Sabah, the Malaysian state of North Borneo, is home to some of the best wildlife encounters in Asia. We’ve provided you with our top 10 list of wildlife encounters to be had on the world’s third largest island. Borneo’s long standing isolation from surrounding islands within the Sunda region has allowed for species to adapt to the conditions specific to the island of Borneo. As animals adapted to these new conditions and environmental factors they gradually evolved to become different from their ancestral species. Borneo’s high level of endemism and biodiversity are a part of what makes the wildlife of Borneo so unique and is a major drawcard for tourists visiting the island.
1. Western Tarsier Cephalopachus Bancanus
Our top pick for wildlife encounters in Borneo has to be the western tarsier, after all we did choose this critter to represent our company as our logo. Not to mention the fact that these take the prize for cutest Bornean forest creature, look at those eyes! Tarsiers are pretty special, they are a representation of one of the smallest species of primates in the world.
As cute and small as they are don’t underestimate the ferocity of a feeding tarsier. With its back legs ready to launch like coiled springs, tarsiers can quickly ‘bounce’ from tree to tree as they hunt down their meal. They do not sit very high in the trees, preferring to perch on a thin branch about 1.5 meters above the forest floor. This makes them a little easier to find as you do not have to go spotlighting through the forest canopy. Tarsiers eyes do not reflect a great deal of light meaning you will have to rely on your or your guides ability to spot these guys without the hint of eyeshine that most other nocturnal animals provide.
As nocturnal creatures your best chance to encounter Tarsiers is during a night walk in the forest. Our guides are always finding tarsiers at the Danum Valley Conservation Area during night walks. The best clue that a tarsier is nearby comes from their smell, they have a very distinct odour as their scent mark their territory. If you come across their pungent smell there is a good chance a tarsier is nearby. Tarsiers inhabit lowland forest meaning they can be found in most healthy forests around Sabah.
Now about those huge bulging eyes, they are thought to be as big as they are due to the fact that they are missing the reflective layer in the eye that most other nocturnal animals possess. This is quite impressive given their brain is smaller than one full eyeball. Tarsiers are the only primate that are entirely carnivorous feeding on insects and reptiles. Field observations indicate anecdotally that tarsiers will follow a smarm of fire ants in the forest. As the ants disturb insects as they move through the leaf litter, the tarsier sits in wait ready to pounce on an easy meal.
2. Borneo Pygmy Elephant Elephas Maximus Borneensis
Arguably Sabah’s greatest natural asset, the Bornean pygmy elephants of North Borneo have a very restricted range meaning you will not find them anywhere else outside of the Malaysian state. Scientists are not entirely sure how elephants ended up in Sabah, some even speculate that they were given as gifts to the sultan that once ruled North Borneo and were introduced long ago. Other scientists speculate that the elephants have indeed been in Sabah for a long time occurring naturally. Whatever the reason Bornean pygmy elephants are an absolute treat to encounter in the wild.
One of the best places to see Bornean pygmy elephants is along the Kinabatangan River, which is important habitat along their migratory routes. One of the most impressive experiences I have witnessed in nature was watching a huge herd of elephants spread along the banks of the river in the late afternoon playing and swimming to cool off from the heat of the day. For about a kilometer elephants lined the bank of the river, we saw big tusked bull males and smaller groups of females occasionally sheltering a baby elephant between them. One of the more impressive sights to witness at the Kinabatangan is an entire herd of elephants swimming across the river.
As the elephants continue their migration across Sabah they make their way to Tabin Wildlife Reserve and the Danum Valley Conservation Area. It is here the elephants make use of the lowland tropical forest environment, having navigated a network of oil palm plantations and fragmented forest since the Kinabatangan. Danum Valley provides the elephants a safe place to take it easy without any human wildlife conflicts. If they are in the area there is a good chance of spotting small herds of elephants feeding in the secondary forest along the road to the Danum Valley Field Centre. The same is also true for Tabin Wildlife Reserve, day time safari style drives are available providing the opportunity to observe these creatures in a forest setting.
