Malaysian Borneo - A Vanishing Eden

Tracey Teo

On a wildlife cruise on Malaysian Borneo’s crocodile-infested Kinabatangan River, the chorus of haunting calls and high-pitched whistles produced by hundreds of species of birds and insects was interrupted by interlopers that raucously trumpeted above the din.  The source of the ruckus emerged trunk-first from behind a verdant curtain of vines and other vegetation that flourish in this ancient rainforest in the Malaysian state of Sabah on the northwest coast of Borneo, the world’s third largest island that is slightly larger than Texas. 

From a small metal boat that reflected the orange-purple twilight, my fellow wildlife viewers and I exchanged excited whispers while photographing a chain of Bornean pygmy elephants, including mothers and calves, that submerged themselves in the muddy water for an evening swim. 

Their backs bobbed up and down like a pod of whales, but since they don’t have the marine mammal’s handy blowhole, they used their trunks as a snorkel until they made it to the opposite riverbank. This endangered species is the smallest elephant in the world, but despite the “pygmy,” they can reach more than eight feet tall and weigh up to 11,000 pounds, making them the largest mammal on Borneo. 

My American husband is ethnic Chinese, born and raised in Malaysia, so I’ve traveled to this country in southeast Asia many times, but this region, with its rare flora and fauna, was a different world. We usually spend most of our time visiting family in the Malaysian state of Penang, a predominantly Chinese island. On this trip, we decided to take the short flight from Penang to East Malaysia, the wild side, that is almost as different from Penang as the Earth is from the moon. Sadly, the island is now a vanishing Eden due to human impact.  

Borneo Nature Lodge, an eco-friendly resort in Sabah, offers tours that take wildlife lovers deep into this 130-million-year-old rain forest, one of the oldest on the planet and among the most biodiverse. Much of it has been burned down, often illegally, to make room for Borneo’s highly profitable industrial palm oil plantations that sprawl across millions of acres. Most of the world’s palm oil, found in everything from food to cosmetics to biofuel, is grown on the island of Borneo. Nascent efforts in Sabah to revolutionize the palm oil industry by implementing sustainability standards are moving slowly. 

Another threat to the health of the ecosystem is 50 years of commercial logging. Loss of habitat has led to the decline of not only the pygmy elephant, but the critically endangered orangutan. 

Because it’s now rare to spot the world’s largest tree dwelling creature on a jungle trek, nature lodge guests visit Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in the Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve. Owned and operated by the Sabah Wildlife Department, the 16-square-mile facility houses dozens of orphaned and injured orangutans until they can safely return to the wild. 

These agile great apes have unique physical characteristics, including upper body strength about seven times greater than a human, that allow them to easily traverse the treetops.  Befitting their arboreal lifestyle, they have an arm span of over seven feet and long fingers and toes that enable them to effortlessly pluck fruit from swaying trees.  

Feeding time is your best chance of observing these highly intelligent orangish primates that weigh between 80 and 220 pounds, but sometimes this dinner party has no-shows. That means the orangutans are finding enough food in the surrounding jungle canopy (a positive sign they can fend for themselves) and don’t need their diet supplemented. 

Fortunately, they were hungry on the day of our visit, and a whole cast of interesting characters swung in on the ropes course to the feeding platforms.  

Each had a distinct personality. Some were playful. Some were standoffish. Some were naughty, harassing other orangutans. 

A mother zipped in with her baby riding on her belly as she grasped the rope with both hands and both feet. Orangutans are mostly solitary creatures in the wild, but at the feeding platform, a few stopped by to socialize. An older juvenile repeatedly touched the baby’s head in greeting, a behavior the mother saw as non-threatening. After a while, he got bored, so he grabbed the nearest overhead rope and flew back into the jungle like a superhero, a large piece of coconut between his teeth.  

Mom made sure her baby had his fill of bananas and mangoes, then hugged him tight in the crook of her arm. Young orangutans have a deep bond with their mother and stay with her until they are about seven years old, even sleeping with her in treetop nests. Females give birth once every seven to nine years and average about four offspring during their lifetime (about 53 years). This low reproductive rate increases the species’ vulnerability. 

Our next stop was the nearby Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, a rehabilitation and rescue facility for the world’s smallest bear. About half the size of American black bears, they are named for the golden crescent-shaped patch of fur on their chest, but, despite the name, the Bornean sun bear is nocturnal. At night, these omnivores roam the forest foraging for fruits, rodents and insects, but they have a sweet tooth, and one of their favorite foods is honey. They use their sharp, four-inch claws to rip open beehives and their exceptionally long tongues to clean out the honey, gobbling up a few bees in the process. Thick skin and fur and a high tolerance to toxins protect them from stings. 

In the wild, these shy bears avoid humans and each other, but at the conservation center, there were five or six in a large forested enclosure, so they played games, rolling along the jungle floor and chasing each other up trees.  

When they stand on their hind legs, their posture is eerily human.  Last summer, a viral video of a sun bear standing and “waving” at China’s Hangzhou Zoo fueled rumors that the bear was a human imposter in a bear suit, but it was a real sun bear. 

Another surprising fact about sun bears is they can “bark” like dogs. I discovered this at feeding time when one bear thought she wasn’t getting her share. Such a vicious sound erupting from a cute, roly-poly bear was so unexpected, it was like hearing a cat moo.  

In addition to habitat loss due to human encroachment, there are other threats to the species. They are poached for food and for body parts that are prized in traditional Chinese medicine. Cubs are sometimes illegally captured and kept as pets.  

Recently, enforcement of wildlife protection laws in Sabah has been boosted and penalties for poachers and traffickers have increased. 

Over a Malaysian dinner at Borneo Nature Lodge, I chatted with guests about the wonders of nature we had observed, reliving the thrill of spotting a troop of macaques monkeys scurrying in the trees at sunset and photographing rare colorful birds perched on fallen logs  in the Kinabatangan River. Our conversation was also tinged with sadness, because we were all aware that future generations may never experience our wilderness adventure.  

There’s trouble in Paradise. Can it be saved? Only time will tell. 

Sabah Tourism. 

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre. 

Borneo Nature Lodge.