Borneo’s Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary: A Gem for Wildlife Lovers! - Be On The Road | Live your Travel Dream!
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Saturday, April 20, 2019

Borneo’s Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary: A Gem for Wildlife Lovers!

Sunset colors in the Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary, Sabah, Malaysia

Pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys, orangutans, long tailed macaques, pig tailed macaques, western tarsier, silver langurs, about 8 types of hornbills including the magnificent rhinoceros hornbill, gorgeously colorful butterflies, crocodiles, frogs and so many other beautiful animal, bird and insect species can be spotted in this piece of wild paradise. This is that kind of place where you will kick yourself for not carrying a pair of binoculars or zoom lenses as there is so much amazing nature to see here. And that is precisely what I did for carrying just my landscape lens during my holiday to Borneo.

Group of long tailed macaques at Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Borneo, Malaysia

The rainforests of Borneo hold a fifth of the world’s green cover and hence it should be of no surprise that it houses so many unique species. This place that I am talking about is the Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary and it is located in the Sabah state of Malaysian Borneo. And all its action is packed around the Kinabatangan river that lends its name to this pristine forest.

Watching sunset on the Kinabatangan river, Borneo

Traversing for over 500 kilometers through the Sabah lowlands, Kinabatangan river is a mosaic of equatorial rainforests, riverine forests, forest islands, limestone caves, mangroves, swamps and lakes. And it is close to this water body where all the action unfolds.

Western Tarsier at Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabah, Malaysia

The only way in and out of this forest is by boat and the best way to sight wildlife here is also on boat. The only things you need during such a boat ride are a life jacket, a pair of binoculars and a keen sense of sight and smell. And when used well, you can see some of the rarest wildlife species of the world.

Stay is usually in the middle of the forest in a forest guest house that is located on a riparian forest stretch or on an island. Like with any wildlife sanctuary, the day starts before sunrise and as your boat starts chugging along the river, the dense mist that had settled on the river overnight disappears to present some of the densest forest you would have ever laid your eyes on. And as your eyes get adjusted to this beautiful sight, your ears are treated to a cacophony of primate and bird sounds.

Proboscis monkey at Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Borneo, Malaysia

From the middle of the river, you might not be able to see a lot of wild action, but as you head closer to the river banks, you are treated to some mind blowing primate action. After all, the Kinabatngan wildlife sanctuary is one of only two areas in the world inhabited by ten species of primate, four of which are endemic to Borneo. The first ones you usually see are the Proboscis monkeys that are famous for their pot bellies and large noses. They usually stay in groups and mornings are a heightened feeding frenzy for them. Their leaps between trees are also quite a sight. You also see pig tailed and long tailed macaques, though orangutans and other primates need much patience and luck when it comes to spotting them.

Young crocodile seen by the banks of the Kinabatangan river, Borneo, Malaysia

Mornings are also a great time to see the crocodiles as they come out of the water to bask in the morning sun. So are the hornbills that jump from tree to tree in search of fruits. Hornbills are fruit eating birds that act as seed dispersers and thus protect the ecology of the forest. All 8 of the hornbill species seen in Borneo are seen in this forest. The sight of the great rhinoceros hornbill flying over the Kinabatangan river with its massive wings was a special highlight for me. As most of the forest is tall here, do ensure to carry a good pair of binoculars or big prime lenses if you wish to appreciate the beauty of the hornbills as they usually stick to the top tier of the forests, especially the fig trees.

Silhouette of the Giant Wood Spider as seen at Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary, Malaysia

The pygmy elephants were also a highlight for me, though it took many attempts and the sighting was short due to the thick forest cover. There are other species such as the Sumatran Rhino, Bornean clouded leopard, marbled cat, leopard cat, , Malay Sun Bear, Monitor Lizard, Otter, Freshwater Terrapin and Slow Loris, though they are not easily spotted and one has to go deep inside the forest and spend longer amounts of time to get lucky.

Lush rainforests by the Kinabatangan river, Borneo, Malaysia

In addition to the boat safari, Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary is famous for its night walks, where you get to see a different side of its wild nature. It is during this night walk that you get to see the Western Tarsier, a cute looking tree hugging animal with big eyes and that can rotate its head nearly 360 degrees. If lucky, you can see the slow loris too on such night walks. These night walks are also a great time to see the rich insect and amphibian life. Do ensure that you carry your macro lens with you in case you are interested in these subjects. You can also spot birds such as the stork billed kingfisher that roosts on tree branches. You will find mosquitoes, leeches and other bugs in plenty. So go prepared for that.

Stork billed kingfisher roosting in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Malaysia

You can also go on day walks during the morning and evening boat safari rides. Usually, it is hard to spot any animals and birds due to the heat, but it is a good way to see the riverine forest system up close.

Tree frog from Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary seen during a night trek

Whether you go on boat rides, night walks or day walks, you are bound to fall in love with this forest. Every aspect of its wild riches are bound to astound you. This ecosystem is perfect for wildlife enthusiasts, nature lovers, wildlife photographers, bird watchers and just regular travelers. Do remember to pack your sunglasses, sunscreen, insect repellant, walking shoes, hat, binoculars, etc. for the near perfect experience. And do plan to stay for longer durations to allow yourself enough time to soak in the real beauty of this place.

Black and white butterfly, Borneo, Malaysia

After all, it is not often that WWF refers to a place as “Gift to the Earth’. And this is in spite of the all the illegal tree logging, cash crop agriculture and hunting that has usurped Borneo in the recent past. Such is the aura of arguably the last forest alluvial floodplain of Asia.

Baby Pig tailed Macaque, Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Malaysia

Best season to visit:

Kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary is open throughout the year, though the river gets swollen during the rainy months of December and January. Personally, I think each season allows you to see the forest in new light.

Kinabatangan river, Borneo, Malaysia

How to get there:

Kota Kinabalu in the Sabah state of Malaysia would be your nearest international airport, though Sandakan and Tawau are good domestic airport options. If you are flying into Kota Kinabalu, you can drive from Kota Kinabalu to Sukau. If you are traveling by bus, you will first have to go to Sandakan and then head to Sukau. From Sukau, a boat will take you to your place of stay.

Boatman at Kinabatangan Wildlife sanctuary, Borneo, Malaysia

Where to stay:

You can either stay at the lodges in Sukau or in the basic lodges or homestays run by the local Orang Sungai people in the villages deep inside the forest. Bookings for these homestays Miso Walai website or through the Sabah tourism website.

Evening skyscape from Kinabatangan river, Malaysia

Nearby tourist attractions:

1) Mount Kinabalu, the highest peak of Sabah. This is a fabulous trek.

2) The Orangutan rehabilitation center at Sepilok.

3) El Nido, Puerto Princesa underground river and other attractions of Philippines’s Palawan island that shares a similar environment.

4) Pulau Sipadan, a great place for scuba diving and one of the most beautiful islands of Malaysia.

5) Rock Pinnacles at Gunung Mulu, one of the top adventure experiences of Malaysian Borneo.

6) Danum valley conservation area for a luxurious rainforest holiday experience.



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