In Borneo, my daughter learned first-hand how she can contribute to wildlife conservation 

written by Cathy Winston May 16, 2024

This mom-and-daughter duo were all about the orangutans but found a wildlife wonderland that inspired them both to help protect it. 

‘Look at their noses wobbling, Mum!’ My 11-year-old daughter giggled as we watched a troop of proboscis monkeys tucking into their food. 

Our visit to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in Borneo was the final stop of our fantastic whistle-stop visit to Sabah in Malaysian Borneo with Intrepid, but just one of the high points during a week spotting some unforgettable Borneo wildlife and their furry little ones. 

We expected to be wowed by the orangutans (and we were) but that was only one highlight from a trip which left my animal-loving daughter open-mouthed, grinning and determined to do her part to help Borneo’s endangered wildlife. 

Here are our highlights from all the wildlife encounters we had along the way. 

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre and Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre 

Early in the week, we got to watch the orangutans at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where you can not only see these great apes but learn more about how they’re being protected.  

In one corner of the outdoor enclosure, a one-year-old gorilla was practising forward rolls, legs flying with each roly-poly, grin visible on the other side of the play area. Elsewhere on the ropes, another little one was hanging off a bigger friend, the pair of them having huge fun dangling and climbing. 

If you ignored the orange fur, you could have been in any playground in the world. But these were some of the rescued and orphaned orangutans that the centre takes in to help them learn the skills they need to survive in the wild. For babies, that means pairing them with an older orangutan ‘buddy’ as they play in the nursery, watched by visitors behind one-way glass so they’re unaware of any scrutiny. 

As they get older, they’re gradually moved to different areas, which open onto the rainforest so they’re free to leave – an unchanging menu of food every day encourages them to head out and forage for themselves. 

Some never return to the sanctuary, while others head back every few days, so there are no guarantees you’ll see the adults. But you might get a lot closer than you expect! Strolling along the wooden walkways to the feeding platform, we spotted two full-grown orangutans making their way along the handrail. 

Across the road at the Sun Bear Conservation Centre, which helps protect the world’s smallest bear, a mother orangutan with her baby sat resting at the junction of three paths. I edged past cautiously with my own daughter, who’d been chattering away about which orangutan she wanted to adopt. She was instantly silenced, eyes wide at the thrill of being so near. 

Since then, she’s put an adopted orangutan and sun bear on her birthday wish list, and she suggested the orangutan rehabilitation centre as a charity for her school to support – proof of just how big an impact travel like this can have for little ones (human and furry). 

Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Centre 

My daughter gasped as the squirrel leapt into the air. Its ‘wings’ opening as it glided easily to the next tree. Watching giant flying squirrels high up in the tree canopy, on a walkway 620 metres above ground level, was a world away from spying their everyday grey cousins in our local park. 

In the background, the soundtrack of huge Pomponia merula. Better known as the six o’clock cicada, as it starts its mix of croaking and high-pitched chirrups around sunset, some of the insects clock more decibels than the average motorbike. 

As night fell, we wandered the paths to the light of our torches feeling miles from civilisation. Having Intrepid take care of the practical side of this family adventure, especially as I was travelling alone with my daughter, was a huge advantage when you’re heading off the beaten track. Thankfully our guide not only kept us from getting entirely lost, but also had an impressive ability to spot some of the forest’s shyest and rarest nocturnal creatures. 

The highlight? Seeing a western tarsier – one of the oldest mammals on the planet, dating back an astonishing 55 million years. They have huge eyes and strange elongated fingers, which wouldn’t look out of place on ET (great for gripping trees) and are easily startled. 

The first two we encountered had obviously heard us coming and leapt off into the undergrowth. But our persistence was rewarded with the sight of one clinging to a branch, its eyes gleaming in the dark. 

Emerging from the knee-high bushes, we were silently thrilled to have seen one for ourselves – and in my case, also pleased that we hadn’t encountered another native forest-dweller… the leech. 

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary 

If the macaques won the title of cheekiest monkeys spotted during our Borneo family holiday, the proboscis monkeys won my daughter’s heart for their unique looks. 

To make it in the proboscis monkey world, the bigger your nose and belly, the better. Having seen them from a distance clambering in the trees along the Kinabatangan River, harems in tow, or some of the bachelor groups settling down at night, we couldn’t wait to see them up close at the sanctuary. 

We had to pass by the silvered leaf monkeys first, including some bright orange babies with their silver-grey mothers. One of the babies was being looked after by a well-meaning but slightly ineffectual big sister while its own mother snacked nearby. 

But for entertainment, you couldn’t beat the proboscis monkeys: lounging casually in a branch as if it were an armchair, paws on knees and noses very wobbling up and down with each bite they took. 

One enterprising mother was even giving her baby a quick wash in the bowl of water left out to drink from – and we learned that proboscis monkeys can use those big noses as snorkels when they swim.  

They quickly became my daughter’s firm favourite. We’ve now got a much-cuddled fluffy proboscis monkey toy as a permanent reminder of our unforgettable Borneo family adventure. 

Kinabatangan River 

Ten minutes after climbing into our boat and speeding off down the Kinabatangan River, we saw them – a family of three pygmy elephants in the water. 

Trunks entwined, the baby was busily play-fighting with one of its parents, while the other splashed through the water looking for food on the opposite bank. They’re around eight to ten feet tall when fully grown, which may be small for elephants but to the human eye still pretty sizeable. 

How could we possibly top that kind of wildlife spotting? However, the ecosystems along Kinabatangan River are so rich and varied that each of our multiple boat cruises to spot Borneo’s wildlife in its natural habitat had countless moments to remember. 

During two afternoon boat trips, we saw monkeys splashing about by the water’s edge before settling down in the trees to sleep, their backs to the river as night-time predators would come from the forest – proboscis monkeys, silvered leaf monkeys, long-tailed macaques and short-tailed macaques all leaping, climbing and then curling up together as the sun sank in the horizon. 

Elsewhere crocodiles basked on the banks, while birds flew overhead – an iridescent flash of blue from a kingfisher, dramatic black and red broadbills with their eye-catching green beans, several species of hornbill, gleaming white herons and more. 

Venturing down a small tributary, we got thoroughly over-excited at the sight of a ‘crocodile’ swimming nearby, which turned out to be just a floating log. We ducked under the branches of a fallen tree to reach an oxbow lake, a peaceful stretch of water carved out by the river. The lake is covered in purple hyacinths. 

At night, the river has its own story. We glimpsed an owl waiting to hunt, while a rare slow loris clung to a branch during its nocturnal outing, all under more stars than we’ve ever seen, only the splash of our wake disturbing the silence. 

We got to play a small part in helping protect the animals too, joining RESPonsible Elephant Conservation Trust (RESPECT), a local conservation project, to plant elephant grass. Seeing the pygmy elephants in the river might have been a holiday highlight for us, but it’s actually a lack of food that forces them to forage more widely. 

Supported by The Intrepid Foundation, RESPECT provides an opportunity for tourism to make a positive impact and give families a chance to get hands on. While my city-dwelling daughter isn’t usually keen on getting her hands dirty, she jumped at the chance to help the elephants, feeling a particular connection after seeing them first-hand. 

Cathy and her daughter travelled on a modified version of Intrepid’s Borneo Family Holiday. 

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