Borneo memories – Kinabatangan river

This blog post is going to feature a trip I made in 2010 to Borneo’s Kinabatangan river. What could prompt me to go so far down memory lane?
The answer is a campaign launched on Twitter to save this Bornean biodiversity heaven from destruction. English naturalist & TV presenter Steve Backshall and his wife, Olympic champion rower Helen Glover, have begun fundraising to purchase properties in the Lower Kinabatangan River.

The Kinabatangan River (in Malay Sungai Kinabatangan) is a large river in the Eastern Malaysian province of Borneo, Sabah. The banks of the river are home to a wonderful diversity of habitats, from dipterocarp rainforest, to swamp forest, mangroves and limestone areas.


But as with all beautiful things on Earth, threats are never far. In this case, the government has decided to build a 240m long bridge over the river, a 1km long flyover on the forest, and pave around 8.5km of dirt tracks. The bridge would allow easier access to hospitals and bring more tourists to the area.

So what is there to lose? Well, Borneo, one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots is in a rather sad state: 30% of the forest cover has been lost in the last 40 years, and it is quite evident while flying or driving across the island. This is mainly due to the use of palm oil for food and cosmetics in industrialized countries…


To reach Sukau, the main village along the river, a two hour boat trip from Sandakan is needed. But once we reach our lodge, the noise of this bustling market town is only a distant memory. The swamp forest is home to iconic species of monkeys, such as the long-tailed macaque. I can’t resist sharing this video of a long-tailed macaque and her baby, eating flower buds of Dillenia sp.

Another famous species found in Sukau is the proboscis monkey, unmistakable with his stubby nose. On the right is a macaque playing with a…large bean? These are the fruits of a Sea Bean (Entada sp.).

The lodge offers morning and evening boat trips, which are a peaceful way to discover the swamp flora and fauna.


The bird life of Sukau is incredible. During our stay we had the chance to meet birders recording protected species for the IUCN. Thanks to them, we were able to see Endangered Storm’s storks (Ciconia stormi), which only has an estimate of 400-500 individuals left in the wild. All 8 species of Borneo hornbills can be found in Sukau.

With birds come interesting insects, such as this multicoloured Fulgorid, and a large bee (Xylocopa sp.):

Of course, not all of the wildlife along the river is friendly. There are also crocodiles, such as this 7m long one which we apparently disturbed:

Finally, we were incredibly lucky to see a wild orang-utan (Pongo borneo), an ape which is critically endangered on the island due to deforestation. Incidentally, while we were taking pictures, we could hear the constant noise of chainsaws. According to our boat driver, the orang-utan forest is now restricted in parts to a few kilometres on each side of the river…


Let’s hope the Kinabatangan River does not fall victim to another human vs nature fight…



  1. I visited the river during my honeymoon in 2014 and was lucky enough to see wild orang-utans. So sad to hear of the river’s troubles. I will donate on my next pay day.

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