Straddling the equator and divided among three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei, Borneo is the third largest island on Earth. Its tropical rainforests are home to an incredible diversity of wildlife from giant apes to pygmy elephants to wild cats and flying frogs.
Despite the alarming rate of deforestation on the island (1.3 million hectares per year) Borneo’s Malaysian state of Sabah still retains a large portion of its forest cover. It is easily the best place in South East Asia for wildlife watching. And many Borneo animals do not occur anywhere else.
I have travelled to Borneo a number of times over the last three years and my favourite places to see Borneo wildlife are: Danum Valley Conservation Area, Lower Kinabatangan River and Deramakot Forest Reserve. But there is of course much more to Borneo than these three reserves. I have teamed up with fellow travel bloggers to provide you with the top wildlife watching spots on the island.
Each of these areas has its own special appeal, but what unites them is the unique opportunities to spot some of South East Asia’s most incredible wildlife in Borneo. So if you are looking for things to do in Borneo, add at least one of these reserves to your Borneo adventure.
Iconic Borneo Animals
Borneo is home to the incredible abundance of wildlife. Some species, like Borneo bay cat or Tufted ground squirrel, are almost never seen. But the majority of Borneo wildlife can be spotted with some patience and determination. Here are the top 10 Borneo animals to add to your Borneo bucket list.
One of the most iconic animals of Borneo, the Orangutan is also one of the most threatened. Did you know that the Orang-utan builds itself a fresh nest out tree branches each night? While the branches are fresh, they are supple and soft to sleep on. But by the following night, the twigs dry up and the nest becomes too hard for the shaggy ape to sleep in.
Sadly, the Orang-utan is Critically Endangered in Borneo but it can be spotted along the Kinabatangan river and in Deramakot Forest Reserve.
The Proboscis monkey has got to be one of the oddest-looking primates on earth and one of the most comical animals in Borneo. Their bulging pot bellies and oversized noses give them the look of grumpy old men. Unfortunately, just like their bigger relative – the Orangutan, the Proboscis monkeys are endangered mainly due to the loss of habitat, that’s being converted to oil palm plantations at an unprecedented rate.
For now, they can be easily seen on the Kinabatangan River.
Borneo pygmy elephant
A subspecies of the Asian elephant, he Pygmy elephant is the largest terrestrial mammal in Borneo. Though, that doesn’t mean that it is easy to see. The Kinabatangan river, Deramakot Forest Reserve and Danum Valley Conservation Area are all good spots to look for it.
And, you guessed it, it is listed as Endangered, mainly due to habitat loss and degradation.
Sunda Clouded leopard
Arguably the most beautiful wild cat on earth, the Sunda Clouded leopard is Borneo’s only big cat. Currently listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, it is an elusive nocturnal hunter that is very rarely observed in the wild. For your best chance of spotting the Clouded leopard, head to Deramakot Forest Reserve with Adventure Alternative Borneo (see details below).
The Marbled cat looks like a small clouded leopard. Its coat is similarly patterned and its tail is equally long. And just like the Clouded leopard, the Marbled cat spends most of its time up in the trees. They are quite fond of ambushing flying squirrels by sitting on a branch and patiently waiting for them to emerge from their tree-hollow homes.
Not much is known about the Marbled cat’s ecology in the wild. It is one of the most secretive Borneo rainforest animals.
Sunda Leopard cat
The most common, or rather the least uncommon, wild cat in Borneo, the Sunda leopard cat is a small and handsome hunter. It is quite tolerant of habitat disturbance, and it can be occasionally found in the oil palm plantations. To see it in a more natural setting, take a night drive in Danum Valley or Deramakot Forest Reserve.
Also known as the Leaf monkey, Maroon langur is one of the cutest Borneo rainforest animals. They are fun to watch as they leap across the forest canopy with incredible agility. The best place to see them up-close is Danum Valley Field Centre.
It is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and its population is considered stable.
Often referred to as the flying lemur, the Colugo doesn’t actually fly, no it is a lemur. But it is able to glide across considerable distances using flaps of extra skin that extend between its paired limbs. It is active at night and the best place to see it is the Deramakot Forest Reserve.
Sunda Colugo is listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Philippine slow loris
The Slow loris lives high up in the canopy and comes out to forage for food at night. Growing to all of 300 grams in weight, this big-eyed primate is one of the smallest slow lorises in the world. It is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but it can be seen without much trouble on night drives in Deramakot and Danum Valley.
