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 Islands Information



Story & Photographs by Margaret Deefholts
(Published by March 2003)
Website: * * * * * * *

The dug-out canoe wobbles, and I instinctively grab onto the sides. My Malaysian guide, Al, sitting behind me says, "Don't do that! The crocs here love ladies fingers!" The outboard motor catches and settles to a low purr and the canoe steadies as it moves forward through the thick, muddy waters of the Kinabatangan river.

Dusk is creeping through the jungle around us, and we are looking for a creature I've flown half way around the globe to see. He is elusive and shy - and so rare that only about 7 ,000 of his species still exist - and Kinbatangan Forest Reserve in east Sabah is one of the last places in the world to see him. By any standards he is no beauty, and the Malaysians have nicknamed him "Monyet Belanda" or "Dutchman" monkey-the joke being that like the previous colonial occupants of Borneo, he is ginger haired, has a large nose and a pot belly. He is the Proboscis Monkey, inhabitant of the mangrove jungles of Borneo.

We pull off into a narrow tributary off the main river, and the jungle is alive with bird warbles, the rustle of undergrowth as a tribe of long-tailed macaques forage for their evening meal, and the occasional whoop of a silvered langur drifting down to us from the crown of the forest canopy. The boatman slows to a crawl, and pulls up to an overhanging branch. Blending almost completely with a broad flat leaf, is a coiled green Wrangler Pit Viper. He is a dangerous customer, but even though Al gingerly moves the leaf so my camera can better focus on him, he remains torpid and unmoving. As we resume our journey, Al exclaims, "Look, a Stork-billed Kingfisher!" Just ahead of us, the kingfisher is a blue dazzle of wings as he dives into the river and emerges with dinner in his bright red beak. "That was lucky," Al says. "We don't often see one of those here." More frequently encountered is the Oriental Darter, an ungainly, long-necked cormorant, who surveys us meditatively and then returns to preening his feathers.

But, there is still no sign of the resident with the Jimmy Durante schnozzle. And, I've been so busy with my camera and binoculars, that I haven't noticed that the air has turned ominously still, or that billows of deep charcoal clouds are directly overhead. When the rain arrives it does so instantaneously, battering down in a blinding deluge, and drenching me to the bone in less than thirty seconds. The boat man turns the canoe around, throttles the engine, and races back to the forest lodge. I swallow my disappointment and Al says consolingly. "We'll do another trip tomorrow. Proboscis monkeys are usually seen around here early in the morning before the sun gets too hot.

But the curtain of rain lifts as abruptly as it came down and, as we near the jetty, our boatman suddenly veers away to the opposite shore, pointing urgently at the tree tops. And there he is! My funny-faced friend! He is a big guy, with a red snoot, so pendulous that it covers his mouth, and a belly that looks as though he's been tippling beer by the gallon. As I raise my binoculars, he is busy surveying his coterie of females spread out on nearby branches. Unlike the males, their noses are smaller and slightly up-tilted. Big daddy scratches his armpit and turns to look speculatively at us, through small beady eyes. I'm enchanted! His dark red fur sits like a cap on his head, and blends into an orange cape over his shoulders and back, while his arms and legs look as though he is wearing grey gloves and leggings. He is so bizarre as to be utterly beautiful. And, evidently that's what his wives think too-according to zoologists, it is his droopy cucumber-shaped schnozz (the bigger the better) which singles him out as a highly desirable catch. So, judging from the size of his harem-I lost count after identifying nine females-our guy is one heck of a sexy dude.

I lower my binoculars, as we head back to our forest lodge. Although its been an unforgettable experience, I am saddened by the realisation that these unique primates, even more than the Borneo Orang-Utan, are struggling for survival, and are seriously endangered by commercial and agricultural land development. Unlike Orang-Utans who bond readily with humans, Proboscis monkeys can't be reared in captivity; they are reclusive animals who pine for their natural mangrove swamps and literally starve themselves to death within a matter of days. Also, because of their finicky digestive systems (they have more than one stomach, hence the size of their paunches) they are confined to a specialised diet of leaves, fruit seeds and flowers exclusive to low lying wetlands. In recent years much of these marshes have been cleared and filled to make way for oil palm plantations, a lucrative cash crop in eastern Borneo. Consequently, these animals continue to be pushed to the edge of extinction.

To their credit, the Malaysian Wildlife Conservation Agency in Sabah has now established several wilderness parks in the Danum Valley, the Kinabatangan floodplain, and the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. Hopefully it isn't a matter of too little, too late. The Proboscis monkey and his kin are too precious to lose forever.

Margaret Deefholts
19th February 2003


Getting There:

Malaysia Airlines connects Sandakan (on the East Coast of Borneo) to Kota Kinabalu, and via connecting flights to Kuala Lumpur, and other Malaysian and international destinations. The airline has a well-deserved reputation for efficient service, superb cuisine and a tradition of warm hospitality. For more information, visit their web site at:

The drive from Sandakan to the village of Sukau on the Kinabatangan River takes approximately 2-1/2 hours, and is partly along a rough gravel road winding through dense jungle, past small rural settlements and thousands of acres of coconut oil plantations.

Where to Stay:

Old Ben Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge set within a tropical wetland jungle is surrounded by the sights and sounds of birds, reptiles, insects and animal wild life. Their rustic cottages are utilitarian (no air-conditioning or phones) but the rooms are spotlessly clean. They serve simple but superbly cooked meals.

Sukau Rainforest Lodge: A 15 minute boat ride from the Village of Sukau.


S.I. Tours Sdn. Bhd. (they have an office at Sandakan airport) operate regular overnight tours to Sukau, in the company of knowledgeable, courteous and experienced guides such as Al Aldery.

Tel: 6-089-673-502/503/508
Fax: 6-089-673-788; 217-807
Web site:

Margaret Deefholts Website