Those who come to Borneo Island to witness wildlife of the rainforest, will surely get what they seek for on Kinabatangan River Cruise. In fact, it’s the most popular destination for wildlife watching in Sabah, Malaysia. Hundreds of monkeys, birds, monitor lizards, snakes and crocodiles – I felt like inside a movie, and sometimes I wanted to pinch myself to be sure it’s true.
What is Kinabatangan River famous for?
Kinabatangan River is a wetlands area together with mangrove swamps near the sea. It’s home for saltwater crocodiles, Borneo’s indigenous proboscis monkeys, Bornean orangutan and Asian elephants. The area also inhabits great variety of birdlife including a hornbill as well as the largest caves system in Sabah.
To give you an idea of the wealth of biodiversity found in Borneo rainforest, on average, three new species were discovered each month between 1994 and 2004. Many will become extinct before humans are even aware of their existence. Unfortunately, Kinabatangan River area experienced excessive logging and clearing of land for palm oil plantations. Sadly, that’s one of the main reasons why the wildlife density there is so high.
Arriving to Kinabatangan River from Sandakan
I went for 2D1N Kinabatangan River Cruise package which started with a pick up in Sandakan. All the way we went through palm oil plantations to reach Kinabitangan River with the wetlands and rainforest along it. The team welcomed guests with a refreshing drink and invited for a brief introduction. There were many tourists staying in the resort which was ready to host a hundred. The crew divided newcomers into small groups of around 10 people, to fit in the boat. All was really smooth and well-organized.
There are several resorts along Kinabatangan River. I stayed in Borneo Natural Sukau Bilit Resort which looked luxury. One girl from the crew showed me the way to the room. As I was traveling alone, I stayed in the dorm bed with few other travelers. However, the resort has numerous bungalows for two people with a bathroom inside. I stayed in a large building with a few dorm rooms and a shared bathroom. The resort is really beautiful and stands on wooden stilts directly in the jungle. This protects the jungle animals from getting in the rooms, though, there are monkeys above always ready to steal some leftovers. Bridges are all along the bungalows, reaching the restaurant and drop off point.
How did Kinabatangan River Cruise look like?
Before the sunset my group boarded a little boat to start Kinabatangan River Cruise. The cruise lasted one hour, and we didn’t really go a far distance from the resort. We stopped to have a closer look whenever the guide saw some animals on the banks of the river. The wildlife during this short trip was surprisingly rich! Without exaggeration, we saw hundreds of monkeys, mostly long tail macaques, as they all come to the river before the sunset. The guide stopped the boat, so we could watch life of the monkeys for a while. They were so freaking funny! Jumping all over, teasing each others, eating – everything looked hilarious.
Each boat carried around 10-15 people and there were several boats cruising at the same time. Whenever we saw the boats are gathering, we knew there was something interesting happening. This is how we got to see the wild orangutans high up the trees. Mother with a baby albino were eating the leaves, and the little one was jumping all around. So cute! We saw dozens of proboscis monkeys, with a big nose and belly, which are unique for Borneo Island.
Next we got to see a baby python sleeping on the tree. It was so hard to spot as it camouflages with the tree’s colors so well. The guide was giving the directions where to look and it took everyone a while to finally see it. The same way cloaked the monitor lizards which were numerous during the tour, but the guide spotted them well.
Shortly after returning, we had buffet dinner which was a mixture of Malaysian and international cuisine. Later the team working in the resort invited everyone for a little show. They entertained us with traditional songs and dances. We could try some of the dances by ourselves which was fun.
The night trekking in the jungle
The last activity for the day is a 30-45 minutes night jungle trekking. The jungle near Kinabitangan River is really small, as the land was almost totally absorbed by palm oil plantations. Therefore, the paths are very short and cover little area near the resort. As the wildlife density is high, we had a chance to spot civet cat and slow loris as well as a bunch of insects, lizards and frogs. When we returned, we queued for a shower and went to sleep as the early morning we got to wake up for another Kinabatangan River cruise.
Morning cruise on Kinabitangan River
We woke up at 5 am to get ready for boarding the boat at 6 am as the animals wake up with the sunrise. The fog coming up the river looked mystic and shy rays of the sun started to appear giving everything a bit of colors. In this blur landscape the guide spotted a crocodile. A huge 4 metres beast sleeping on the bank of the river. We came closer with the boat to take photos. It felt totally like in the movie! I was just missing the dramatic music from Saw 2 and then the crocodile moved. As it smelled us, smoothly shifted into the water and disappeared. Then I felt the impulse of the boat, as we had to run away. In fact, the crocodile ate a fisherman near Kinabatangan River just few days before I came.
We saw 2 other crocodiles that morning, but smaller. They also chilled on the bank of the river. With the fog rising up, it looked unbelievable. Proboscis monkeys were again numerous, and we could see them eating leaves on the high trees. We spotted hornbills flying above us. Hornbills are typical birds for rainforest of Borneo, but I also saw them during the jungle trekking in Sumatra. They have a horn above the beak which helps them crashing the bark and eat the warms from underneath. Hornbills are also symbolic for Dayak tribe – the indigenous people of Borneo.
After one hour of cruising, we came back to have breakfast. I was leaving, but the rest of the people were heading for a day hike in the jungle, shortly after breakfast.
