Searching for raw nature— and raw truth—amid the iconic fauna of this Southeast Asian island.
BY RICHARD BARNES
We glide over the calm waters, ever so quietly.
Only the sound of the electric motor is heard. But then, listen closely, and the dense jungle around and above us reveals a curious variety of noises, both distant and near, while an ebbing, copper-colored light shimmers on the river.
“Look, up to the left,” whispers our guide. “In the crook of that dead branch.”
I squint for a long moment, unable to see a thing.
“At one o’clock. In the clearing, that tall dead tree. Top right.”
I finally spot it. A buffy fish owl, still dozing before heading out for its nocturnal hunting activities. It’s the first sighting of the evening’s discovery tour on the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah (Borneo), a destination renowned for its exceptional wildlife. Apart from the astonishing variety of birds in the region, Kinabatangan’s vast hinterland sanctuary is also one of only two areas in the world inhabited by 10 species of primate, four of which are endemic to Borneo.
The Kinabatangan district was just one stop on a recent tour I undertook of Sabah and Sarawak, otherwise known as Malaysian Borneo. Today, many of us associate Borneo with the various “save the orangutan” organizations dedicated to putting an end to the palm plantations that threaten the primates’ living space—so threatening that some say these iconic animals could be extinct in the wild within 10 years.
A few years ago, when speaking with the Minister of Tourism and Culture for Malaysia, I asked the question, “Just what is being done to save the orangutans?” He told me that, in fact, laws had been passed by state governments in Sabah and Sarawak to limit or stop logging, and instead favoring tourism, aiming to save the habitat of the orangutan and other native fauna.
“Why aren’t you promoting this fact if indeed it is true?” I asked.
“That is up to the media,” he replied, sighing that much of the press only likes to underline the bad stuff, leaving do-gooders off to one side. At that point, I vowed that rather than take him on his word, I would discover for myself. Malaysian Borneo had been high on my bucket list for decades, thanks to longtime friend Ron Galimam, an artist from Sabah (whose great-grandfather was a headhunter!). So just what did I uncover? The vast wilderness of Borneo is much as Galimam had described, and the richness of its rare wildlife is one of its main draw cards.
WILDLIFE + NATURE RESERVES BAKO NATIONAL PARK
Our first “contact” is at Bako National Park, a short drive and boat ride from the state capital of Kuching. It’s Sarawak’s oldest national park and one of the best for wildlife sightings in the state. Within minutes we spot a family of iconic proboscis monkeys—endemic to Borneo— playing in the trees near the jetty. Bako is home to around 275 of these rare primates, found only in Borneo. Other wildlife sightings at Bako National Park include long-tailed macaques, silver leaf monkeys, bearded Borneo wild boar, and a green viper.
The following day, we visit Semenggoh Nature Reserve, located close to Kuching and home to a colony of semi-wild orangutans. Until 2018 it was known as a rehab center, yet today it’s considered simply a reserve, as there are too few animals to be rehabilitated. At feeding time, visitors have a rare opportunity to watch the primates as they swing down from trees for a handout of fruits by specially trained handlers.
MALAYSIAN BORNEO: NOT TO BE MISSED
The big primates are not found throughout Borneo (they remain solely in several isolated pockets), however, despite the absence of our furry cousins in the trees, don’t miss places like Mulu in Sarawak. Expect some of the most spectacular caves found anywhere on the globe, and incredible jungle walks in one of the world’s top-managed national parks. Additionally, Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state, is rich in colonial history and features excellent waterfront nightlife. Mount Kinabalu and its surrounding region should be on your check list, too, including the Sabah Tea plantation, where one can stay in top-end accommodations. Lastly, the fabulous eastern islands around the diving paradise of Sipadan is a must, as is discovering Mabul, which is inhabited primarily by sea gypsies—a welcoming community of fishermen.
