The Beasts of Borneo

The area around the Kinabatangan River is said to have the greatest concentration of wildlife in all Southeast Asia. JENNY EVANS reports on her wildlife encounters. 

THERE IS a feeling of excitement and anticipation that comes over you when out looking for animals ‘in the wild’.

Whether you are whale watching, bird spotting or on a safari, the sensation is the same.

I experienced this recently travelling in a boat along the Kinabatangan River on the search for the Pygmy elephant.

The Kinabatangan is Sabah’s longest river, flowing 560km from the mountainous interior to the Sulu Sea. The Lower Kinabatangan is said to have the greatest concentration of wildlife in all Southeast Asia.

We set off on the hunt late in the day following a monsoon storm. The river is 30m wide, murky brown with a strong current. Thick forest looms over the riverbanks with mangroves rising out of the mud.

After 20 minutes, we turn down a tributary and slow. A few metres away, a patch of water hyacinth moves erratically. The plant slowly rises out of the water on the back of what looks like a large grey boulder.

It quickly morphs into a Pygmy elephant splashing around in the shallows, seemingly oblivious to the four boatloads of tourists watching.

I had never seen an elephant in the wild; it seems miraculous that they can co-exist with humans in today’s world.

We then get word that there are more elephants further downstream and speed off with the other guide boats.

There is evidence of elephants on the riverbank, thick mud with footprints sliding down to the water. Just beyond the bank on one side, the land has been cleared for a palm oil plantation. The elephants are spotted in the distance.


Photo Credit: Monique Ceccato

The light is now starting to dim, so we head back towards our lodge and spot a group of Proboscis monkeys at the top of a tree, next to a family of Rhinoceros hornbills.

Proboscis monkeys are truly unique and only found in Borneo. The males have the large droopy nose: it is thought that the larger the nose, the better resonance effect when the male makes mating calls.

All Proboscis monkeys have a huge stomach. Their diet of mainly mangrove leaves is toxic and their stomach is full of fermentative bacteria which enables digestion. The monkeys also have webbed feet. They mostly travel by swinging from tree to tree but do swim when they must.

I was happy to not find out until we were out of the (very low sitting) boat that the main predator of the Proboscis monkey is the saltwater crocodile, of which there is a significant population in the Kinbatangan River!

The area we’re staying in is part of Kinbatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, a region of 26,000 hectares along the river that has been under conservation laws since 1997.

The surrounding forest is one of only two known places in the world where 10 species of primates can be found.


The lodges on the river are approximately two-and-a-half hour’s drive southeast from Sandakan, although some tours offer transit from Sandakan via boat (my preferred way of transport!).

We stayed at Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge, travelling with SI Tours. The lodge has a laidback atmosphere with plenty of seating on the decking overlooking the river.

The rooms are large, wood panelled and clean. All rooms are en-suite with air conditioning and a fan. There is limited Wi-Fi in the outdoor lobby area only.

Travel tip: Bring mosquito repellent and a pair of binoculars.

Traveltalk travelled courtesy of Tourism Malaysia