You’ve heard of the Big Five in Africa, but have you heard of Borneo’s version?
The first animal on our list was the reason we had travelled to Borneo – the orangutan. The Sepilok orangutan rehabilitation centre is wildlife conservation at its best, with a focus on protecting the orangutans from the deforestation for palm oil production, while preparing them to be reintroduced to the primary forests.
The first orangutan we saw was from the boardwalk, a young male that looked as though its fur was on fire as it caught the early sunlight. With black fingernails, he clasped the branches with finesse as he climbed down to the feeding platform. The orangutans here are not guaranteed sightings, and in fact, the guides said it was a good sign not to spot them as it meant they were foraging for themselves. This brought them one step closer to being re-released into the wild.
We also encountered a giant male with impressive side flanges who seemed to have a monopoly on the larger feeding sight. Swinging from a rope and bellowing, his presence was undeniable. However, a mischievous pig-tailed macaque stole fresh fruit from under his nose undetected.
We would spot three more orangutans outside of Sepilok, solitary individuals who were making their nightly nest high in the canopies, feeding on the fringes of the rainforest, or emerging from the thick canopy above.
Back on the river, it wasn’t long before we spotted animal number two. Our wooden boat lurched down the swollen river, so full of mud that everything below the surface was hidden. Sunning itself on the bank with its jaws open in a menacing pant, it flexed each of its muscular legs before thumping down its thick tail and slipping into the water. Our guides pulled at the motor as we scanned the chocolate river for a sign, but the 3m long saltwater crocodile had disappeared without even a ripple.
On a night tour, we would see dozens of glimmering golden eyes bobbing on the surface, not disclosing the size of the body beneath. On a dawn outing in the boat, a 4m male swam underneath us and rose to let us watch his endless scaly spines submerge once more.
Our third spot came suddenly, as a troop of proboscis monkeys disturbed the outer edges of the rainforest by leaping and shaking the leaves. The males, most famous for their protruding noses, sported potbellies and sat apart from the rest. The females carried younger members of the group, with the same rounded stomachs on show as they jumped to higher branches.
Proboscis monkeys are endemic to Borneo and are endangered through loss of natural habitat. To avoid being hunted by leopards, monitor lizards and eagles, they sleep on the edge of the rainforest, finding the lightest boughs that will support them. However, one misstep or ill-timed spring could land them in the water, where a hungry crocodile will snap them up instantly.
From the Kinabatangan River, we noticed rope bridges connecting the distant banks. These were introduced by conservationists to provide safe passage for orangutans, but they are inevitably used by other species who are not keen to test the waters.
As we approached the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, one of National Geographic’s unique lodges of the world, we noticed a chalkboard full of scribbled names of recent sightings. Our hopes of seeing number three were raised for the next morning, but of course, nature is unpredictable.
We set out early to reach the oxbow lake, and saw frogs, silvery langurs and graceful egrets with curved necks. We had seen sombre black hornbills roosted on dead stumps, a pair of ghoulish mating white-crested hornbills, Oriental pied hornbills with their grand casques flying in single file, and we would later see nesting bushy-crested hornbills in the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.
Fourth on our list was the rhinoceros hornbill, with an impressive casque coloured like flames in contrast with its monochromatic plumage. Our guide pointed to a silhouette high on a branch, and as the mist dissipated, its colours were revealed. The male preened himself and its decorative casque swayed elegantly as it moved its beak around.
The final animal on our list was one that our guides said was rather elusive, despite its size. The Borneo Pygmy Elephant is the smallest elephant species in the world, but adult males still reach up to 2.5 metres high. Having already seen so many incredible species, we were content with the peaceful boat ride down the river.
Just as we were about to turn back to the lodge, we heard a splintering crack from the bank. Our guide killed the engine, and we sat in silence, listening to the disturbed water lapping the side of the boat. The sound of snapping again, followed by a glimpse of a grey, weathered trunk.
Before long, a whole herd of elephants was munching its way to the river’s edge. Juvenile elephants playfully chased their elders in circles, before retreating into the rainforest. A scarred male, missing half a tusk, stood apart from the rest. The matriarch of the group, an old female, led the group, and for a moment, we thought she would enter the water. However, she slowly turned and walked back into the treeline, the view clear after they had demolished the undergrowth.
If you would like to experience a wildlife tour in Borneo, we recommend Borneo Eco Tours. Not only do they hire local guides who are experts at spotting wildlife and sharing stories, they are consistently recognised for their commitment to conservation efforts and prioritise the welfare of the animals and local communities.
With any wildlife encounter, sightings are not guaranteed. Seeing an animal in its natural habitat is special, but it is even more so when it is not a given. If you would like to book a wildlife tour, we recommend this 5 day, 4 night experience that is a budget tour including Sukau Rainforest Lodge and the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.