EASTERN SABAH + SEPILOK ORANGUTAN REHABILITATION CENTRE
Sukau Rainforest Lodge in Eastern Sabah was the first to be listed as a National Geographic Unique Lodge of the World in Malaysia and Borneo, and is an ideal base for wildlife tours, as attested by famed historian David Attenborough, who is said to love the property. It was built on the Kinabatangan River in the 1990s by Albert Teo, a pioneer in eco-tourism. The lodge opened with just 20 rooms, yet in 2018, 20 new luxury suites debuted. Teo explains, “Kinabatangan has often been compared to the Amazon, but it is very different. We have 10 species of primate and all the eight species of hornbill are found here, as well as the Borneo pigmy elephant. Because it is a wetland region, we have hundreds of bird species; some are endemic and almost extinct in other places.”
During the fruiting season, the visitor is almost guaranteed to see wild orangutans at the lodge, according to Teo. “We actually have resident orangutans here when the trees are fruiting,” he says. “Kinabatangan has a great diversity of figs, which the orangutans love. It’s only in the past three to five years that orangutans have come to this land, feeding on the fruit trees here, so they don’t feel threatened by seeing travelers around. The negative news about orangutans is, I believe, coming out of Kalimantan Borneo, more so than Sabah. Sabah probably has the best record, because our conservation strategy here in Sabah is very strong. Even along this river, I see orangutans more often than ever before. It’s quite incredible. It has become an oasis for the wildlife.”
The fact that development came slowly here is a blessing, adds Teo. “The infrastructure was slow in coming to this area, and this has helped preserve the biodiversity. Ecotourism came in as an employment alternative, as logging was over. If the logging had still been active, we would have had an even greater threat. When the logging was over, the people converted the land to palm oil, so if we had not come in, it’s probable we would have lost more biodiversity. We are creating employment and are the ears and eyes on the ground.”
Around 15 miles north of Sandakan in eastern Sabah and covering 15.4 square miles of the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre welcomes orphaned and injured orangutans for rehabilitation before returning them to forest life. In 2018, it’s estimated there were around 200 living in the reserve.
The center’s history dates back to the early 1960s, when it was opened by Barbara Harrison, wife of a museum curator in Borneo. Manager Sylvia Alsisto is matter-of-fact: “We cannot bring back the past but we can learn from the past. The orangutan is a totally protected species and this message needs to come across strongly to the plantations. That’s the reason why awareness is very important and so is the role that Sepilok plays. The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) is working on involving all stakeholders towards a common goal of conservation and protection of wildlife and alongside with government agencies reaching out to the communities within plantations to explain how they can share the area with the orangutan. This involves understanding orangutan behavior and what action to take when encountering one in the estate.
So what should people do to help save these animals? “Come and visit Sabah,” Alsisto says. “Learn more and see the real scenario. Nevertheless, for those who can’t come, it is important for to self-educate themselves on the current conservation issues because conservation is a complex and multi-faceted effort, and what we often hear is an over simplified or sensationalized version of events.”
Whether wanting to experience the storied wildlife, navigate dense rainforests, or immerse yourself in Malaysian Borneo’s unique culture, this rugged island’s incredible and unique terrain should rapidly climb your travel wish list.
SOLE SURF PACKING TIPS
When trekking through the rainforest, expect to get wet. In Borneo, when it rains, it pours. When packing, be sure to bring a hat that can keep the rain from streaming down your face and neck. Rain ponchos are readily available in-situ, but one can also opt for simply getting wet, as the area is warm. When it comes to footwear, those adept to Malaysian Borneo have a secret. You will notice virtually all guides—even those climbing Mount Kinabalu—wearing the same thing. The locals refer to them jokingly as “Kampung Nikes.” On sale for less than US$2 a pair, these locally made, all-rubber shoes are, of course, not copies of those made by the famous brand, but have the advantage of being high-grip, comfortable and, most importantly, fast drying. Buy some in Kuching or Kota Kinabalu for your jungle adventures.
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