Wild Oranguran female in Boreno eating breakfast near the river

Borneo: Spotting Orangutans in the Wild

The Kinabatangan river was probably my favourite place in Sabah as it was bursting with wildlife. We stayed at an eco-resort on the river for just one night, but I would have loved to have stayed longer. The accommodation was lodge style with en-suites and aircon (yes!) and the resort was connected by wooden gangways above the jungle floor. As we carried our bags to our rooms, a troop of pigtail monkeys with their youngsters climbed down to the walkway level to see what we were up to – so we knew we were in the right place for monkey spotting at least!

The rainforest here marks a big change in the landscape, as sadly the whole surrounding area is used for palm oil plantations. We drove for about two hours from Kinabalu and saw nothing but vast man-made forests of palm trees. It is staggering to see.

Destruction by Palm Oil

The main issue is that the industry isn’t regulated, so anyone can buy a plot of rainforest, slash and burn it down, and plant palms. Compared to other cash crops including soy, palm oil is more environmentally sound – it doesn’t require any plot rotation and doesn’t degrade the soil. It also is lifting many Malaysians’ quality of life by providing much-needed income and jobs. It is something we use every day, from home cleaning products to chocolate – palm oil has hundreds of uses. The issue is the total habitat destruction that comes with it. The rainforest animals loose their homes, food supply and sometimes their lives. This is particularly true for larger animals like pygmy elephants, which are deliberately poisoned as they eat or destroy the palm crop. Thanks to local and international pressure, there is now a group of certified producers for consumers to buy palm oil products from, however much environmental damage has been done already.

Kinabatangan – a natural sanctuary 

The Kinabatangan river acts as a highway in between areas of protected rainforest, as well as a needed water source for the rainforest animals. While it is disheartening that Bornean wildlife is limited to narrow strips because of habitat loss, it does mean spotting is guaranteed.

We took the hotel boats out for a dusk river cruise and were not disappointed. We saw crocodiles resting on the surface of the muddy water, pigtail and greytail macaques displaying all types of monkey behaviour from group cleaning time, play and feeding. Swooping pairs of hornbills and even proboscis monkeys with their huge inexplicable noses and their ‘red chillies’… But the one we had all come to see, the elusive, orangutan evaded us.

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Cleaning time for mother and baby

That night, leech socks and gumboots on, we took a jungle walk to see the nocturnal animals that come alive after sunset. I should mention here that I’m terrified of all bugs. It was a traumatic experience – I was on edge for an hour, with every leaf falling on my head or twig brushing my arm setting me off into hyperventilation mode. Thankfully fellow trekkers were quick to give me a once over and the all clear. And the walk was worth it – we saw some stunningly colourful sleeping kingfishers, huge spiders, a scorpion and even a family of wild pigs.

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A Sleeping colourful kingfisher

The next morning at 6.00am we had once last chance to get on the river to see what we could see. With the morning mist rising, we again saw huge troops of monkeys, a river eagle perching on a telephone pole, even a baby croc hiding on the bank. Twice we stopped at trees with orangutan nests but our shy ginger cousins remained out of sight.

After one and a half hours we turned back to the lodge. The disappointment was palpable in the boat. As we neared the corner from our hotel, we saw her – in one of the leafiest trees on the bank, 20m up and in full view, she was having a spot of breakfast. We watched in silent awe for 10 minutes as she swung from her copper coloured hairy forearms and moved more and more into the open. It was mesmerising. So human like, the kind eyes and agile hands, but mixed with enormous physical strength and the acrobatic flexibility we know primates to have, but is still surprising to witness.

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Breakfast time for this little girl!

It was everything I had been hoping for, but it also surpassed all my expectations. It was heartwarming to know she was here, making it, in the wild, in safety.

Notes:

Tour Company: Intrepid – Sabah Adventure – Can’t recommend enough, made everything super easy and the tour guide Joh-Min was great. Made life-long friends AND I spotted a wild orangutan- childhood eco-warrior dreams do come true!

RSPO Palm Oil as explained by WWF

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