‘My journey into the Kinabatangan Wetlands’

November 5, 2011

My Journey into the Kinabatangan Wetlands

Written by Emelyn Asmawil

Trips from 5 November - 7 November 2011

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sandakan Sabah


Abai village is the nearest access to Lower Kinabatangan Segama Wetlands, located 40km or about an hour’s boat ride from Sandakan harbour. It borders the Lower Kinabatangan Floodplain, one of the most important wildlife refuge in Malaysia, which over the centuries has evolved 5 distinct habitats: waterlogged and dry forests, saline and freshwater swamps and limestone forests, each contributing towards some of the most diverse concentrations of wildlife in Borneo. The diversity of this area is unimaginable with a record of 1000 plant species, more than 200 bird species, 90 fish species and reptilia and 50 mammal species. 

Lower Kinabatangan Segama Wetlands is Sabah’s First and Malaysia’s largest Ramsar site in the state of Sabah, comprising three Forest Reserves: Trusan Kinabatangan Forest Reserve, Kulamba Wildlife reserve, and Kuala Maruap and Kuala Segama Forest Reserve.  The site is recognize as an internationally important wetland for its undisturbed ecosystem where a number of rare, endangered and threatened species lives such as Sumatran Rhinoceros, Proboscis Monkey, Borneo Pygmy Elephant, Oriental Darter and Rhinoceros Hornbill.

Where did I get all those facts? From my reading, from my web browsing and from stories shared by those who have traveled to this amazing place (as how it sounded to me). Did I get the chance to prove these facts myself? Well, my promising trip is just about to make its first step. Let’s travel together and see where we end up. Where do we begin? Mile 6, Sandakan.

In a group of 4 members and the only rose among the thorns, I was feeling so special not because of that rose and thorns thing but because this trip is under the supervision of an experts, Mr. Cede Prudente – a reputable Photographer and Wildlife Conservationist and Hamit Suban – a dedicated and erudite Birder and Guide, along with Jali- our driver. Our trip begin at 9:45 in the morning and the van will run for the next two hours at a speed of 80 kilometers per hour before stopping by at Gomantong Cave, the best known limestone outcrop in the lower Kinabatangan. It contains around nine caves and is the most important area for edible bird’s nest in all of Sabah.

From Gomantong we then proceed to Sukau Kinabatangan and take our sumptuous lunch at Barefoot Sukau Lodge. It rains and we decide to cruise the river to Abai after the rain stops. At about 2:30, we (Mr. Cede, Hamit, Joharin-Barefoot Sukau Lodge guide, and a boatman) set off for the exciting cruise with our expectations stirring inside us.

After 30 minutes, my companions are hastily preparing their camera and the boat turns back. What happened? Everyone points to a tree on the riverbank. I try to look at it but I see nothing out of the ordinary. I heard someone triumphantly said Orangutan. Orangutan? I have never seen one and just hearing its name wakes all my senses. My eyes become vigilant and it widens as it catches a glimpse of a sleeping female Orangutan. Her exquisite post depicts freedom and serenity, expressing “Welcome to the Wild”. This is the most preciouse greeting I have ever had in my whole life, considering the fact that this is my first ever river cruise and trip to the Wilds. I wonder if all 1st timers receive the same compliment like I am having now.

After savoring the moment and so as not to disturb her, we continue and enter a small river where we see Long-tailed Macaques haft way crossing a rope bridge made by WWF for Orangutan to cross the river. Did these Macaques seek consent from the Orangutans? Maybe they believe in the virtue of Sharing is Loving. We turn back to the main river and pray for a sight of the Pigmy Elephant, the world’s smallest elephant and an endangered one. Well, luck is still on our side because few meters ahead we can see 2 of them silently bathing in the river bank when suddenly a loud cracking sound emits from our left side and five (out of the estimated herd of 25), starts emerging from the bushes. Lunch Time! or should I say Snack time? It’s 4:10 in the afternoon and we have to reach Abai before darkness creeps in. So guys, enjoy your meal the way in which I enjoy this momentum with you.