2D1N or 3D2N package for Kinabatangan River Cruise
The schedule of the cruises is the same for each day. It includes morning cruise, day hike, evening cruise and night hike. As the wildlife is unpredictable, the longer you stay, the better, as it will guarantee seeing a lot of animals. On the other hand, wildlife density near Kinabatangan River is very high, so I think 2D1N is good enough. For prices of the packages please head directly to Borneo Calling official website, agency I used for my Kinabatangan River Cruise experience. Even though, the experience wasn’t as I expected from the environmental point of view, I have to admit that the agency performed high quality service and my farther arguments have no connection with it.
Kinabatangan River Status
When I was coming to Kinabatangan River I thought it’s a National Park, but it isn’t. NGOs put a lot of effort to protect the area since 1997, and now it’s under Sabah Wildlife Department. Kinabatangan River Status was changing from Birds Sanctuary to Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary as palm oil companies opposed the idea of creating a National Park, because they kept expending their plantations. There is not much left to take nowadays. During the river cruise I could see palm oil plantation just after the forest. You can check by yourself on Google Maps satellite, which shows how small is the forest left on the banks of Kinabatangan River. Bigger forest is where Kinabatangan River meets the sea, because mangroves and wetlands are difficult to plant the palm oil plantation.
Environment protection vs. profit
The animals left near Kinabatangan River have absolutely nowhere to go. They are trapped in between extensive palm oil plantations. The money you leave in Kinabitangan River mostly goes for resorts and agencies, not for wildlife protection. I wish I could just pay the local fisherman to give me a ride and skip the mass tourism, as I usually do. But I couldn’t really find any other option to cruise Kinabatangan River. Unlike in Danum Valley, where nature seems to be more protected and there are options to go there indepedently.
On the other hand, sanctuaries of orangutans, sun bear and proboscis monkeys in Sandakan collect money to maintain the place and provide care for animals as they can no longer care for themselves. The money paid there really supports the wildlife protection. I went to visit those places, but I didn’t enter as I couldn’t stop crying. I felt too emotional for what has human done in this area.
The difference between the zoo and Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary is not the natural fence of the palm oil plantations, but the fact that animals are still wild. However, in the next years they will find less and less food in the exploited forest and their population will decrease. In the next step, Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary may become the same like sanctuaries near Sandakan – with animals which are dependent of human and cannot find enough food for themselves. Don’t get me wrong, the sanctuaries are doing good job in trying to save the wildlife left. It’s just extremely heartbreaking to see that all went wrong there, and responsible tourism in Sabah wasn’t in the governments focus, but money.
Responsible tourism in Sabah
Now, let’s face the truth. Due to a large palm oil plantations, the rainforest of Sabah is nearly gone. Going through hundreds of kilometers with only few villages and just palm oil plantations, made me feel really depressed. It’s even more terrifying to know that only 30 years ago, most of this territory was still lush green jungle. We have just missed it.
Even though there are protected areas of the rainforest in Sabah, I have to tell you that they are not really doing well with the protection. Such a small areas of the jungle are left, and still they are being logged for valuable wood and for planting the palm oil trees.
Unlike in Brunei Darussalam, which first of all has, and second invests a lot of money in securing their part of Borneo’s rainforest, Malaysian government is waking up to protect what is left as they don’t want tourists to go away. In fact, palm oil price decreased, and tourism brings a lot of money. Well, it’s a bit late, when you think that there are very few enclaves of the rainforest left on Borneo. Only for those who can afford the luxury lodges and pricy packages, an elite from “the Western world”. Seeing wildlife on our own planet is nowadays something not really accessible for everyone.
What about ecotourism in Sabah? When I was in Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah I was talking with members of one tour agency, which had “Eco” in their name. They asked me for explanation what is responsible tourism I am still talking about. I was speechless. This gave me an idea that responsible tourism in Sabah is something still fledgling. I had my lesson in Indonesia already when hiking to Rinjani volcano with “Eco tour agency” which was eco because they collect waste after themselves when trekking in the mountains, as it’s very unusual in Indonesia.
Better late then never, you might say and think positive about the new forest policy in Sabah’s environment preservation. Thinking of how precious is the flora and fauna of Borneo I think the responsible tourism in Sabah doesn’t take enough care of it.
I just wanted to leave Borneo which is not anymore a rainforest island, but palm oil island. Seeing what is happening there, I didn’t leave with hope, that at least what’s left will survive, though I wish. I know there are some NGOs, organisations, Sabah Wildlife Department which try to do something, but the reality was just too overwhelming.
What can I do to help the rainforest?
Traveling in Sabah made me feel too depressed to think positive about rainforest in Borneo, though, motivated to do my part. I cannot stop deforestation in Borneo, but I can limit to minimum or zero my palm oil consumption. Unfortunately, we are all guilty what is happening on Borneo Island. Palm oil is an ingredient of a bunch of foods as well as cosmetics which we consume every day. Just check out the labels of the products you have at home and try to avoid buying items which consist of palm oil. Let’s be responsible customers! While in Sabah, we can buy responsible souvenirs from Borneo’s rainforests that encourage the preservation like honey, mountain salt, and locally made handcrafts.
It can sound like a drop in the sea if one person stops to use palm oil or click. But as you know sea consists of drops and if we want to change something in the world, we should start by changing our own habits.