The tropical rainforests of Borneo are home to some amazing animals. One of the main reasons people visit the island is to see iconic Borneo wildlife.
Some creatures stay in the shadows and are difficult to spot. Other species are relatively easy to see if you visit the right place and have patience. Going with an experienced guide also increases your chances of seeing wildlife.
This list of 10 iconic species includes animals that you have a good chance of seeing on a trip to Malaysian Borneo. The main access points for wildlife watching are Kuching in Sarawak; and Sandakan and Lahad Datu in Sabah.
A summary of the best places to see these animals in their natural habitat is provided plus links to more detailed articles on particular species.
The orangutan is number one on many travellers list of animals to see in Borneo. This iconic species – the only great ape found in Asia – is endangered owing to habitat loss. Thankfully there are still a few locations where you have a good chance of seeing orangutans.
Rescued orangutans can be seen Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah and Semenggoh Nature Reserve in Sarawak.
There are several good places in Sabah where you can see wild orangutans including the Kinabatangan River, Danum Valley, Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Deramakot.
In Sarawak, the best destination to see wild orangutans is Batang Ai. Sightings on the upper Delok River near Borneo Adventure’s Nanga Sumpa Lodge and Lubok Kasai Jungle Camp have increased over recent years.
For comprehensive details of the best places to see orangutans see this blog post.
2. Pygmy Elephant
The Borneo pygmy elephant is a sub-species of the Asian Elephant. It has a limited distribution and is only found in the northeast of Borneo. This is another animal that is likely to be high on your must-see list of Borneo wildlife.
Under threat from habitat loss and more recently poachers, there are around 2,000 pygmy elephants left in the wild. Over 95% of them are found in the Sabah with a small population living in Indonesian Kalimantan.
Pygmy elephants are mostly found in lowland rainforests and river valleys and live in herds of 6-20. Herds are led by a female matriarch. Sometimes herds come together on the riverbank forming larger groups of up to 50 elephants.
As we outline in this in-depth article on the species, the best places to see Pygmy elephants are the Kinabatangan River, Deramakot Forest Reserve, Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Danum Valley.
3. Proboscis Monkey
The proboscis monkey is only found in Borneo. Named after its huge nose, it is a one of the strangest looking monkeys on earth. This orange-brown coloured monkey is one of the biggest monkeys founds in Asia. Males can weigh up to 30 kilograms.
The Proboscis monkey lives in mangroves, riverine forest, lowland forest and peat swamp forest. It is usually found within a few kilometres of a large river.
Proboscis monkeys live in harems comprising a dominant male plus 5 or 6 females and their offspring. They forage for food during the day and return to the river bank in the evening to sleep.
There are several good places to see proboscis monkeys in Malaysian Borneo.
The Kinabatagan River and Klias Wetlands in Sabah are excellent sites whilst Bako National Park and Kuching Wetlands are the two best places to see proboscis monkeys in Sarawak
See this article on proboscis monkeys for a detailed overview of where to see them.
Eight species of Hornbill are found in Borneo. These are the Rhinoceros Hornbill, Oriental Pied Hornbill, Asian Black Hornbill, Bushy-crested Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, White-crowned Hornbill, Wrinkled Hornbill, and Helmeted Hornbill.
The Asian Black Hornbill and Oriental Pied Hornbill can live in disturbed forests but the other species require primary or old-growth secondary forest.
Whilst Sarawak is known as the ‘Land of the Hornbill’, it is quite difficult to see hornbills in Sarawak. However, there are a couple of places worth trying.
The 93 hectare Piasau Nature Reserve in Miri is a good place to see Hornbills. This park was previously owned by Sarawak Shell. Piasau Camp as it was known was built in the 1950s and was a residential compound for Shell employees. Today it’s an urban park consisting of inland coastal forest and sandy beach vegetation.
A small population of Oriental Pied hornbills lives in the park. There are around 20 individuals that live in or visit the park.
Tanjung Datu National Park is another place in Sarawak where you can see hornbills. Try the Belian trail which offers reasonable chances of seeing Rhinoceros hornbills. They are also occasionally seen flying above the park HQ in the evenings.
Black hornbills are sometimes seen at Batang Ai when travelling by longboat from the jetty to Nanga Sumpa longhouse.
Near Kuching, there are Rhinoceros Hornbills in Santubong National Park but they are not easy to spot. If you are lucky you might see or hear them on the trails near Permai Rainforest Resort or the Mount Santubong trail.
