At 350 miles long, the Kinabatangan River is the second-longest waterway in Malaysia. It’s well known for the biodiverse habitats on its banks and surrounding areas. Along the course of the river, you can access the limestone caves at Gomantong, dryland forests, mangrove swamps and lakes. Much of the lower river is within the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, and upper sections run into the surrounding forest reserves. This means there is a huge potential to encounter wildlife in these areas.
Where to start
Sandakan is the most popular base from which to explore the Kinabatangan River. The airport and surrounding area form the second largest city in Sabah after Kota Kinabalu on the other side of the island. From Sandakan, you can easily get to Turtle Islands National Park and the conservation centres in Sepilok that care for orangutans and sun bears. Indeed, some river cruise packages tend to begin with a morning spent at Sepilok to encounter the orangutans and sun bears. It’s then a 2-hour transfer to launch on the river itself.
On the River
Once you reach the river, your seasoned guide will be able to point out the many stunning sights to see. Many animals are creatures of habit, and so guides know where and when to have the most chance of seeing these animals.
In the lower wetlands areas, the river is surrounded by a mangrove forest that makes up about a quarter of the mangrove area in Sabah. This freshwater swamp area is an important nursery environment for many fish species and also stabilises the shoreline.
These limestone caves are included in some river excursions and are a great place to spot a variety of wildlife. The caves are inhabited by four varieties of swiftlet, and 27 species of bat. Because of the substantial bat population, if you visit at twilight, you’ll likely see Bat Hawks are on the hunt.
Beyond the mangroves, look out for Bornean Pygmy elephants. These herds often congregate on the banks of the river to drink, bathe and relax. Asia’s smallest elephants are unique to Borneo and are incredibly passive. This makes them a joy to spot, and your guides will know if there is a herd nearby.
As crocodiles are territorial creatures, river guides tend to know where and when they will be basking on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. The saltwater crocodiles that live here are large and impressive, so they are a great spot for any visitor.
The area around the Kinabatangan river is inhabited by ten species of primate. The proboscis monkey is more prevalent in the area and so it’s likely that you’ll see or hear them from the river. Many packages include a visit to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary so you can see these animals in close quarters.
The Bornean Orangutan is one of the most iconic animals of the region. While you may see animals in the wild from the river, tours often begin with a visit to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok. Here, you can witness and even get involved with the morning feed. You’ll see how baby orangutans are rehabilitated before being released back into the wild.
On a multi-day river excursion, your time will be spent in the surrounding rainforests as well as on the river itself. Here, there are more types of wildlife to look out for. Again, your guides will know the best routes to take and will point out creatures that you may otherwise miss.
The proboscis and the orangutan are just two of the primate species found around the Kinabatangan River. On a jungle trek you may spot Langur Monkeys, Long and Pig-tailed Macaques, the Philippine Slow Loris, Horsfield’s Tarsier, and the Northern Grey Gibbon.
There is a wealth of birdlife to be spotted and heard on a jungle trek around the Kinabatangan River. Storm’s Stork is at the top of the list for most birders, as it is a rare but spectacular find. You’ll also see various varieties of Hornbill, the Dwarf Kingfisher, Wallace’s Hawk-Eagle and the smallest raptor in the world, the White Fronted Falconet.
Crocodiles aren’t the only reptiles on the Kinabatangan River. In the surrounding jungle, you’ll likely spot some of the 160 snake varieties that inhabit Borneo. Most are perfectly docile, and you may miss them without the keen eye of your guide. To catch sight of an Earless Monitor Lizard, you’ll have to be spotting at night.
There’s a huge amount of nocturnal wildlife to see on the Kinabatangan River. This is why many packages include a night walk.
Nearby to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is the Sun Bear Conservation Centre. Many excursions that visit the former also include the latter. It’s unlikely that you’ll see a sun bear in the wild, so this is the best place to experience these wonderful creatures. These small bears tend to stick to the trees, snoozing in the sun during the day and searching for sweet things to eat at night!
Nocturnal wildlife that you’ll most likely see on a night walk are the palm civet cat, snakes, and spiders. Some birds you may catch sleeping, while others are nocturnal like the Buffy Fish Owl. If lady luck is on your side, you may spy a clouded leopard, but these creatures are incredibly rare to spot.
There is so much to see along the Kinabatangan River that, often, a day trip isn’t enough. If you want to see it all, multi-day cruises are the ideal solution. Even then, you’ll want to come back for more!