Discover amazing wildlife at the Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan is the second-largest river in Malaysia and the largest in Sabah. It originates in the mountains in the centre of Sabah and winds 348 miles (560 kilometres) to its mouth into the Sulu Sea. While the areas along its upper reaches have suffered dramatically from deforestation and clearing, the mangrove swamps and forests in the lowlands are better preserved.

Kinabatangan River
View over the Kinabatangan River

The river offers incredible biodiversity in these areas, only comparable to that of the Amazon in South America. Crocodiles live in the river itself, while the adjacent forests are home to clouded leopards, orangutans, pygmy elephants, sun bears, proboscis monkeys, gibbons, macaques, and many bird species. Kinabatangan River is considered one of Southeast Asia’s best wildlife-viewing areas. Accordingly, the locals call it „Sabah’s gift to the earth“.

To protect this flora and fauna, some 27,000 hectares along the river have been protected as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. The Gomantong Caves are another highlight near the river. They are home to about 1.5 million bats and swiftlets each.

River safaris are the best way to explore the area

As in many other regions in Borneo, it is not advisable to explore the rainforest in the area around the Kinabatangan River on your own. The danger of getting lost is too high. In addition, dwarf elephants, orangutans, and other animals can be dangerous. However, many accommodation and tour providers offer guided hikes: some of them even at night, providing an entirely different insight into jungle life.

River safaris are the best way to go on a discovery tour. The trips usually take place early in the mornings and in the afternoons. It is at these times that the chances of seeing animals along the river. Monkeys, in particular, feel safer by the river and spend the night there. During the day, however, they often hide in the rainforest. For this reason, night trips are often offered. These provide visitors with the chance to see more nocturnal animals.

Proboscis monkey at the Kinabatangan River
Proboscis monkey at Kinabatangan
River Safari on the Kinabatangan River
River Safari
Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River Macaques

With a little luck…

The guides on the boats usually have many years of experience and are excellent at spotting jungle inhabitants at the edge of the river. But at the Kinabatangan, like anywhere else, you need a little luck to see animals in the wild. The rainforest here is not as dense as in other nature reserves. The flipside of this, though, is that not so much food is available, and the wildlife seems to have adapted to that.

The guides pay attention to every sound, every movement, and the individual silhouettes of the animals. They are always on the lookout to show you as many of the creatures found in this area as possible and make your safari a unique experience.

Kinabatangan Ox Bow Lake
Ox Bow Lake

During the rainy season, there are a few places where it is possible to diverge from the river channel and explore oxbow lakes. These are bodies of still water that were either once connected to the Kinabatangan River but have since been cut off, or floodplains that are re-flooded annually during the rainy season. The advantage of the oxbow lakes is that they offer a greater concentration of wildlife.

Crocodiles, orangutans, pygmy elephants, and many more: The incredible diversity of Kinabatangan

The wildlife in and around Kinabatangan is incredibly diverse. Among the most common sightings are various species of macaque monkeys. But proboscis monkeys live here as well and regularly stay near the river. Especially in the morning hours, there are often opportunities to watch the monkeys frolicking.

You can also spot huge monitor lizards basking in the sun on trees, or snakes slithering across branches. You may also have the chance to observe crocodiles swimming in the brown water or resting on the shore. The odds of seeing crocodiles in the Kinabatangan River are fairly high.

Orangutan at the Kinabatangan River
Orangutan at Kinabatangan River
Borneo pygmy elephants on the banks of the Kinabatangan River
Borneo pygmy elephants on the riverbank
Kinabatangan Lizard on a branch
Lizard on a branch
Crocodile at Kinabatangan

It’s always a good sign if your guide heads toward the shore and shuts off the boat’s engine. Perhaps they have spotted an orangutan high up in the treetops? However, the orangutan population in the Kinabatangan area does not seem to be very large, so you should not expect to see apes roaming free here.

Another highlight of the river are Borneo dwarf elephants. Hopefully luck will be on your side and you will be able to watch them eat grass on the river bank or cross the Kinabatangan. But the smallest elephants in the world are also rare. This is another species that it will take some luck to spot.

Additionally, there is highly diverse bird life along the river. This includes various hornbill and kingfisher species, ospreys, oriental dollarbirds, several trogon species, and the colourful bee-eaters.