3. Bornean Orangutan Pongo Pygmaeus
The Bornean orangutan would have to be the most iconic animal in Borneo. The chance to see an orangutan in the wild is probably the number one reason for tourists visiting Sabah for wildlife experiences. The ease of access to quality forest in Sabah means you have a great chance of seeing orangutans in the wild. Like much of Sabah’s wildlife the best locations to encounter the red apes is along the states east coast. Orangutans can occasionally be found in other parts of Sabah including Crocker Range and around the Kinabalu Park area but we do not recommend these areas specifically to see orangutans.
The most accessible place to see Bornean orangutans in Sabah would have to be at Sepilok in Sandakan. This is where rescued orangutans are rehabilitated and reintroduced to the Kabili- Sepilok Forest Reserve that borders the rescue centre. The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre fees, feeding times and opening hours can be found on the Sabah Tourism Board’s official website. Be sure to spend some time at the nursery to watch the baby orangutans learn how to behave like orangutans in the wild. This is a good excuse for the youngsters to play with each other and have a bit of light hearted fun.
Sepilok is best followed up by a trip to the Kinabatangan River for your chance to see truly wild orangutans with relative ease. The Kinabatangan is a fantastic destination not just because of the wildlife but because of how you see the wildlife. The riverine and wetland ecosystems of the Kinabatangan make for a difficult environment to explore in anything other than a boat. The best aspect of spotting wildlife in the Kinabatangan is being able to do it all from the comfort of a small boat. All you have to do is sit back with the binoculars or camera and enjoy the wildlife encounters.
For a more adventurous journey in search of orangutans the Danum Valley Field Centre provides a rustic option within the forest setting of Danum. Orangutans are regularly found within a short distance from the Field Centre meaning you have a pretty good chance of at least seeing one orangutan during your stay. If you would prefer to go in search of orangutans in style the Borneo Rainforest Lodge provides comfort and a hint of luxury in a tropical rainforest setting. Few destinations in Sabah match the type of experience you can immerse yourself in like at BRL. The wildlife around the lodge are incredibly habituated to the noise and daily comings and goings of the lodge, there is even a resident male orangutan that has made the lodge part of his territory. Orangutans are just one of the many wildlife encounters you can experience at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge as there is a plethora of other interesting and wonderful creatures to enjoy at your doorstep.
4. Bornean Sun Bear Helarctos Malayanus Euryspilus
Sun bears in the wild are incredibly elusive, shy and not surprisingly difficult to find. Whilst our guides have sighted sun bears in Danum Valley on very rare occasions your best chance of seeing sun bears is at the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre in Sepilok. Whilst these are not exactly wild bears the centre was established to rehabilitate and reintroduce rescued bears back into their natural environment. Tabin Wildlife Reserve has been the sight of numerous successful bear reintroductions locally over the years. By visiting the centre and visiting the bears you are also directly helping fund reintroductions and the upkeep and management of the facility.
I would suggest spending a night in Sepilok if you are planning on seeing the Kinabatangan River. Given the close proximity to the river Sepilok is a good starting point to spend the night and see both the orangutans and sun bears for a day-trip. We encourage people to visit the Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre because we genuinely believe in the work being done by Dr Wong and his team of dedicated staff and volunteers. The Borneo Sun Bear Conservation Centre is also one of the only Malaysian operations of its kind actively reintroducing bears into the wild.
If you are willing to try your luck at attempting to find sun bears in the wild the best chance of sightings would be at Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Dnum Valley Conservation Area. Otherwise if you are really lucky some of the more off the beaten track destinations along the Kinabatangan such as the Eco Camp or Supu Camp could yield some sighting but would require a great deal of good luck to see sun bears at any of these locations.
4. Sunda Clouded Leopard Neofelis Diardi Borneensis
Probably the most sought after animal for wildlife sighting in Borneo is the Sunda clouded leopard. As the largest cat in Borneo they are a formidable predator. With incredible strength to pull themselves up the trunks of trees clouded leopards are surprisingly at home in the canopy of the forest. I am sure there has been at least one occasions where I have been walking through the forest none the wiser to the fact that a leopard was sleeping in a tree above me.
