Friday, November 21, 2014

Adventures along Borneo's Kinabatangan River: A Malaysian Wildlife Holiday

We hadn’t been at the Borneo Nature Lodge more than an hour when we hopped on a boat and headed down the fabled Kinabatangan River in Sabah State on the Island of Borneo. As we snaked our way along the banks of the river on a two hour cruise, wildlife stirred in every corner of the jungle.

Pigmy elephants, a mother and a calf, trundled through the thickets; a host of birds, including four species of hornbills, darted in and out of the canopy; a family of orangutans foraged for fruit from a tall fig tree while nearby, a group of proboscis monkeys hung out in leafy branches.

That, as Joe Harry, our wildlife guide, pointed out, is what makes the 26,000 hectare Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary so special.

“In terms of birds, reptiles and big mammals,” he noted, “the lower Kinabatangan has the richest concentration of wildlife in Southeast Asia. It’s great for visitors because animal viewing times are pretty predictable.”

Every day at around 4 pm as the jungle bursts into life, if you head out to the river, you can be sure you’ll discover an abundance of wildlife moving in its natural habitat.

Harry, a native of Sabah and an independent guide with 17 years of experience, has witnessed first- hand the remarkable transformation of the Lower Kinabatangan area over the last two decades. It has gone from a region dominated by a palm oil plantation economy to one that includes a growing eco-tourism industry. The formerly unpaved tracks built for the palm oil plantations are now roads that transport visitors to a variety of eco-lodges situated along the river.

Prior to the opening of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in 1997, the palm oil industry had encroached on much of the rainforest, especially the fragile areas bordering the river. In the 1970’s and 80’s, over-logging altered landscapes and impacted animal populations. Where cloud leopards once roamed, clear cutting and the growth of palm plantations decimated their populations. The entire ecosystem suffered, prohibiting the development of eco-tourism.

Since then, animal populations have begun to return, including primates such as the proboscis monkey and orangutan, as well as big mammals like the pygmy elephant.  There is hope that the cloud leopard will also rebound.

“The Sabah Government is on the right track,” says Joe.

According to our guide, in the past 15 years wildlife numbers have increased. Sabah state is also negotiating to buy land from plantation owners to widen animal corridors to promote their movement between areas bordered by plantations. 

Furthermore, the government is purchasing land adjacent to both sides of the river where wildlife traditionally feed and gather. This is because in many areas, plantations extend to the river banks, thus encroaching on animal habitat. Sabah state is now open to foreign NGOs helping to promote and expand the ecotourism industry.