Spotting Wildlife on Sabah's Sungai Kinabatangan

8 November 2013

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.

 Sighting my first wild orang-utan and baby

Dean hands me the binoculars for a closer inspection. The orang-utan is placed peacefully on the end of the branch surveying his surroundings. I zoom in closer through the lens and to my incredible delight, there's a juvenile waiting patiently for attention from his mother several branches below. Dean explains that the young will remain under parental care until they turn six and then they're on their own.

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.

 The Sukao Rainforest Lodge

Sir David first visited the Kinabatangan in 1972 and was so impressed that he wrote, "Life on Earth is not evenly spread around our planet. Borneo - the world’s third largest island - is one of its richest treasure houses, full of an immense variety of wild animals and plants, all living in a magnificent tropical forest.

"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.

 Wildlife spotting on the Kinabatangan

While the rooms at the Lodge, together with the deck facing the river and the lounge space offer the perfect respite from the jungle, the staff are determined to ensure guests experience the magnificence of the surroundings. There's an early morning boat trip across to the Oxbow Lake to spot the bird life because this is when they're most active - I sighted an oriental pied hornbill, a stork-billed kingfisher, an oriental darter that's also known as a snake bird, a brahminy kite, a wallace's hawk-eagle and a great egret. At midday, there's a guided stroll along the board walk at the back of the property to investigate the vegetation and there's an afternoon excursion on the river to observe the wildlife frolicking before they settle down for the night.

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.

 Nocturnal viewing - a kingfisher watches the water

The boat captain darts the torch through the trees on the lookout for signs of life. His light catches an owl, perched on the end of a branch - whose round eyes are keenly watching for movement in the water. This owl's diet is fish and he seems to have one thing on his mind. Not even our approach or the light distracts him from his purpose. A colugo, which is more commonly known as a flying lemur is holding on to a tree. Our captain explains that this is a particularly rare sighting and they eat sap and nectar. The lemur doesn't seem particularly comfortable nor does he show his curious audience his process at gliding to the next tree. Maybe he has stage flight? Our journey continues.

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.

 Mother and baby silvered leaf monkey

At Labuk Bay, the privately owned Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is committed to protecting this endemic species. Twice a day there's a feeding session from the two platforms.

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 particularly 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. The alpha male from the 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.

 Lunch time at Sepilok

While it's fantastic to observe the proboscis so close, it's the orang-utan that are the pin up animals for Borneo. Closer to Sandakan is the Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre - a nursery for injured apes and those orphaned by poachers. Established in 1964, the aim of the centre is to, "receive, nurture and eventually return orphaned, injured and displaced orang-utan back into the wild through the process known as rehabilitation. The Sepilok Centre receives orang-utans whose lives in the wild have been interrupted. The majority of animals arrive at Sepilok due to loss of habitat and killing injuring of crop raiders."

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.

 Proboscis monkeys waiting for a feed

Moments later the keeper arrives to distribute the feast. It's clear that these orang-utan know that they are the centre of attention and they relish the spotlight, selecting only the most perfect delicacy to consume. The cheeky juvenile macaque has returned with an equally cunning partner in crime; both hoping to join in the celebrations - they are clearly uninvited and wait for the opportune moment when the orang-utan glances away to scamper onto the platform to grab whatever they can, before diving onto the nearby branch to devour their illicit catch.

 Sun bears foraging on the forest floor

Next door to the Orang-Utan Sanctuary is the Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which was established in 2008 after the team decided to move the population of resident Rhinoceros to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve because of the additional space. This centre, which sits on 1.42 hectares but is being extended to 2.5 hectares, is currently undergoing significant development so that interested travellers can also admire these smallest of bears. The opening date is slated for 2014.

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.

 Sun bear climbing

"In November 2012, we were notified that a bear had been found in a car park in Kota Kinabalu. A dog had been barking and the owner looked under the car to see that it was a four month old sun bear. We think it was being kept as a pet and had escaped. This is quite normal. She is good now. Our research coordinator walks her every day in the forest between 8am and 12pm. We hope that we can release her into the wild - she will be our first. Because we received her so young, she didn't have a chance to become attached to humans. Next June, we hope she will be ready. Because she's an orphan our staff will take care of her in the forest. It should take about two years before she's ready to live as a wild bear," said Tee Thye.

Lyndon Barnett

Guided by curiosity and a sense of adventure, Lyndon travelled independently to 69 countries on six continents. As such, travel is Lyndon's only addiction. He enjoys with equal measure - scaling the peaks of a South American mountain at altitude, attending opera in a European Opera House or hunting for a bargain in an Asian market.