Somewhat like the sun bears, clouded leopards are incredibly cryptic and secretive. Even the researchers that dedicate their lives to studying these creatures know very little about them as they are so difficult to observe in the wild. Clouded leopards surprisingly do quite well in logged forest, in some cases logged forest can support higher densities of leopards. Our top destination to go in search of clouded leopards would have to be the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Most of the sighting occur at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, with guides in the field daily in radio communication news of the days wildlife sightings spreads pretty quickly so you can get amongst the excitement as it’s happening.
The clouded leopards that reside near the lodge are quite habituated to human activities making for a better chance to come across one nearby. In mid 2017 whilst one of our groups were staying at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge they had the incredibly rare opportunity to witness a female clouded leopard with a kill (red leaf monkey). For two days they were able to observe her while she consumed her meal. You can see the video yourself here, take note on the fire ants that end up covering the prey, I’m not sure how the leopard handles sharing its meal.
We also had a fantastic sighting of a clouded leopard at the Danum Valley Field Centre from one of our guides and a client towards the end of 2017 with the leopard even walking across the Segama bridge in broad daylight. The footage is pretty unbelievable, you can see for yourself here.
6. Proboscis Monkey Nasalis Larvatus
Referred to in Indonesia as munyit Belanda or Dutch monkeys, thought to have been named by locals for the uncanny resemblance to Dutch sailors at the time with their pot bellies and long noses. Proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo meaning they occur nowhere else. The males indeed have large bellies and long noses whilst the females are much smaller with a more ‘normal’ looking nose and smaller stomachs. The males long nose creates deeper, fuller and reverberating vocalisation that they use to communicate with one another and warn of predators. As colobine monkeys they have evolved unique digestive systems allowing them to eat leaves as a primary source of food. Divided into compartments and filled with cellulose digesting bacteria proboscis monkey stomachs are twice as large as any other colobine monkeys hence the pot belly. With stomach contents making up a quarter of their body weight its not wonder these monkeys always look pregnant.
In Sabah proboscis monkey populations are mostly concentrated around the Kinabatagan Floodplains as the monkeys habitat consists mainly of mangrove swamps, coastal mangroves and riverine forests. If you want to maximise your chance of seeing them this is the place to do it. In the early morning proboscis monkeys can be seen feeding in the trees lining the river banks in the cool morning air. Preferring shade and sleep they become fairly inactive through the heat of the day beginning to stir again by mid afternoon as things cool off.
7. Bornean Slow Loris Nycticebus Borneanus
The Bornean slow loris looks pretty cute, right? Would you believe me if I told you this little guy can deliver a venomous bite capable of seriously knocking around a grown adult. Lorises occur throughout Southeast Asia and are the only known species of primate known to be venomous. There are very few examples of venomous mammals, the most obvious being the platypus but apart from that there are a few species of shrews and not much else. Maybe what’s even stranger still is that the loris’ venom is secreted from glands inside its elbows. By licking the area they are able to venomize their bites as a form of defense.
Slow loris are much more common and widespread than some of the other species listed in this article, making sighting more likely across a number of different destinations. If you are looking for somewhere close to Kota Kinabalu to explore with the chance of seeing slow loris amongst a whole bunch of other amazing montane wildlife the Sayap Substation. The usual East coast wildlife destinations should provide good opportunities especially at Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Borneo Rainforest Lodge and Danum Valley Field Centre as you can go on night walks and night drives. The nocturnal loris is easiest seen at night whilst spotlighting, their bright yellow eye shine will give away their initial location.
Just a minor PSA please remember to respect the wildlife and don’t get too close. If you come across a loris please for your own safety and the sake of the animal do not attempt to play with them, a bite can make you really sick.