Black Hornbills are sometimes heard at Bako but rarely seen. There is one location outside of Bako where it is fairly easy to see Oriental Pied Hornbills. They are seen at the sides of the roads or flying over disturbed forest outside the park.
Whilst it is becoming ever harder to see hornbills in Sarawak, Sabah is a fantastic destination to see various species of hornbill.
Good places to see hornbills in Sabah include Sepilok, Tabin Wildlife Reserve, Danum Valley, Deramakot – and the Kinabatangan River. Imbak Canyon is pretty good for spotting the rare Helmeted hornbill, the largest hornbill found in Borneo. Oriental Pied hornbills can usually be seen at Labuk Bay.
The Kinabatangan River is one of the best places to see hornbills in Borneo. Eight species of hornbill are found at the Kinabatangan. You sometimes see large flocks of hornbills. You can even see hornbills on your lodge balcony when on one of our Kinabatangan River tours.
5. Leaf Monkeys or Langurs
There are many species of leaf monkeys in Borneo and they are fairly easy to spot at some popular parks or reserves in Sarawak and Sabah.
Silver leaf monkeys or silvered langurs are commonly seen at Bako National Park in Sarawak. It’s probably the best site in Sarawak to see them although there are also spotted on several trails at Santubong National Park. The short cut to the Summit trail, which begins opposite the Culvert Hotel, is a good spot to try.
If you stay at Nanga Damai Homestay you might well see them from your room or the dining area. There are also seen near Permai Rainforest Resort. You can sometimes see them at the Kuching Wetlands National Park when on a Santubong Wildlife Cruise.
In Sabah, they can be seen in few places including Klias and Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. A large group of habituated silver leaf monkeys is often found at the Platform B observation area at Labuk. They often sit down amongst the visitors.
Red or Maroon Langurs are commonly seen at Danum Valley. They feed on a wide range of leaves and unripe fruit. A habituated group is often seen around the Field Centre. They are also seen near the Borneo Rainforest Lodge. Scientists believe that the Red Langur’s bright orange fur might help to confuse predators into thinking that it is the larger orangutan and therefore not worth attacking.
In other places in Sabah, you can see Red Langurs include Deramakot Forest Reserve and the Kinabatangan River. They are rarely sighted in Sarawak although you see them in Batang Ai National Park if you go deep into the park.
The Bornean Banded Langur or Sarawak Langur is one of the rarest primates on earth. It is now on the verge of extinction. Some of Borneo Adventure’s clients have been lucky enough to see the Sarawak Langur on our Tanjung Datu National Park tour.
6. Red Giant Flying Squirrels
There is something magical about seeing Red Giant Flying Squirrels launch themselves from the top of a tree and glide across the rainforest. They glide using a membrane of skin that links their front and back legs.
As the name suggests, these are decent sized squirrels. They have a head-to-body length of 40 cm plus a tail of a similar length. Imagine something the size of a domesticated cat flying overhead and you’ve got it. They are the largest flying squirrel found in Borneo.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre and MY Nature Resort (both at Sepilok) are great locations to see these squirrels emerge from their nest holes. This article provides more details on watching these squirrels at Sepilok.
Another good site to see these and other flying squirrels is Deramakot Forest Reserve. You are almost guaranteed to see a few species of flying squirrels on a night drive at Deramakot.
7. Green Turtles
Watching a green turtle emerge from the sea; slowly crawl up a beach; search for a suitable nesting site; patiently dig a nest; lay 60-180 eggs, and finally haul itself back to the ocean, is undoubtedly one of the top wildlife watching experiences in Borneo. It is a process that can take 2-3 hours.
I’ve been lucky enough to experience this several times. Each time was as amazing as the first time I saw it. It’s an awe-inspiring sight of the magnificence of nature. Seeing an animal that is designed for life in the ocean leave that world and struggle on land to give life anew – it does not get better than that.
The huge gasps of air from the exhausted turtle, sand being flung everywhere, the sheer size of the turtle in front of you, the darkness of the night, the sound of the waves – these are things you will never forget.
It is unlikely that you will experience the whole turtle nesting process unless you are on an isolated beach. At most turtle sanctuaries, access to nesting beaches is controlled. Park rangers monitor the beaches and only let visitors go to the beach once a turtle has started laying eggs.
Selingan Island in Sabah is open to visitors and offers excellent chances of seeing turtles. We offer overnight stays on the island which is accessed via Sandakan. Turtles can also be seen at dive destinations in Sabah.