Hornbills at Kinabatangan
Hornbills at Kinabatangan
Kinabatangan River Kingfisher
Bird of Prey at Kinabatangan River
Osprey at Kinabatangan River
Kinabatangan River Bee eater
Bee eater

Exploring the rainforest on foot

A hike through the rainforest provides insight into a totally different side of the jungle and completely different wildlife. For example, you will see many reptiles, spiders, and insects. Furthermore, a night excursion, whether by boat or on foot, offers the chance to explore the rainforest from a completely different perspective.

Therefore, when booking, ensure that your accommodation or tour operator also offers excursions at night. Then you might be lucky enough to see clouded leopards, another extremely rare species native to the areas along the Kinabatangan. Not only are they nocturnal but they are also extremely well-camouflaged, which makes spotting them even more difficult.

Kinabatangan is also affected by the clearing of the jungle

Bridge over the Kinabatangan River
Bridge over the Kinabatangan River

Unfortunately, the rainforest clearing has not spared Kinabatangan and the area around Sukau. In and around Sukau is where most of the accommodation for tourists are located. It is from here that the boats set off on the river safaris.

Whether you head north or south, after a while you will see palm oil plantations along the river banks. Sometimes they border the river directly. In many cases, only a thin strip of rainforest has been preserved.

This, however, allows the animals to walk along the river. In some places, conservationists have already stretched ropes across the river. Since orangutans cannot swim, the ropes serve as a crossing point for them. They also provide a means of escape if an ape has wandered into an area where palm oil plantations are close to the river.

The Gomantong Caves: another highlight along the river

The Gomantong Caves, which are located in the wildlife sanctuary, are the most extensive cave system in the lower Kinabatangan area. They are divided into two parts: the lower Black Cave („Simud Hitam“) and the upper White Cave („Simud Putih“). The caves’ names derive from the swiftlet nests that can be found there.

In Chinese cuisine, these nests are considered a delicacy and are served in swallow’s nest soup. To protect the population, collecting nests in the Gomantong caves is only allowed twice a year. Once before the eggs are laid, so that the birds still have time to build a new nest, and then again after the fledgling birds have left the nests.

Gomantong caves
Gomantong caves

White Cave is the larger of the two caves but is not open to the public. It is located at the back of the Black Cave and an approximately 30-minute climb is required to reach it. White-nest swiftlets nest here. Their nests are the more valuable.

Black Cave is open to the public. It is located only a few minutes from the entrance building. In it, the less valuable nests of the black-nest swiftlets are found. Compared to other caves in Borneo, the cave is quite small and accordingly, it is quickly navigated.

The acrid smell of the guano of the bats and swiftlets is conspicuous. However, this environment is a perfect habitat for the many insects and other small animals that live there.


How to get to the Kinabatangan area

Getting to Kinabatangan on your own is not common. Getting to Sukau, a small town right by the river, is a more realistic option. There is a daily minibus shuttle that runs between Sukau and Sandakan. Other than that, the areas along the river are not served by public transport.

Usually, transportation is arranged either by the accommodation or the tour provider. The most common starting points are Sandakan or Sepilok and the trip takes about 2-3 hours. On such trips, you also become aware of the seemingly endless palm oil plantations you drive past in Borneo..

A few accommodation providers also pick up their guests in Sandakan by boat.

Accommodation along the river

There are different types of accommodation in the Kinabatangan area: from basic homestays to upscale lodges, there is something for every preference and budget. Most of the accommodation is located in and around Sukau, a small town right on the river. You can find a restaurant and a shop there as well.

Kinabatangan Borneo pygmy elephant
Pygmy elephant in Kinabatangan

Our recommendation

The Kinabatangan River is one of the highlights of Borneo. However, you should not set your expectations too high, because rainforest clearings have left their traces. Nevertheless, sailing along the river in idyllic tranquillity and looking out for animals is an unforgettable experience.

It is advisable to compare different tours and book early. In particular, you should pay attention to which local services, especially excursions, are included in the packages. Otherwise, seemingly cheap offers can turn out to be expensive afterwards.

If you don’t want to visit the region immediately after your arrival, Sepilok is a perfect starting point. For most of the tours, this is on the route between the river and Sandakan. Accordingly, starting here reduces travel time and is sometimes also a bit cheaper.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of leeches in the areas along the river. You should therefore bring protection against the little bloodsuckers if you are planning hikes (which is advisable).

Check this out

Besides the Kinabatangan River region, there are many other nature highlights in Borneo. Check out the following: