Sunday, February 21, 2016

Kinabatangan — an incredible Borneo wildlife experience

The gibbon sat in a tree, gazing out across the turbid waters, its long, sinuous limbs somehow more graceful than gangly. It was the black variant of the endemic Bornean gibbon, and a magnificent specimen. As our guide manoeuvred the small boat to give us better views of one of Borneo’s most iconic primates, I took a second to look around at my three teenage daughters.

The looks of wonder and delight on their faces reinforced once more that leaving Ireland on a four month odyssey across Australia and Southeast Asia had been a good decision. What they were learning from the experience, both about the natural world and the different cultures and communities we encountered along the way, simply can’t be taught in the classroom.

We’d just left the tiny village of Bilit in a small boat on our way to the Kinabatangan Jungle Camp (aka KJC), were we would spend a few days immersed in the amazing jungle wildlife of the region. What a start to a stay that was to be a highlight of our four month trip.

Kinabatangan: a special place for wildlife

At 560km Sungai Kinabatangang is the longest river in the east-Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. The lowland dipterocarp rainforest along the lower reaches of the river offers refuge to an eclectic mix of wildlife in a region beset on all sides by the burgeoning palm oil industry.

Kinabatangan is a stronghold for wild Bornean orangutans, holds Malaysia’s largest populations of the endemic proboscis monkey, is home to nearly 200 species of birds, 10 primates, and a population of the extremely rare Borneo pygmy elephant.

If you’re a wildlife enthusiast visiting this part of the world this is an area you’d be crazy to miss.

My wife and I had been to the region before — way back in 1998, before we had the girls. I wrote an account of that trip, the woes of the region’s orangutans and the rampant expansion of the palm oil industry for Wild Ireland magazine. Returning with the children was something we’d spoken about for a long time.

The intervening 17 years has had quite an impact on the area. The inexorable march of oil palm plantations has encroached on the forest from all sides, pushing the boundaries of what is now (thankfully) the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, a 26,000ha area gazetted as a protected wildlife refuge in 2004 under the administration of the Sabah Wildlife Department.