By the time we made it to the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo, it had been a couple of months since our last opportunity to ogle the world’s wildlife (brown bears in Hokkaido, if you’re tracking that sort of thing…). Clearly, it was time to donate more blood to the leeches in payment for a few sightings of Borneo’s diverse primates and other storied creatures (spoilers: hornbills! crocs! civets!).
Our foray into the remaining wild habitats of Sabah started with the lowland forests and floodplains along the Kinabatangan River. The second longest river in Malaysia, this area is an ideal place to spot some of Borneo’s endemic inhabitants, such as the odd-looking proboscis monkey. Easily identified by their protruding noses, these monkeys live in groups comprising one male and an assortment of females and juveniles. Like other members of the colobine subfamily, proboscis monkeys subsist primarily on leaves supplemented by fruits and occasional insects.
Staying at a small eco-lodge on the riverbanks, we took early morning and late afternoon boat rides to search for wildlife. After dark, we donned rubber boots and tramped around muddy forest trails to spot nocturnal animals like the Malay civet, a small carnivore that is widespread throughout Borneo and the surrounding islands. Portions of the Kinabatangan River have been protected as wildlife sanctuaries, but these areas are currently fragmented and vulnerable to encroachment by palm oil plantations and proposed infrastructure projects in the Lower Kinabatangan.
Balancing the needs of the local economy with the importance of preserving valuable ecosystems is a complicated issue, touched upon delicately by our trekking guide, Mike, who led us on hikes in the Danum Valley in southeastern Sabah. We found Mike gazing at the canopy one afternoon and musing about whether it would all still exist for future generations. As a naturalist with over ten years of experience and the son of an oil palm grower, Mike holds a unique perspective. This internal conflict of interests has provoked genuine conflicts between father and son as Mike has struggled with the fact that his education and chance to pursue his interests as a skilled wildlife guide have largely been by-products of his father’s success in the palm oil industry — an industry that has resulted in vast deforestation. As I said, it’s complicated.
For now the Danum Valley Conservation Area remains one of the oldest primary rainforests in the world, and this beautiful environment hosts an incredible diversity of species. While staying in a basic room (supposedly once occupied by Sir David Attenborough!) at a field center catering to scientists and student researchers, we had access to the copious nature trails in the area. In the company of a few other nature lovers, Mike led us through dense foliage to waterfall pools, canopy platforms, and an ancient burying ground. Along the way, we were fortunate enough to catch a pair of Bornean gibbons flying through the treetops, a troop of red leaf monkeys enjoying an afternoon snack, and a pair of oriental pied hornbills swooping down over the riverside at dusk.
And the highlight of all this exploration? We watched in awe as a pair of wild orangutans, a mother and juvenile, foraged for fruit. Orangutans are largely solitary, but young orangutans remain with their mothers for eight years or more, through adolescence. We happened to catch the end of fruiting season, when durians and rambutans and other orangutan delicacies are in season, enticing hungry primates to forage in relatively open areas. Orangutans in the wild survive on a varied diet of fruit, leaves, eggs, honey, insects, flowers, and seeds. But, the Bornean orangutan, like three of its fellow species of great ape, is critically endangered. Seeing one in the wild is a dream for many visiting Borneo, but succeeding is a matter of timing and a bit of luck.
Before we left on this trip, I combed the travel forums for tips on where to look for orangutans in the wild. There are no certainties, but based on our experience, Sabah in September gives you a good chance. Verdant rainforests are an integral part of Borneo’s heritage. For anyone inclined to visit one of these spectacular reserves, I’d encourage you to go for it!