I hop on board a small passenger vessel at Sandakan on the east coast of Sabah and head across the Sulu Sea to the mouth of the wild Sungai Kinabatangan, the longest river in Sabah. This is the famed Borneo jungle that I had flown from another continent to explore – an area now protected from the progress of agriculture and palm oil. This is the domain of the deadly pit viper, the elusive clouded leopard, the Malay civet and the always popular pygmy elephant.
We journey up the deep brown river that’s surrounded by thick lush vegetation, for what seems only moment when I exclaim with much excitement, “There’s a monkey.” I had spotted my first wild animal – sitting high in the trees.
My guide from Borneo Eco Tours, Dean, who prefers to be called by his surname Nexter, scrambles for his binoculars to take a closer look. This wasn’t a monkey – it was an ape. But not just any type of ape; this was a famed orang-utan that can only be found in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra – a glorious ginger beast that prefers a solitary existence, only coming together to mate.
I had reserved two night’s accommodation at the award-winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge, an eco friendly set-up that provides comfort to travellers with a voracious appetite for adventure who want to explore and admire this astonishing region. The 20 rooms within the complex are all named after noted conservationists and important individuals connected to Borneo. I was lucky enough to be placed in the room where Sir David Attenborough stayed when he filmed a documentary on Sabah’s unique floodplain in 2011.
“A vast area of this forest still cloaks the mountains, foothills and adjacent lowlands that stretch along the borders of Brunei Darussalam, Indonesia and Malaysia. This is the Heart of Borneo and all of us who value life on this planet should support the efforts of these countries to conserve it. It is truly a world heritage and the world should respond to its needs.
“Like almost all such forests, it is threatened by being cleared or degraded, due to the economic and social pressures of life in the 21st century. Unsustainable logging, clearance for agriculture and mining, and the increasing impact of climate change are all taking their toll. Borneo is in danger of losing valuable ecosystems that are important to the survival of local communities and to the national economies of all three Bornean countries, as well as being a vital part of the global effort to combat climate change.”
In recent years, the authorities, recognising the importance of not only preserving the remaining rainforest from further destruction but also rehabilitating the environment that has been lost, created what is known as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Corridor, with the river at its heart. Outside this corridor of life, the ever present palm oil plantations make for a stark reminder of the comparison between industry and the preservation of the habitat that so many fantastic creatures call home.
Baton Bijamin, the General Manager of the Sukau Rainforest Lodge says there are moves to upgrade the region even further – to a class one forest.
“This is one of the world’s most bio-diverse regions. It’s now a protected area – the Lower Kinabatangan was gazetted as a Wildlife Sanctuary in 2005. There are a lot of NGO’s working with the Government and the WWF to safeguard this forest. Tour operators are also planting trees to fill in the ‘gaps’. Over the past decade or so, it was our aim to help to regenerate 64 acres of riverine forest along this corridor. In the 1950?s the area was logged and was used for agriculture during the 1970?s but through replanting we now help the original forest to grow back. Hopefully the Government will do more to upgrade the status of this area,” said Baton.
The statistics for the Kinabatangan are impressive – it is one of only two places on earth where 10 primate species can be found together and there are over 250 birds, 20 reptile species and 1056 identified plant species.
I most appreciated the boat trip after dinner to spot the nocturnal animals – guided by the moon and a super strong torch that’s powered by the same battery as the motor.
There’s something eerie about being on a river at night. There’s an uneasy sense of calm. After the excitement of the late afternoon, when there’s much activity with the proboscis monkeys and macaques who come to the edge of the river to feed, an air of tranquillity descends on the waterway with the most precocious of the jungle dwellers sleeping. Some monkeys rest right on the end of the branch so that they can feel the vibrations of any imminent threat.
A family of long-tailed macaques come into the view. The father is the first to wake and jumps up and down in the tree, shaking the branches with much flurry. I surmise that he noticed our arrival from the water and mistakenly identified our boat as a threat. The vibrations he sends through the branches wake the rest of the family and the youngsters climb towards the protection of the elder. I hope that once we’ve moved on this macaque family can return to their slumber.
