Wildlife in Borneo

Borneo Free

Borneo is a land of many layers. Politically, it is divided into three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. Geographically, it is the world’s third largest island, its highest peak Mount Kinabalu is a four-thousander, and it has one of the oldest rainforests in the world. Which is where the ecological layers release that spiritual nourishment so beautifully described by Sir David Attenborough.
As well as famously being home to the endangered orangutan, it is a natural habitat for the Borneo elephant, proboscis monkey, Bornean clouded leopard and so many more. Moving out to the littoral layers, Borneo’s coast proffers peat swamp forests and mangroves, where birds really do rule the roost. Thankfully, many of the wildlife-rich areas are still undeveloped when it comes to tourism, and herein lies a fine line. Responsible wildlife vacations will guide you through these delicate habitats but also support conservation organisations that work tirelessly with local communities to protect them from development and exploitation; these being the less savoury layers to Borneo’s natural nirvana.


The word ‘orangutan’ translates form the Malay language as ‘person of the forest’, an apt name for the species that shares over 96 percent of human DNA. Borneo is one of only two natural habitats for the orangutan, the other being Sumatra, although they do vary slightly as a species. According to WWF there are 104,700 Borneo orangutan left, and wildlife lovers come in pilgrimage to seek them out.
There are three ways to see these rust-haired beauties in Borneo. Although seeing is the operative word, because touching is forbidden. No human contact is allowed in Borneo with orangutans in order to prevent the spread of disease which might put their existence at even more risk. The most popular way to see them is in superb wildlife sanctuaries, founded to rehabilitate orangutans that have been injured, orphaned or kept illegally as pets. Leading sanctuaries include Semenggoh, Matang and Sepilok wildlife sanctuaries, all in Malaysian Borneo. The former two are in the state of Sarawak and the latter in Sabah.
There are a growing number of wildlife sanctuaries in Indonesian Borneo too, such as Ketapang in the West Kalimantan region, run by International Animal Rescue. Or Samboja Lestari, which is in an area of restored tropical rainforest near the city of Balikipapan in East Kalimantan. The latter was founded by Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS), and sun bears are also given a safe haven here. Many of these sanctuaries are popular for conservation volunteering vacations, volunteering being the second way to get to see orangutans in Borneo. Although, be warned, no physical contact is allowed on these trips either due to the risk of disease (a common cold can kill and orangutan), but you will be doing invaluable work to support the orangutans.
The other more adventurous way to see orangutans is to head into the wild with an expert guide and conservationist, either on foot or by boat. There are of course no guarantees of sightings, but you do get to explore the wonders of Borneo’s rainforests and, if you manage to earn an Attenborough-esque moment spotting the great red haired wonder in the trees, even better. One of the best places for doing this is the Kinabtangan River in the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo.

Borneo pygmy elephants

These are the smallest elephants in Asia, and guaranteed to get a big ‘awwwww’ from anyone lucky enough to see one in the wild. Their small size with everything looking a little out of proportion, such as the big ears and long tail that can sometimes even drag on the ground, is thought to be simply because of their isolation as a species. Some of the more accessible areas to see them include the Danum Valley in the Sabah region which boasts walking trails and an elevated walkway through its mass of virgin rainforest. A boat safari down Sabah’s Kinabtangan River may also bring you into contact with them as they drink or bathe. Kinabatangan is also a great place to volunteer on conservation projects to help protect these great creatures.

Proboscis monkeys

Endemic to Borneo, these bizarre looking primates with their characteristic long noses are also endangered, mainly due to habitat loss. Amusingly, they have also been known in Indonesian as ‘orang belanda’ which translates as ‘Dutchman’, because they saw their colonisers at the time as having similar big noses and stomachs. No offence to our Dutch travelers out there, of course. One of Asia’s largest monkey species, males weigh between 16 and 22.5kg and are 65-75cm long.
They can be found all over Borneo, although their preferred habitats are along the coastal swamp areas or riverbanks as they are fond of a bit of swimming. Also great jumpers, of course, and one of the greatest sights is seeing them jumping from tree to tree, with a final double somersault pike into the likes of the Kinabtangan River or along the beaches of Bako National Park in the Sarawak region. Danum Valley is another favourite place for serious monkey business, other primates in Borneo’s habitats including gibbons, langurs, macaques, the tarsier and the slow loris, which is nocturnal.

Hiding in the wings

Borneo has quite a few elusive and yet totally exquisite species, many of them nocturnal, which is why night time safaris on the Kinabatangan River or in Bako National Park, for example, can be a particularly exciting experience. In Bako after dusk you can spot endangered pangolins and flying lemurs.
One of the most elusive creatures in the lowland forests is the endangered Sunda clouded leopard, so-called because the irregular dark ovals on its coat resemble clouds. As they inhabit the wild mountainous interior, it is hard to know exact numbers, but wildlife experts say there are anywhere between 5,000 to 11,000 clouded leopard on Borneo, with sightings in Tabin Wildlife Reserve in the Sabah region as well as Danum Valley and along the Kinabatangan River. But they are rare.
Another elusive beauty in Borneo is the sun bear. Their rarity is mostly due to poaching for use as pets. They are the smallest bear in the world, and what they lack in height they certainly make up for in beauty, being almost jet black, with an elegant necklace-like patch on their breast. And although they are rarely spotted in the wild, they can be seen at the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, a sanctuary for rescuing these precious creatures which is conveniently close to Sepilok.
Photo credits: [Topbox: ] [Orangutan 2: shankar s.] [Pygmy elephant: Mike Prince] [Proboscis monkey: shankar s.] [Sunda Clouded Leopard: Spencer Wright] [Sun bear cub: Siew Te Wong]
Written by Catherine Mack
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