Three days in a home-stay by the bank of the Kinabatangan river. More wildlife and rainforest, shaken but not stirred.
Introducing the river
The Kinabatangan river crosses through the middle of one of the last few patches of rainforest that remain in Sabah, Borneo. It is surrounded by enormous plantations which provide western companies with palm oil, that magic ingredient that is now present in most of the products that we consume: from shampoo, to ice creams and lipsticks.
To make way for these plantations, the natural habitat of many species has shrunk to the point that most animals are forced to coexist around the river banks. This makes the river a great place for wildlife spotting: hornbills and eagles patrol the air, crocodiles chill out in the river bank and all sorts of primates hang around in the trees. There are some unexpected small big guys too.
Let’s take a walk, or rather, a boat.
Don’t forget your binoculars
Knowing that Sir David Attenborough had previously worked with our guide, Osman, made the prospect of our first ever river safari even more exciting. Despite his tiny boat and gloomy dark skies.
The first locals that came to say hi were the primates. Macaques and proboscis monkeys were abundant, more so than in Bako. Silvered leaf monkeys also made an appearance, although from the safety of distant tall trees. Unlike their cousins, a group of pigtail macaques who had no fear whatsoever of our 35mm lens and came real close.
Thanks to our guide’s binoculars (and a tiny bit of imagination) we spotted two wild orang-utans. Despite the distance between us, it was the highlight of the river safari and we stayed there for a long time almost cheering every single move of the gentle ape, one of our closest relatives (we share 97% of our DNA with them).
Also on the trees, we found quiet a few huge monitor lizards chilling out on the lower branches. And a snake, albeit a tiny one.
In the water, or more specifically, in the river banks, there were saltwater crocodiles, quite a few actually. Perhaps with all other animals having to come so close to the river to live, this reptile is the one winner of the deforestation. They seemed well fed to me.
… and your anti-mosquito spray
The Kinabatangan river is also home to the smallest elephant in the world: the Bornean Pygmy Elephant. The population has declined by at least 50% since the 80’s due to habitat loss – I can see a pattern here.
For hours we scouted the river bank looking for them, but finding these guys is not as easy as it may seem. It is possible to wander into the jungle and follow their footprints. Just remember to bring your mosquito repellent – the bloodsuckers are thirsty.
After a few hours going upriver under a scorching sun, our guide whispered the magic word pointing to a bank a few hundred metres away. After all and despite their name, an elephant is still an elephant.
We could have stayed there for hours, admiring these wonderful creatures as they crunched through grass and bamboo leaves, but the sky had other plans. A rather scary thunderstorm sent both the elephants and our boat to find shelter. They call it rainforest for a reason.
The future of the river
Osman told us that new palm oil plantations keep popping up every year. It is easy money for the locals who sell their land to foreign developers, mostly Chinese, who care little about Borneo’s forests. What’s even worse, those animals who dare to enter the plantations in their desperate search for food run the risk of being shot dead by the guards.
On the other hand, since the year 1997 parts of the lower Kinabatangan have been declared protected areas, largely through the efforts of NGO’s. One can only hope that this, together with the money that nature tourism brings to the locals, can put a stop to the developers’ ambition.
Visiting Borneo has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. Something tells me it won’t be the last time we visit the rainforest.
A trip to another country, Cambodia, but this time we won’t be alone.