The muddy Kinabatangan River in Sabah. Photo by Greg Rodgers.
The Kinabatangan River plays a very important role in the lives of both the local river people and the wildlife that have found their home in the Kinabatangan region of Sabah. The 560-kilometer-long Kinabatangan River starts its grand tour in Sabah’s mountains and curls around the landscape until it reaches the Sulu Sea.
Unfortunately, most of the countryside around the upper river has been converted into the palm plantations and suffered massive deforestation. The lower Kinabatangan River still remains wild. Here, in nature only slightly touched by humans, you can still spot orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, sun bears, crocodiles, rare Borneo ‘pygmy’ elephants, and Sumatran rhinoceros.
Over 250 species of colourful tropical birds are present in this area which promises a paradise for bird watchers.
Wildlife Near the Kinabatangan River
Today, one of the largest clusters of wildlife in all of Southeast Asia can be found in Sukau and around the lower Kinabatangan River. In the not-so-distant future, this statement may no longer be true. Due to the deforestation in the past 50 years, Borneo has lost half of its forest; Malaysia is considered the world’s most deforested country.
The monsoon months – particularly between December and January – bring floods to the Kinabatangan region. Try to plan your trip during the fruiting and flowering season, between April and October, when the rain is less persistent. The Kinabatangan area is open all year round, just be prepared to get rained on during the off-season months!
Several endangered Sumatran rhinoceros and the world’s smallest ‘pygmy’ elephants can be sometimes seen around the Kinabatangan River when drifting from one place to another. Large animals are not a very common sight; there are only 50 of the rhinoceros surviving – thanks to their valuable horns – and less than 1,000 pygmy elephants left in Sabah.
About 1,000 orangutans found refuge near the Kinabatangan River, even though the conditions are not ideal. Since a huge number of the trees have been logged for palm plantations, orangutans have lost the natural canopies of old-growth forest they once used for spinning over the rivers. Thanks to the Sabah Wildlife department and a French environmental NGO, six artificial bridges have been constructed to help orangutans and other animals to cross the river – which happens to be full of crocodiles! The ox-bow lakes are sufficient breeding and reproducing grounds for rare estuarine crocodiles and Oriental darters. Up to eight species of colourful hornbill birds can be found around the Kintabatangan.
Kinabatangan River Cruises
Kinabatangan River excursions are available early in the morning, late in the afternoon and sometimes at night – if there are enough people to fill the boat. Years of experience and familiarity with the area guarantees that the local guides and boatmen will do their best to bring you to the right places for wildlife; each trip takes around two hours.
Right after sunrise is the best time to spot orangutans and hornbills. Look for monitor lizards and wild bearded boar which like to soak up the first rays of sun early in the morning. Even giant snakes sometimes make appearances. Wear some warm clothes as the air gets cool along the river.
In the afternoon, opt for a proboscis monkey and macaques excursion. Afternoon is also the best time to spot elephants if they happen to be in the region. The crocodiles become most active in the night; the night cruises are mostly dedicated to searching for their shining eyeballs along the banks.
There is plenty of accommodation in Sukau, ranging from home-stays, hostel type rooms, to up-market lodges.
To save a few ringit, opt to make your own way to the Kinabatangan River rather than by booking an overpriced package tour in Sandakan.
Enjoy these photos from the Kinabatangan River in Sabah.