowned for their valuable edible swiftlet nests, which have been harvested for bird’s nest soup for centuries. Twice a year, avoiding the nesting season, locals with licenses climb to the roof of the caves, using only rattan ladders, ropes, and bamboo poles, to collect the highly prized nests.
The smallest bear in the world, the Malayan sun bear is another victim of deforestation, but also hunting and the pet trade. At The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sabah, visitors can see these endearing bears in a natural environment. Currently, there are 43 bears here, all rescued from captivity. Those that can be will be released back into the wild, while the others will remain to live out their days in the safety of the reserve. I have a particular soft spot for bears. I’ve seen grizzly bears and black bears in Canada but this was my first glimpse of an Asian bear. While we didn’t see any in the wild, it was wonderful to see them at the centre and learn about the conservation work being done here.
Want to know more about wildlife photography? Read my wildlife photography tips here.
Next door to the sun bears (making it easy to visit both centres in one day) is the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre. This was the first orangutan sanctuary in the world, established in 1964, dedicated to rehabilitating orphaned orangutans. Since then, many rescued orangutans have been reintroduced into the wild while those unable to be released live out their days at the centre. At feeding time, several species of monkey can also be seen with the orangutans including macaque monkeys.
What I didn’t expect to see was so many orangutans in the wild. Although much harder to photograph while hidden amongst the shady trees, nothing can compare to seeing animals roaming freely in their natural environment.
The highlands of Kundasang
As we made our way overland to another region of Sabah, we said our farewell to our guide, Rahnan, as he handed us over his colleague, Joffonie. Again, she did all she could to make sure we had an excellent time. When I expressed an interest in seeing the Rafflesia flower, it was no sooner said than done – quite some achievement when you consider how rare it is and how briefly each open bloom lasts.
So what is so special about this flower? The Rafflesia arnoldii is the largest flower in the world growing up to 3 feet across in the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. It’s a parasitic plant with no visible leaves, roots or steam, getting all its nutrients and water from the host vine lying on the forest floor. Also known as the corpse flower, thanks to its pungent odour of rotting flesh, each bloom only lasts a few days. Most of the time the plant remains unseen, hidden in the bark of its host, bursting forth periodically through the bark to flower. Seeing it in real life, it seemed somewhat alien. It would not look out of place in a science fiction horror film.
Mount Kinabalu National Park
At Mount Kinabalu National Park a walk through the forest gave a chance to take a closer look at some of the plants and smaller animals. I was delighted to see not one but two of a particular beetle I was hoping to photograph.
This is a female trilobite beetle in the forests at the foot of Mount Kinabalu. How do I know it’s female? Because all trilobite beetles are female. At least, for a couple of hundred years, the only ones that were ever found were female and all in this larval form. You see, when it comes to Platerodrilus, a genus of beetles of the family Lycidae, it’s the females that never grow up. When they were first discovered, scientists were bemused as to why they couldn’t find any males. It turned out that, the menfolk are a great deal smaller and look much more beetle-like. In other words, absolutely nothing like the females. In fact, the only way to tell if a male and a female are the same species is to analyse their DNA or catch them in the act!
Malayan water monitor
The Malayan water monitor (Varanus Salvatore) is common in southern Asia and can be found in swamps as well as urban areas. It can grow to over 2.5 metres long with the largest ever recorded being over 3 metres. Unlike many other predators, these carnivores hunt out in the open running down their prey. It uses its snake-like forked tongue as an olfactory organ to track down carrion and small animals. As well as being fast on land, these monitor lizards are expert climbers and swimmers and can stay submerged for up to 30 minutes.
Above and below: A monitor lizard in the grounds of the Nexus Resort & Spa Karambunai
We’d flown to Sabah with Royal Brunei Airways via Brunei just a couple of days ago but already we’d seen enough wildlife to satisfy any zoologically minded adventurer. But there’s so much more to Sabah beyond the wildlife – think headhunters, street art and colourful markets as well as an up and coming food and drink scene. More from Borneo coming soon!
With thanks to Sabah Tourism, Royal Brunei Airways, Borneo Eco Tours, Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, Borneo Sunbear Conservation, Sukau Rainforest Lodge, Nexus Resort & Spa Karambunai, and the people, plants and animals of Sabah.
Thanks to Saal Digital for gifting me this Professional Line photobook in exchange for feedback on their product and services, the best souvenir from Borneo I could have hoped for.
More images of the flora and fauna of Sabah
Above and below: Long-tailed macaque monkeys on the banks of the Kinabatangan River.
Above and below: Pig-tailed macaque monkeys (Macaca nemestrina) at Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre
Above and below: Black and red broadbill (Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos) perched by its nest overhanging the Kinabatangan River.
Below: This Jewel orchid (Macodes petola) is one of the 1,200 orchids found in Sabah’s Mount Kinabalu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its enormous biodiversity
Below: A Borneo Keeled Pit Viper sits innocently in the trees. This small venomous snake is another species endemic to Borneo.
Above and below: Sun bears at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Sabah. They have the cutest faces but just look at those claws!
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