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Borneo's Big Five
Head deep into Borneo’s ancient rainforests, traverse walkways through the canopy and cruise along the murky waters of Sungai Kinabatangan in search of ‘Borneo’s Big 5’. Here is our guide to the top five iconic wild species to be found across this extraordinary island.
Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus)
Found only in Sumatra and Borneo, orangutans are long-haired, reddish brown primates with very long arm spans. This highly intelligent ape spends most of its time up in the trees of swamp or in lowland dipterocarp forests, eating mostly fruit and young leaves. Every night, an orangutan will bends branches together into a bowl shape, fill with foliage, and create a nest to sleep in. Orangutans can live up to 50 years old in the wild.
Consider yourself very lucky to spot these icons of Borneo in the wild, a sharp eye and patience will be necessary. For a guaranteed encounter, visit the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, in the Sabah district of Borneo. Many orangutans of Borneo are becoming victims of deforestation, poachers and the illegal pet trade and the reserve has been created to provide a safe haven for the orangutans and preserve the species. Today more than 80 orangutans have been trained to return to the wild and roam free in the reserve.
Habitat: Borneo and Sumatra
Did you know? Babies stay with their mothers for up to 8 years.
Borneo pygmy elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis)
The Borneo pygmy elephant is a subspecies of the Asian elephant, with only around an estimated 2000 left in the world. These baby-faced pachyderms are smaller than their Asian counterparts, and have larger ears, straighter tusks and tails so long that they sometimes drag along the jungle floor behind them. Scientists believe this species was isolated around 300,000 years ago, when elephants trouped across swampy land joining Sumatra and Borneo, when sea levels were lower during the ice ages.
The Bornean pygmy elephant is found in the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain in Sabah. They prefer a habitat of lowland forest, which in the Kinabatangan is seasonally inundated with floodwaters – they can sometimes be seen swimming in the murky river, cooling off from the steamy heat of the jungle.
Habitat: Swampy land in Borneo
Did you know? Around an estimated 2,000 left in the world.
Proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus)
A reddish-brown monkey that inhabits Borneo’s lowland forests and mangrove swamps. The male monkey has a distinct look with his unusually large fleshy nose, whilst the females are more dainty. This shy monkey eats mostly leaves, seeds and unripe fruit. They are fantastic swimmers, often seen belly-flopping into rivers, and have evolved partially webbed hands and feet. The Proboscis monkey can swim under water for up to 20 meters.
The best place to spot these comical looking apes is the banks of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, where they perch in the branches overhanging the muddy waters. You’ll also find them in the Bako National Park, close to Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching.
Habitat: Borneo’s lowland forests and mangrove swamps
Did you know? They can swim under water up to 20m.
Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus)
More commonly known as the saltwater crocodile, these prehistoric giants are the largest of all living reptiles. Male estuarine crocodiles often reach five metres in length, and can weigh up to 1,000 kg – making them top of the food chain in these brackish waters. Once widely hunted for its skin, the species was protected within the state of Sabah in 1982 and the population has since recovered significantly.
The largest population lives in and amongst the estuaries, floodplains and mangroves of the Kinabatangan River delta, and they can often be spotted basking on the banks, regulating their body temperature. Large estuarine crocodiles can also be found in the Bako National Park, north of Kuching, in the state of Sarawak.
Habitat: River banks and mangrove swamps
Did you know? Male crocodiles can reach 6m in length and 1,000kg in weight.
Rhinoceros Hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros)
Malaysia’s national bird, and the emblem of the state of Sarawak, the rhinoceros hornbill is a giant in the avian world. Approximately the size of a swan, these impressive birds offer a glimpse into the time of the dinosaurs. The casque atop their enormous horn harks back to the Jurassic era, a feature they share with hadrosaurids that lived over 60 million years ago. As well as adding to their impressive profile, the casque (made of keratin) serves to amplify their call through the jungles of Borneo.
These large, noisy and colourful birds feed on fruit and small animals. The rhinoceros hornbill often forms monogamous pairs and during nesting time, the female is sealed in a tree or rock hollow and is completely dependent on the male for food - this is thought to protect the nest from rivals. Look for these stunning birds swooping through the canopy of the Danum Valley, and whilst trekking through the jungles of Batang Ai in Sarawak.
Habitat: Forested areas
Did you know? The indigenous Iban tribes believe them to be the ‘chief of worldly birds’.