The Tarsier looks as if it was made from spare parts. Its giant eyes take up most of its face, its fingers are as long as its entire arm and its incredibly long back legs could have come from a frog.
It is listed as “Vulnerable” on the Red List of Threatened Species and its population is decreasing. The best chance of spotting a tarsier will be on a nocturnal jungle hike.
Rhinoceros hornbill is one of the most majestic birds in Borneo. It is the national bird of Malaysia and the state bird of Sarawak. Like other hornbill species, Rhinoceros hornbill displays interesting breeding behaviour. The pair builds a nest in a tree hollow and once the eggs are laid, the male seals the female in the hollow, using mud and feces to construct a wall. Only a small hole is left so that the male can pass the food to the female and to the chicks once they are hatched.
The Rhinoceros hornbill is listed as “Vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, but Kinabatangan River is a good spot to see it, along with a few other hornbill species.
Wallace’s flying frog
Borneo fauna is unique for the abundance of flying animals. In reality, most species don’t actually fly, but glide from one tree to another. The Wallace’s flying frog is the most spectacular gliding frog on the island. It can be spotted at night after heavy rain.
While the population of Wallace’s flying frog is decreasing, it is currently listed as “Least Concern” on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Best Places To See Borneo Wildlife in Sabah
The Malaysian state of Sabah is Borneo’s greenest state, with the highest proportion of the original forest cover remaining intact, despite the alarmingly high deforestation levels. The state has an extensive system of National Parks and protected areas and offers some of the finest wildlife watching opportunities on the island, as well as some best offshore islands in Borneo.
Lying about 2.5 hours by road from the coastal town of Lahad Datu, Danum Valley Conservation area is home to one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Estimated to be 130 million-years-old, this forest has a distinctly primeval feeling to it.
Thick clouds of mist float lazily over the tops of some of the tallest tropical trees on Earth. Lush vegetation in all possible shades of green covers every surface in the forest.
The wildlife is everywhere in Danum Valley: Bearded pigs and Sambar deer frolic on the lawns around the living quarters and the cheeky Maroon langurs frequently visit the camps. The suspension bridges over the Segama River and canopy towers bring you even closer wildlife. But the best wildlife watching in Danum Valley is at night on a safari drive. You are virtually guaranteed to see Flying squirrels, a few species of civets, Colugos and Slow lorises. And if you are lucky, you may spot Borneo pygmy elephants or even a Clouded leopard.
There are two accommodation options in Danum Valley: the luxurious Borneo Rainforest Lodge and the simpler rooms at the Field Center.
Booking the Field Center accommodation independently can be frustrating, as there are no reliable email contact details for the Field Center office in Lahad Datu. The address of the office is: Block 3, MDLD 3286, Ground Floor, Fajar Centre, Lahad Datu, Sabah Ph: + 60 89 880 441
At the time of writing the office could be contacted via the staff personal e-mail addresses: Suzan Kilin [email protected]; and Rosnita Razalie [email protected] Here is Danum Valley Field Center 4D/3N sample itinerary
Alternatively, you can enlist the help of an eco-tour agency like Sticky Rice Travel that has a variety of different tour options for Danum Valley, including camping.
Deramakot Forest Reserve
Deramakot Forest Reserve is located in the heart of Sabah, about a 4-hour drive from Sandakan. This little-known reserve is the pride and joy of the Sabah Forestry Department. Granted, a logged forest doesn’t sound like a winning wildlife watching destination, but Deramakot is a different story entirely.
It is managed for reduced impact logging, meaning that only the trees that can be extracted with minimal impact to their surroundings are removed. And once an area is harvested, it is left to rest for 40 years.
As a result, the forest retains its wild nature. It provides habitat for an impressive 75% of mammal species in Sabah, including all five species of Borneo’s wild cats.
I have not seen such a high diversity of wildlife anywhere else in Asia. It is the best place in South East Asia for spotting the rarer species, like the Clouded leopard, Marble cat, and Otter civet, as well as Bornean Orangutans and Borneo Pygmy elephants.
There are no shops or petrol stations in Deramakot, which means that you either have to bring your own 4WD, all food, and petrol with you or you can join an organized tour with an accompanying guide, a driver and a cook. Adventure Alternative Borneo was the first commercial outfit to initiate tours to Deramakot, and it still remains the best option on the market.
