Local name: Sungai Kinabatangan

The Kinabatangan river in the Malaysian part of Borneo is a perfect homebase to spot wild animals. The main attraction is of course the orangutan. Though you can also see kingfishers, rhinos, elephants, long-nosed monkeys, crocodiles and snakes.

When people think of Borneo they often think it’s a huge rainforest full of wild animals and exotic plants. That was the case many years ago, these days only parts of the forest have remained untouched, most of it has become farmland. Kinabatangan might not seem that remarkable at first.

A strip of forest along the river.
A strip of forest along the river. Corno van den Berg

But Kinabatangan is one of the last few parts of the forest where you can still find much of its remarkable fauna. The start of the end of the rainforest began in the late nineteenth century, to make way for rice fields and tobacco plantations.

Just the part along the river was spared, and because many animals are dependent on the water in the river to survive, this is where they remained. Though the ‘postage-stamp sized nature’ areas are still getting smaller. The river remains a life source, for humans and animals alike, which does cause some conflict.

The absolute drawcard of the Kinabatangan is the orangutan, but the Borneo elephant is also very special. This is a subspecies of the Asian elephant, it is smaller with bigger ears.

Borneo elephant
Borneo elephants. Jessica Flemming

Kinabatangan is one of the best places to spot the Borneo elephant, when they go to the river to drink and bathe at the end of the day.

You’re likely to see an orangutan in the wild here, as well as many other animals.

The new problems with palm oil

Kinabatangan river is a prime example of one of the problems that conservationists have got to deal with in this part of Asia. For years they’re fighting the increasing number of palm oil plantations.

For decades, this area of Borneo was unprotected. Large parts of the rainforest were sold off for very little, with huge consequences. Here and there the palm oil plantations reach all the way to the river, and they form a barricade for the fauna that live along the river.

The WWF is trying to work with the government to create green corridors between the remaining parts of forest along the river. This means that the palm oil plantations will have to give back some of the land to nature.


Tourism to this part of Malaysian Borneo is reasonably recent. Many of the tourist lodges have been here for less than 20 years. Most of the money made goes to the locals, who work at the lodges. They also create handmade wood carvings as well is the so-called anti-leech socks. These socks prevent the bloodthirsty suckers from climbing up your legs when you go for a walk in the area.

More information: www.malaysia.travel/en/nl/experiences/top-25-experiences/11

Rivers Wildlife