We pass by Kampung Abai an hour later and along the way to Kinabatangan Wetlands Resort, stationed in one of the small river in Abai, we get the sight of different bird species including the rare Helmeted Hornbill. As the sun is setting in the horizon, the wilds are now occupied either to search something for dinner or to find the best branch for a comfortable night ahead. By now the nocturnals too are collecting their energy for their night adventure ahead. We will also be there with them, so now we are both nocturnal and diurnal. Isn’t that amazing?

Entering the small river to the lodge where we settle for the night. After dinner, we set off again for night cruises as promised. And what a surprise awaits us before we get the chance to step on the boat.

In one of the tall-slim tree just metres away from the lodge, a Slow Loris is tightly grasping on its branch, his eyes sharply flashing back as it collides with the light from the headlamps. Looking at it through the binocular, it is the most delicate creature I ever come across with. I feel like the luckiest 1st timer as I hear Joharin comments “I have been guiding and river cruising for a year and a half but this is my 1st time to see a Slow Loris”.  Indeed, the memory of this once in a lifetime encounter is what we will bring to sleep tonight. We will surely have our sweetest dream.

My alarm rings and its 5:30, time to prepare for the morning cruise.

Along the river past swamps filled with mangrove and nipa, it guarantees exciting sightings of wildlife in the crack of dawn. During the first few hours of morning daylight the loud four notes call of the Indian Cuckoo can be heard accompanied by the giant hornbill that echoed for miles, in unaesthetic tones, across the roof of the forest. The high descending call of Ruddy Kingfishers (that is often heard than the bird himself) travels in pairs on the silent past as it rolled through the jungle in the forenoon.

Snow-white egrets abounded along the banks of the rivers, perched among the vary-colored orchids and the flowering exotic trees, with their narrow yellow beaks flashing in the sun, they make a most captivating sight. In their company we often see numerous small parrots with dazzling turquoise bodies and bluish-gray heads that terminated in ivory-white beaks and so as the common residence Green Imperial pigeons flocks on most of the treetop flapping their metallic green wings and tail. It is always the birds that make the riverbank so wonderfully beautiful.

A view that never fails to enchant and complete the morning is a glimpse of the playful proboscis monkeys. These huge-bellied, long-nosed primates with long white tails are especially active during these hours when they are socialising, crashing through trees or foraging for food.

Abai is undeniably a brilliant bird watching and photography area. We see different species of hornbills; the helmeted, black, oriental pied, wrinkled, and white-crowned hornbills.  Other interesting species are the speedy Peregrine Falcon, the angled wings and rounded tail Brahminy Kite, Blue-eared Barbet, Scarlet-rumped Trogon, White-rumped Shama, Dollarbird, Jerdon's Baza, Crested Serpent Eagle, Woodpeckers, Purple Heron, Oriental Darter (famously known as “Snake Bird”) and other bird species.

If you are an avid bird photographer like Mr. Cede, be surprised to photograph one of them perched ever so regardlly on top of a dead tree or on a nipa and have a superb view of its stature and plumage. Or maybe you could just sit back and pondered on the significance of this encounter just like what I have been contentedly doing on this entire river cruises.

When the sun starts to flare its rays on us, we decide to go back to the lodge for breakfast and then will cruise our way back to Sandakan. It is sad to think that we will soon be leaving Abai but nevertheless we feel thankful for all the wonderful creatures Abai have showed us. The colorful magnificent birds, the playful Proboscis monkeys and macaques, the Pigmy Elephants, the delicate Slow Loris, the tranquil river outlined by its different vegetation, have never failed to let us experience nature at its best. It’s more than what we have expected and I personally call this experience as a fruity surprise gift from Abai. The worthy taste lingers forever.


Special Thanks to Mr. Cede Prudente for making things possible especially for making me realize that Birds are not just about Wings. They are worth preserving and worth to be photographed for awareness and continuous support on wildlife conservation.


To Hamit, thanks for the patience because I keep asking for the name of birds each time I see one.

Out of the 74 bird species either seen or heard, I only know by name roughly 10 percent. The offshoot of the trip is education.


To Matthew Cheng for the maiden trip to Kinabatangan Wetlands Resort.


To Joharin, Jali, and Achil, thanks for sharing the adventurous ideas and so as for the laughter.





Locations visited

Sukau Kinabatangan



Written by

North Borneo Safari

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