The main accommodation option in Deramakot is the three-bedroom chalets that come equipped with hot water showers and air-conditioning.
Of all Borneo wildlife hotspots, the lower Kinabatangan River is where you are most likely to experience Borneo animals up close. Sadly, the reason for this abundance is that wildlife has nowhere else to go.
Pushed by the encroaching oil palm plantations, the animals are trapped in the narrow stretch of forest on the river bank. If more land is cleared, we will lose this wildlife haven for good. But for now, the wildlife is safe.
The visits to Kinabatangan revolve around the river cruises. There are early morning, late afternoon and night-time cruises. The morning and afternoon cruises are perfect for birds and primates.
You would be pretty unlucky not to spot some typical Borneo animals – a few species of Hornbills, the pig-tailed macaques, crocodiles and the endangered Proboscis monkeys – the world’s oddest looking monkeys. The only other good place for spotting Proboscis monkeys in Borneo at close range is Bako National Park in Sarawak.
Lower Kinabatangan River is one of the best places to see orangutans in Borneo. The Critically Endangered apes are being pushed to the brink of extinction by the habitat loss. Another iconic Borneo animal you may encounter on the river is the Borneo Pygmy Elephant. Even if you only have time for a single safari on the river, you are likely to see quite an abundance of rare wildlife.
The night cruises bring you up close to the nocturnal species: civets, Slow lorises, owls, and if you are lucky, even the endangered Flat-headed cat. The river itself is a different world at night – silent and misty.
The access point for Kinabatangan is the village of Sukau, located about 2 hours away from Sandakan. The accommodation options on the river range from the luxurious Sukau Rainforest Lodge to the more basic, but rustic Kinabatangan Jungle Camp.
There are a number of homestay options on the river, the best of which is Osman’s Homestay. Osman is a very talented spotter. I had some of the best close encounters with wildlife on a cruise with Osman, including the sighting of a Philippine slow loris and a Western tarsier on the images above.
If you are not the jungle trodding type but still want to see Asia’s most Endangered Great Apes, you can visit them in the semi-wild setting of a rehabilitation centre.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
By Sally Lucas from Our 3 Kids v The World
Visiting Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre was one of the highlights of all my travels with the kids. Located near Sandakan in Malaysian Borneo, it is a rehabilitation centre for orangutans that have been poached, kept as pets or have lost their home due to deforestation. The Centre releases the animals into the surrounding forest and once rehabilitated, they will be released back into the wild.
You can never be guaranteed to see an orangutan as they tend to appear when they feel like it. The staff at Sepilok will put out food twice a day and which orangutans turn up is who you will see. Feeding times are around mid-morning and another mid-afternoon that you can attend.
We were so lucky on our visit, not only did we see 8 orangutans of various ages but we also had a mum and baby orangutan which was lovely to see. There is also a nursery on site for orangutans that have been separated from their mums. They are nursed by human carers until they are old enough to be released into the forest with the larger population of orangutans.
Of course, not all Borneo wildlife lives in forests and on the river banks. Being an island, Borneo has some fantastic diving and snorkelling opportunities to see more wildlife underwater.
By Sarah Pritchard from A Lovely Planet
We visited Sipadan during a two week Borneo trip, spending 5 nights on the island. It’s a world-class dive location off the east coast of Borneo, Sabah. Here you can find huge varieties of schooling fish, Reef Sharks, Turtles and if you are lucky Hammerhead Sharks and the majestic Manta Rays. The island itself is also stunning, with white sands and glistening waters. What makes diving on Sipadan Island really special is the sheer amount of fish and marine creatures you will see. You won’t see a few turtles on a dive, you’ll see plenty!
Permits are limited to 125 per day, so you’ll likely also dive at neighbouring island Mabul which hosts a different kind of diving. Here you’ll find sunken boats and vehicles to explore and weird and wonderful critters such as the cleverly disguised Frogfish. Mabul is where most dive shops operate from, we stayed at some cool bungalows set out over the water with Billabong Scuba.
Fly into Tawau airport and head east to Semporna, which is where you’ll start your diving adventure or North towards Kinabatangan river.
Tunku Abdul Rahman Park
By Penny from Globe Trove
The island of Borneo is often considered to be one of the most ecologically diverse places in the world. This is both on land and in the water. I hadn’t quite realized just how beautiful it was until I found myself searching for things to do in Kota Kinabalu.