8. Giant Red-Flying Squirrel Petaurista Petaurista
The giant red-flying squirrel is the largest of the flying squirrels in Sabah and they are common enough that you have a very good chance of seeing one at a few locations around the Malaysian state. Borneo is somewhat known for its diversity of creatures that have evolved attributes to aid in ‘flying’. Borneo has flying snakes, flying lizards & geckos, flying frogs, a range of flying squirrels and even a flying lemur (colugo). As nocturnal creatures the flying squirrels begin to stir in the early evening as the sun begins setting, becoming active as the last light of the day begins to fade.
My favourite place to go in search of giant red-flying squirrels is at the Rainforest Discovery Centre in Sepilok along the canopy walk. At about 5:30 – 6 pm before the last tower on the canopy walk there is an open view of the forest where a resident flying squirrel likes to hang out. Depending on your luck you might be able to see some activity while the last bit of the day’s light begins to fade. The squirrel from the photo was taken in the late evening and was one of two that were playing, chasing each other around the trees.
Another great place to see giant red-flying squirrels is during night drives at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve heading out on dusk. Driving the perimeter of the reserve offers an opportunity to watch giant red-flying squirrels become active along the forest edges. The same is also true for Borneo Rainforest Lodge and the Danum Valley Field Centreexploring some of the roads within the Danum Valley Conservation Area.
9. Sunda Pangolin Manis Javanica
Looking more like a reptile than a mammal with armour-like scales covering its body the Sunda pangolin is probably one of the rarest but most impressive wildlife to encounter in Borneo. Unfortunately for the pangolin demand for their scales in Chinese medicine has elevated the pangolin’s status to the most trafficked animal in the world. An estimated 1 million individuals have been plucked from the forests of Asia and Africa where they are then consumed almost exclusively in China.
The illicit trade of pangolins has ultimately lead to a massive reduction in populations throughout their home ranges, the same is also true for Borneo making these creatures incredibly difficult to spot in the wild. This is a creature that is now so rare that your chances of seeing one during your time in Borneo as a tourist are close to none. Even our guides who are out in the field constantly struggled to provide a location with regular sightings. For the most part pangolin sightings have occured at the Danum Valley Conservation Area. Another suggested location to check out is the Tawau Hills Park, you can find more information about the park at the Sabah Parks website. I have also heard of a few sightings at Kudat’s Tip of Borneo walking through coconut plantations.
Take it from us not to get your hopes up about seeing a pangolin during your time in Borneo, we don’t want you getting disappointed. It would go without saying that you would be a very lucky person to see a pangolin in the wild and we sure hope anyone visiting Borneo has this experience.
10. Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros Rhinoceros
My final addition to Borneo’s top ten wildlife encounters is the striking rhinoceros hornbill, one of the largest birds to inhabit rainforests of Asia. The striking colours of their bill and casque are distinctive of the species making them difficult to miss in the forest. Spending their entire lives in the canopy rhinoceros hornbills travel across the forest flying between emergent trees, dispersing seeds through the forest as they do so. Mating for life, a female rhinoceros hornbill depends entirely on the male for survival once she is entombed within the nest. The female will stay with the eggs for the duration of incubation and brooding of chicks, which can last up to 100 days.
Rhinoceros hornbills are fairly common and can be found in most areas with healthy lowland forest to support their jungle fruit diet, especially if there are big fruiting fig trees. Whether you are relaxing on a boat watching hornbills fly over the Kinabatangan Floodplains or trekking through the jungle searching for hornbills through the forest canopy at the Danum Valley Conservation Area no matter where you come across these stunning birds they are guaranteed to impress.
At Sticky Rice Travel we have always provided tailor-made and custom trips to suit our clients needs and requests. In 2018 we are focusing on creating wildlife specific itineraries in order to deliver the best wildlife encounters Sabah and Borneo has to offer. Keep an eye out for new trips, itineraries and special interest tours on our website, we are certain you will find the perfect meaningful adventure discovering Borneo with us. If you would like us to craft your very own customised trip get in touch with one of our travel consultants via email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Photography: Charles Ryan & Razis Nasri