The wildlife of Kinabatangan river | Malaysia

Very few places in all of South East Asia can offer such a diverse array of species in such close quarters in the wild

marc_casolani
Marc Casolani
13 January 2017, 8:04am
The vibrant wildlife that goes on here fights on
The vibrant wildlife that goes on here fights on
Orangutans, pygmy elephants, Proboscis monkeys, wild boar, crocodiles, Sumatran rhino, Hornbills – and the list of tropical wildlife wonder goes on. Very few places in all of South East Asia can offer such a diverse array of species in such close quarters in the wild. Even though threatened by the everyday cycle of the modern world and its dominant species, the vibrant wildlife that goes on here fights on. 

Located in the Sandakan Division in the east of Sabah, Malaysia on the island of Borneo, the Kinabatangan river system flows through most of Sabah and comes out into the Sulu sea. It takes up a staggering 560km stretch and it is no wonder that it is Malaysia’s second largest river. If you were to look at the whole picture that this area has to offer, then you will see that it is rich in not only remarkable wildlife but also fascinating habitats such as limestone caves, riverine forest, freshwater swamp forest, oxbow lakes and salty mangrove swamps. Ideally you head towards Batu Tulug, where most tour agencies will pick you up from and take you to their respective accommodations, spread out along the river.  

This area is rich in not only remarkable wildlife but also fascinating habitats such as limestone caves
This area is rich in not only remarkable wildlife but also fascinating habitats such as limestone caves
As I always recommend, if you could rent a car and make your own way to the meeting point, that is always the best as you get to experience the most, but there’s also another way to do it here that is legal and relatively safe, and that is hitchhiking. People stop for you almost immediately especially when they see a traveller, they get excited to ask you a million and one questions, which makes the experience all the more interesting. This is how you get to see the area inside and out. Almost every time we got into someone’s vehicle, we would end up stopping for lunch at a local hub or get to meet family and friends – great fun! Other routes to this area would be by taxi if you are coming from a town close by, by light aircraft or by coach. 

Getting to your designated encampment you will realise, like you would in all of Malaysia and Indonesia, that this area has also been heavily affected by the palm oil industry. It is an industry that has forced several species to extinction and that has had a huge and detrimental effect on the eco-system and wildlife in South East Asia. Orangutans have been the most recent highly affected species to feel the brunt of all this and have been put on the priority list for WWF. If things keep on this way it is predicted that we may not have any wild Orangutans left within our lifetime. All we can hope is that NGOs and the WWF keep working to save what is left and grow from there. 

Orangutans have been put on the priority list for WWF
Orangutans have been put on the priority list for WWF
Once you drive through this mass destruction, you will see a glimmer of light that brings hope, a decent proportion of land that is a secondary forest which will lead right up to the river’s banks. The river itself keeps this chunk of protected land nice and healthy and teeming with wildlife. The only thing you will have to keep in mind though is that due to the encroachment of the deforestation the rainforest has been pushed to within a close radius of the river. This will be the case for a very good stretch of the river unfortunately. 

Because of all this most of the wildlife found here has had to make a living close to the river and thus, apart from giving the alligators greater odds of success in making a kill, it has made it easier for visitors going up and down the river to get a glimpse of the wildlife that this region has to offer. Many times people get more than they would have bargained for and it is not uncommon to come within feet of certain species. Apart from the major game such as the primates and reptiles, you can call yourself lucky if you get to come across a herd of pygmy elephants, Asia’s smallest elephant species. These guys can roam around freely despite the ever encroaching palm oil plantations, so coming across them is much harder than seeing other wildlife, let alone getting within a few feet of them. 

Many times people get more than they would have bargained for and it is not uncommon to come within feet of certain species
Many times people get more than they would have bargained for and it is not uncommon to come within feet of certain species
It’s a rather amazing feeling that the tour agencies here can provide you. You are basically offered a number of options to stay from up to two days to two weeks. Live in one of the river huts, go trekking at night and during the day, go on the riverboat excursions and chill out whenever you wish. Grab a beer or a fresh smoothie, take your book with you and swing away on a hammock or simply chill on the wooden jetty that each operator has built and take all that is around you whilst you do your thing. 

These tour operators cater for all, from backpackers to luxury travellers, so just get yourself down here when you get a chance and take in all that the prehistoric island of Borneo has to offer. 

Due to the encroachment of the deforestation the rainforest has been pushed to within a close radius of the river
Due to the encroachment of the deforestation the rainforest has been pushed to within a close radius of the river