One of the “must do” activities in Borneo is to take a wildlife river cruise on the Kinabatangan river. The river is known for having the highest concentration of wildlife, including proboscis monkeys, hornbills, rare pygmy elephants and the endangered wild Bornean orangutans. Unfortunately the endangered status of the latter two is due to their habitat being destroyed by encroaching palm oil plantations that are displacing the animals to the narrow strip of jungle forest that’s left.
Once we left Sandakan, the views were mostly palm oil plantations as far as the eye could see. In fact the palms didn’t stop until we were right in Sukau. It was a heartbreaking sight and cast a depressing pall during our drive.
As our first outing, we took the afternoon trip down the river and saw proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, and a fleeting glimpse of a wild orangutan’s arm. That still counts as seeing a wild orangutan, right?
The Other Primates
We also saw a ton of birds including multiple species of water birds, raptors and hornbills. Sally being a voracious wildlife and nature enthusiast would point to every animal, insect or plant and want to know everything about them. She kept our guides on their toes.
The night cruise, on the other hand, didn’t yield much in terms of wildlife viewing but we managed to see a pair of buffy fish owls, a family of black and red broadbills and a couple of juvenile crocodiles.
Next morning at 5:30am, a knock on our doors woke us up for our early morning boat ride to an oxbow lake.
On this outing we got even closer views of proboscis and finally a good view of an orangutan. It was well hidden in the trees but we hung around until it finally showed itself. OK this one counts.
Oxbow Lake Fauna
After a breakfast of really yummy noodles, everyone except D went on a short jungle walk where we had to wear gum boots. We were warned that there was a low chance of seeing wildlife on the trail. We learned about some of the plants and looked at elephant poop. At least we saw part of an elephant though not the good part.
The stars of this river show, besides the orangutans, are the pygmy elephants, the smallest elephants in the world. They are not commonly seen as they are constantly on the move and you have to be “lucky” to have them visible and within reasonable travel distance.
We specifically booked a private elephant “safari” to search for them. Our guide, Sugi, told us that the elephants were spotted an hour away near the village of Bilit. We had heard the day before that the elephants were far away and one report said they haven’t been seen for over a month.
So with that intel we zoomed upriver to find them, ignoring any other wildlife that may be visible. Although Sally wanted to stop every time she saw a fly, we had to focus on our main goal of seeing the elephants. An hour later and a couple km past Bilit we had our first sighting of a lone elephant on the river bank. As we stopped to observe her we noticed two more elephants in the river. And then another one. This time a young male.
It wasn’t until we moved to a clearing to observe more elephants that we had elephant overload as a few eventually became 25 when they slowly poured in from the jungle. It was like pygmy elephant MANIA!
We stayed for a while fascinated as we watched the spectacle of elephants roaming, socializing and playing in the river. We even saw a baby pygmy suckling.
Colby, Bay and Sally photobombing the pygmies.
After a while we moved on but at a much slower pace to see if we can find more animals. Although we had a great view of an orangutan from the morning cruise, it was from a distance. We weren’t disappointed as we came across a couple of boats who were looking at a mother and baby orangutan high up in the trees. After some neck straining we got great views of the mother and baby moving between trees, eating and literally hanging out.
And you thought we were done with hornbills
We did take another night tour this time sans Colby. As with the previous night tour we did not see much though we did see a more colorful family of the black and red broadbills.
During our time on the river, we actually discovered and named a new species, the LOGODILE known by its scientific name LOGODYLUS. This species only appeared when our guides mistook a log for a crocodile, which happened on two occasions.
Side Note: We stayed at Sukau Greenview B&B who arranged both our turtle island and kinabatangan trips. The lodge is located in the middle of the village of Sukau and is about a 2 to 3 hour drive from Sandakan depending on how crazy your driver is. The trip included transportation, lodging and meals. The meals provided at the lodge were delicious.