Talang Besar Island in Sarawak is another long-established turtle sanctuary. Sarawak was one of the first sites in the world to implement turtle research and management activities. Data on turtle landings and nests dates back to the 1940s thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Sarawak Museum, Tom Harrisson, and American zoologist John R. Hendrickson.
Talang Besar is officially not open to tourists but can be visited as part of a turtle volunteer programme.
There is a reasonable chance of seeing a turtle at Sarawak’s Tanjung Datu National Park during the peak nesting months from June to September.
8. Irrawaddy Dolphins
The Irrawaddy dolphin lives in coastal waters, estuaries and bays. It has a distinctive blunt, rounded head. Small isolated populations are found in many places in Borneo but the Kuching area has a relatively large population estimated at 230 individuals.
I’ve been fascinated with Irrawaddy dolphins ever since I first spotted a group in the Salak river estuary way back in 2000. At that time not many people knew that these dolphins were found near Kuching, the State capital of Sarawak.
To be honest I developed a bit of an addiction to dolphin watching. For 10 years my hobby was to go out a search for Irrawaddy dolphins in the rivers and estuaries around Sarawak. I spent time trying to increase awareness of these fascinating species and the need to conduct research and protect them. I even started an obscure blog on Irrawaddy dolphins.
Thankfully, today there is greater awareness of Sarawak’s Irrawaddy dolphins. Researchers at UNIMAS, Sarawak’s main university, now conduct regular dolphin surveys. There is also a small dolphin watching industry so visitors can see these rare animals.
There are a few places to see Irrawaddy dolphins in Sarawak but the best location is the Salak / Santubong estuary near Kuching. This area is close to Damai Beach and the Kuching Wetlands National Park.
The best time to go dolphin watching is from March to November when the seas are calm.
Borneo Adventure has two trips that offer a chance of seeing the dolphins – the Santubong Wildlife Cruise and the Irrawaddy dolphin watching tour.
9. Flying Lemur or Culugo
The colugo (or flying lemur) is a small tree-dwelling mammal. These animals can not technically fly but they can glide distances of up to 70 metres. Colugos are usually mottled grey but some are reddish-brown.
A colugo’s glide begins with a powerful jump from a tree. It then spreads its huge membrane and ‘flies’ across the rainforest before landing on another tree. The colugo has one of the most extensive membranes of all gliders. Its membrane extends from its face to its tail and claws. This creature is a huge flap of skin.
One of the best and most accessible places to see colugos is Bako National Park. During the day they are often found sleeping in the trees near the chalets at the park HQ. Colugos are shy, nocturnal creatures. However, as Bako has been a protected area for over 60 years they are used to humans. You can walk up under the tree where they are hanging and they are not bothered.
As dusk approaches, they start to liven up a bit and stretch their limbs in preparation for a night of foraging. If you are lucky you will see them glide from tree to tree. It is not uncommon to see mothers with a baby. Having young does not stop the mother from gliding. The baby hangs on tight as its mother transports it around the forest.
Around 15 years ago I filmed colugos mating at Bako National Park. I was one of a group of around ten people who were lucky enough to witness what was a somewhat brutal display with a lot of screaming. See the clip here.
10. Bornean Clouded Leopard
Whilst you have a decent chance of seeing the nine animals described above on a trip to Borneo, the same can not be said for the clouded leopard. This an elusive and difficult animal to spot. It is mostly nocturnal and generally a shy creature. The clouded leopard often tops the ‘tick list’ of mammal watchers who visit Borneo.
Deramakot Forest Reserve is the place to go if you want to see a clouded leopard. Whilst there are regular sightings at Deramakot you will still need to be lucky. There are only a couple of sightings of clouded leopards each month. Some people come to Sabah just to look for this cat. It is not uncommon for people to stay in Deramakot for 2-3 weeks to try and catch a glimpse of this rare species. Some visitors are successful, others are not. Even if you don’t see a clouded leopard you will see a wide range of fascinating wildlife at Deramakot.
It is possible to see clouded leopards elsewhere in Sabah, including Danum Valley and the Kinabatangan River. However, sightings are rarer than Deramakot.
Sightings of clouded leopards are incredibly rare in Sarawak where the species faces threats from hunting. A few years ago our tour guide Edgar spotted one near our Lubok Kasai Jungle Camp at Batang Ai. In 2014 three clouded leopards were spotted on the slopes of Mount Santubong near Kuching. There have been no further sightings in the area since.
Photo of clouded leopard by Mike Gordon.