Chasing the Creatures of the Kinabatangan

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Louise Molyneux describes how her two days in the Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary showed her that Sabah really is “the best of Borneo.”

The lower reaches of Malaysia’s second-longest river, Sungai Kinabatangan in eastern Sabah, are the largest corridors for wildlife in the country. Bordered by dense jungle, the river, associated tributaries and stranded oxbow lakes have been designated a wildlife sanctuary and are home to the curiouslooking proboscis monkey and several other species endemic to Borneo. It is easy to make a day trip here from Sandakan, but the real prize lies in staying for a night, or two, so as to cruise the river at dawn and dusk – the best time to spot wildlife. Shortly after our two-hour coach transfer from Sandakan, with a stop at Gomantong Caves en route, we set off on an afternoon cruise up a tributary of the Kinabatangan River, full of expectation. Perched on wooden benches aboard a small boat with no shade, binoculars and cameras to hand, we naively thought we were going to see monkeys hanging off the branches, like decorations on a Christmas tree. But this is not a zoo. As we discovered, animals do not appear on demand.

See Also: Exploring Sabah by Rail


Patience Is A Virtue

Even at 4 o’clock in the afternoon the sun was scorching, burning bottoms as the children wriggled in their seats. We slowly, silently, made our way along, all eyes desperately peering into the thick vegetation for some movement that would show us the animals. The air was still, not even the hint of a cooling breeze, perfect for carrying the excited longcalls (as their sounds are called) of the elusive orangutans, and the shrill call of the birdlife. In itself, the jungle is remarkable; the orange-brown, sediment-laden river cutting through and perfectly contrasting the dense, mass of infinite shades of green and the cloudless, bright blue sky. Yet, we were on a wildlife cruise in search of proboscis monkeys, and could not help but feel disappointed that the first hour had yielded only a couple of birds and the dark outline of two wild orangutans high up in the distant trees. As is nature’s way though, we had no way of telling what was round the next bend. We returned to the main river and were greeted by a herd of 27 wild, Borneo Pygmy elephants on the opposite bank!

Walk On The Wild Side

The Borneo Pygmy elephant is endangered, now numbering less than 1,500 in the wild according to the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). Smaller than, and genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, their rounded, babyish features were immediately noticeable and endearing. As our boatman expertly maneuvered our craft to what felt like touching-distance from them, their matriarchal group stood, head-down, uprooting plants and filling their bellies. One adult elephant can eat up to 150kg of vegetation a day, so they were occupied with important business.

As we sat and watched, more and more boats began to gather – boats filled with locals, not other tourists. You know you are experiencing something out of the ordinary when even the boatman starts taking photographs with his mobile phone. Eyes wide with wonder, he told us that the elephants are typically sighted only a few times each year. In the stillness of the approaching dusk, the only sound was that of vegetation being torn from its roots, the elephants seemed blissfully unaware that we were there. And then a little voice piped up, “Can we go now?” To a 4-year-old, it seems that a wild elephant is no different to an elephant in a zoo.

When we returned to the same spot early the next morning the elephants had gone, the flattened grass the only indication that it had not been just a dream. Once again, the river cruise disappointed, producing only a couple of hornbills. We stopped for a trek into an oxbow lake but that too proved little more than a constitutional walk.


Then, during our last cruise late that afternoon, again when we were least expecting it, we finally saw proboscis monkeys and long-tailed macaques hanging off almost every branch. They daringly leaped between the trees, cleverly maneuvering their way around, the branches bouncing wildly under their weight. Some had babies clinging to their chests, some were grooming each other, others eating and calling.

See Also: A Wild Adventure in Borneo


Natural Habitats

Like the Borneo Pygmy elephant, the proboscis monkey is classed as endangered and is protected by Sabah state law. It is one of the largest monkey species in Asia. Its disproportionately large nose, particularly on the males, is its defining feature. On an average male, with a 75cm long body, the nose can be longer than 10cm. Yet, the proboscis monkey does not have a better sense of smell than any other species of monkey. No, this great big nose has two other purposes: attracting a mate and amplifying sound. When a proboscis monkey is under threat blood rushes to its nose causing it to swell and act as a resonating chamber, which will amplify the creature’s warning calls to other monkeys. These warning calls, or honks, sound remarkably similar to those of an angry goose as they echo around the jungle.

See Also: Book Review: Enchanting Borneo

In contrast, the long-tailed macaques have the third-largest range of any primate, living wild across most of Southeast Asia, and there is no concern about their conservation status.They have a long history of interaction with humans and, as such, in some places are very comfortable in human settlements.We experienced that first hand when a troupe settled on the roof of our lodge, jumping down onto the balcony when we opened the door, looking like they wanted to be invited in. The lack of fence between the lodge and the jungle, seemed very apparent, all of a sudden!

And so our two days chasing the creatures of the Kinabatangan River ended with a fully ticked list.The sanctuary had displayed its best for us.

Tourism on the Kinabatangan is not a new phenomenon. It was at Sukau Rainforest Lodge that I first heard of Agnes Newton Keith, the American author who put the area on the map with her award-winning recount of her pre-World War II jungle expeditions with her British husband, Harry Keith, the then Conservator of Forests and Director of Agriculture. Her book, Land Below the Wind, is the perfect accompaniment to a visit to the Kinabatangan, the engaging narrative and vivid descriptions enhancing our own jungle adventures.

In considerably more comfort I had briefly walked in her footsteps, sensing her pioneering spirit and appreciating the awe and respect in which she, quite rightly, held for the jungle of Sabah. I feel privileged for having been there to see it for myself.

Getting There:
Sandakan is 2 hours 45 minutes by plane from Kuala Lumpur, serviced by direct routes on both Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines. The Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, in the lower reaches of the river of the same name, is accessed from Sandakan either by road or coastal ferry.


When To Go:
The best time to visit is between April and October when the weather is drier and the trees are flowering and fruiting. During the monsoon season, November to March, heavy showers are likely during the afternoons, with possible flooding in December and January. However, flooding does open the smaller river channels, which lead to the oxbow lakes, negating the need for a jungle trek.

Where To Stay:
There are several jungle lodges in Sukau offering packages including transport from Sandakan, accommodation, food and a wildlife guide. Other accommodation options are locally run bed and breakfasts or homestays. It is also possible to stay further upriver in an ecolodge founded by the indigenous Orang Sungai people in an effort to marry their conservation efforts and tourism activities (

Homepage Highlight Photo Credit: Gary Cycles, Flickr

Source: Senses of Malaysia March/April 2014

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