One of the things that popped up on my radar was Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, a spot in the middle of the ocean that compromised of a number of islands and the blue waters that surrounded them. While you can head out to these islands for snorkelling trips or just plain island hopping, we also added a bit of diving to the fun.
Till this day, I can say that it remains one of the most beautiful places to spot coral that I have been to. Aside from coral, you will also find eels, colourful fish, gorgeous giant clams, stingrays and so much more. It is almost as if you could dive every day and see something different! So, if you are looking for underwater wildlife in Borneo, head to Kota Kinabalu and visit the many islands.
Best Places to See Borneo Wildlife in Sarawak
Gunung Mulu National Park
By Sylvia from Wapiti Travel
The Gunung Mulu national park is a tropical rainforest. It can be visited all year round but as the vegetation suggests you have a good chance of rain. The wettest months are October to January and May to June.
Don’t expect to see any large wildlife in Mulu, those were chased and killed before the region was recognized as a national park. Despite that, it is still one of the top things to do in Borneo as the park houses a wide range of smaller mammals and reptiles and a huge selection of colorful birds. During our visit, we spotted monkeys, many millipedes, walking sticks, dragonflies, butterflies, and salamanders.
Nothing beats the stars of the park which are the bats. At dusk they fly out of the caves in huge swarms which is a spectacle in itself, the park has even created an observation post from where you can witness this event.
The fastest way to get to Gunung Mulu is by plane. There’re daily scheduled flights from Miri. Alternatively, you could make the trip by boat from Miri but that’s only if there’s enough water in the Tutoh river.
Bako National Park
By Ania from The Travelling Twins
Just 40km from Kuching, Bako has everything, starting with the water crossing to get there. At the edge of the water live the mudskippers. For my girls, chasing mud-skipping fish was the closed thing to paradise on earth.
The rest of Bako was wonderful too. We saw lots of wildlife as well as the endangered proboscis monkeys. I remember silver leaf monkeys, cheeky long tail macaques, and a bearded boar. The girls love reptiles, so all the lizards and snakes were a treat too.
Bako peninsula has almost every type of vegetation found in Borneo. Another charmer for the kids – there were several insect-eating plants!
On your first visit, taking the guided hike is a good option. Our guide pointed out wildlife and plants we would never have seen on our own. Especially as a day trip from Kuching with kids this worked very well for us. The tour included transport by road and boat and the guided trek.
Our guided tour for 1 adult and 2 children cost RM500 ($120). If you decide to go on your own it’s much cheaper, the costs to consider are:Taxi to the pier approx RM20 ($5), Place in shared boat RM20 ($5), Entry to the park, Foreign Adult: RM20 ($5), Foreign Child/Senior: RM7 ($2).
Best Places To See Borneo Wildlife in Kalimantan
Tanjung Puting National Park
By Amy from Out Chasing Stars
Taking a river cruise is Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesian Borneo is the best way to connect with the local land and its inhabitants. On our river cruise, we spotted many different kinds of primates, birds, and reptiles. Local villagers, in from working the palm oil plantations, led us on night safaris to spot rare Borneo animals. And the biggest attraction is the orangutan, which we saw at three different feeding platforms.
Tanjung Puting is home to Camp Leakey, started by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, which is the leading facility for orangutan research in the world. Orangutans are native to Borneo (Indonesia and Malaysia) and Sumatra (also Indonesia) only, and Camp Leakey and it’s feeding stations throughout Tanjung Puting are the best way to guarantee an orangutan sighting.
We booked our river cruise on a private klotok, a small boat. There are no luxury options here! The cruise is bare bones for amenities but makes up for it in wildlife.
The area is a victim to deforestation from the palm oil plantations and mining operations upriver are polluting the ecosystem through the water. There are creatures living in the forests of Tanjung Puting that we barely understand, and are losing our opportunity to see and research this wildlife.
Best time to visit Borneo
Borneo is one of the wettest places on Earth. Even outside of the rainy season, tropical downpours are frequent, so be prepared to get drenched at least once during your stay.
For the best chances of staying dry, visit between April and October. It also happens to be the best time for spotting wildlife, as it coincides with the flowering and fruiting season.
Do you have any questions about wildlife watching in Borneo? Don’t think twice, leave a comment!