It is truly remarkable to observe the behaviour of animals in the wild. But there is always going to be distance between you and the wild fauna – the viewing is generally done from a boat on the Kinabatangan. To get a closer look at these remarkable creatures, there are several sanctuaries around Sandakan that feed and nurture the animals.
As I made my way up the stair case it wasn’t the proboscis that were taking pride of place but silvered leaf monkeys, who were lounging about on the polished timber floors. Sheltering from the heat of the sun, an orange infant who hadn’t yet transformed into the distinctive grey shade was being protected by his mother. A rather curious older juvenile took a particular liking to my shoe laces and thought that they would be rather good to have a nibble on. I told him that lunch was just around the corner but he was determined to have a little chew.
Guide Dean informs me that the behaviour of these monkeys has changed as a result of human interaction. In the wild, they would be petrified of people who they’d consider a predator. But here at the sanctuary, they’ve learnt that humans provide food such as long beans, shelter from the Malaysian sun and facebook exposure via the multitude of photos that they star in.
“The proboscis monkey and the silvered leaf monkey have the same diet including the leaves of the mangrove trees. In the wild these two monkeys can’t live together because they share the same food. So they don’t compete for food here, the keepers give them different food. Here the proboscis are fed a flour pancake,” said Dean.
“In the wild, the proboscis monkeys live in two groups – the harem group, which consists of one alpha male and around 15 females and a bachelor group, which is around 20 males who are particularly playful before they leave their all male company to form their own harem group. The alpha male from harem group doesn’t want any bachelors near their group because they might try to take the highly desirable women. It is very rare to see the two groups together in the wild, but here the lifestyle has changed. They have accepted that they need to be together in one place for survival.”
Moments later I glance over from the platform onto the surrounding terrain and notice that a particularly amorous proboscis monkey has decided to asset his authority over his harem and is currently engaging in an act that his female accomplice seems to be a rather unwilling participant – she doesn’t object but looks rather bored. He glances over to the embarrassed human onlookers, who don’t seem to know whether to continue watching or to look away. The act that’s normally reserved for the privacy of a dense jungle foliage took around five minutes – upon completion the alpha male plonks himself down and prepares himself for his next conquest.
As with Labuk Bay, there are designated feeding times for these “men of the forest”.
After sighting a viper and numerous long-tailed macaques, I wait patiently on the wooden viewing deck for the imminent arrival of the guests of honour. There are ropes strung from tree to tree, all meeting at a central podium, presumably to make the journey seamless for the magnificent primates. A cheeky macaque takes a closer a look and after realising there’s nothing on offer as yet darts away with great stealth.
Rather than swinging in with much pomp and fanfare, the first orang-utan decides to surprise his audience with a subtle entrance from the forest floor. He climbs purposefully up the staircase to the platform and waits for his two friends to join him. The larger of the trio hangs non-nonchalantly from one hand on a nearby rope that dangles down from a branch. They all seem unimpressed that they’ve been forced to wait for their smorgasbord of long beans, cassava and perfectly ripe bananas.
Dean made a couple of calls and managed to arrange a private tour with Tee Thye Lim, the Centre Coordinator, who studied Bio-Diversity and Conservation at University.
“Our aim is to reintroduce the bears back into the wild. We don’t want to fix the feeding to certain times so we feed them mixed fruit and mixed vegetables at random intervals. Many of our 28 bears were kept as pets before,” said Tee Thye.
“That’s our Bear House – all the cages in the Bear House have a door that’s left open, so when they are ready they can go through the opening into the forest. We don’t want to push them too hard. Because they were pets before we give them the option. They can sleep in the forest or in the Bear House. Many bears are still very reliant on humans.”
We’re suddenly interrupted by a dog-like bark from the canopy. I look into the distance and two sun bears are arguing over the trunk. In Chinese they’re called dog bear because of the distinctive barking sound. The commotion continues with much excitement and I move to the front of the observation deck for a closer look. It’s immediately obvious why they’re kept as pets – they are around the same size as a wombat and extremely cute with a striking nose and distinctive markings on their stomach. Another two bears waddle into view along the ground, sniffing out the terrain, maybe looking for termites – their other favoured delicacy.