Kinabatangan River

A forest full of orangutans, Borneo elephants, and more wildlife

The Kinabatangan River in Malaysia is a perfect base for spotting wildlife. On a special boat tour you'll see orangutans, elephants and more.

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.

The lovely Kinabatangan River is part of the Sukau-Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and flows through the state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. In the small villages along the river, such as Sukau, you'll find lodges where you can go and stay.

Wildlife of Kinabatangan River

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.

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 elephants at Kinabatangan River.

The rainforest is disappearing

But Kinabatangan is one of the last few parts of the rainforest that still holds much of its remarkable fauna.In the late nineteenth century, the rainforest was cut 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.

Even now the area for the orangutans is getting smaller. The river remains a life source, for humans and animals alike, which does cause some conflict as well. Tourist bring in money, so parts can be saved. But it is a tricky balance.

Boat tour at Kinabatangan River

You can do various tours in the Kinabatangan River. The most popular is the boat tour, where you sail down the river with a guide. Keeps your eyes on the trees and the river banks. You have a high chance of seeing orangutan, but also countless other animals.

Boat tour on Kinabatangan River.

Hiking along the river

A hike along part of the river is confronting. Only then do you see how narrow the strip of nature actually is. And how far the palm plantations already reach. Where there is almost no life; just rows of trees with nothing else.
Fortunately, you still see a lot of animals on these walks. I went out several times and saw countless types of monkeys. But also many insects and birds. I also heard the elephants, but I could not see them properly. I got a glimpse, but already thought that was great.


Als het donker is kun je op nachtsafari. Al is het eigenlijk een avondsafari. Met een gids ga je op pad. Neem een zaklantaarn mee, zodat je ook zelf dieren kunt spotten. Je ziet onder meer slapende vogels en veel insecten. Zoals wandelende takken en bidsprinkhanen. Maar je hebt ook een serieuze kans op gevaarlijke slangen.

Lodges at the river

There are several lodges along the river. You can spend the night here. They also organise many excursions and, for example, walking tours. It is usually full board, including all meals. The advantage is that you don't have to worry about anything. The only decision is what time you wanna go to bed.

The best tips is to choose accommodation close to the river. You can enjoy the view at your leisure. And you spot many more animals. especially in the evening.

The beauty of Kinabatangan. ©Corno van den Berg

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.