Our boat flowed through the trees hanging on top of the river. They grew on the river benches, but they had begun to reach out to the water, and now they made like corridors and portals out of themselves. We glided through them slowly, keeping an eye out for animals. The jungle of the Kinabatangan river was all around us.

There were only four of us and our guide who was steering the small boat. I knew that somewhere above us, we were being observed by the long-tail macaques and proboscis monkeys that call this place a home. They knew how to hide from the eyes of the visitors if they wanted to because we could spot only a few among the thick branches.

But wildlife watching is always like this, you don’t have any sighting guarantees. What you need, is your sharp gaze and a bunch of luck, and you can have the time of your life in the jungle. Though now it seemed that this was going to happen on another day. And it did.

Morning mist at the Kinabatangan River in Borneo.

Meeting the Bornean Pygmy Elephants Down the Kinabatangan River

Our guide came to us with urgent news: the pygmy elephants had been spotted down the river a few hours ago, and we were going to try to go after them, even though they were pretty far away from our lodge, the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge in the village of Sukau. They could also anytime venture back to the forest from the shores, so there were still no guarantees.

However, our excitement went through the roof, and we couldn’t believe our good luck! Just a bit earlier we had almost given up on the hope of seeing the famous, endangered pygmy elephants here in the Kinabatangan River because they are so rare and sometimes they are not seen in months. We just had time to prepare our camera gear before the departure, and we saw how extraordinary this incident was, as even our guides were extremely excited.

Rare Bornean Pygmy Elephants at the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo

Soon we were sitting in the boat which rapidly made headway through the water, trying to catch up with the elephants who were about half an hour’s journey away. On the way we didn’t stop for anything because this was our only chance to meet the pygmy elephants, so we had to try our best.

Our guide got information updates to his walkie-talkie and after about 45 minute’s journey our boat curved over a river bend and behind that turn, in the middle of the high vegetation, were several, small elephants feeding on the grass!

A small herd of maybe 10-12 pygmy elephants was calmly eating on the river bank, undisturbed by the boats and humans who were watching them in admiration and awe. There were already about four boats beside us, but luckily we were able to get a pretty good spot to watch and photograph the elephants. I felt like a kid in a toy store when I raised my camera, looked through the viewfinder, and started shooting away.

It was a very rare treat to see these endangered pygmy elephants in the wild. So, from time to time I just sat back and enjoyed the experience.

Photographing these rare and distinctive creatures was not easy – they stayed among the thick vegetation and just suddenly popped out their gray heads, backs, or trunks from the middle of the grass.

One baby elephant was lying in the waterline, still safely in the grass, but every once in a while popped out its head and watched us curiously. I think we were watched just as carefully and interestingly by the elephants as we were watching them.

We were incredibly lucky to have this experience to observe the pygmy elephants here in their natural habitat. It was a rare treat and I knew that this was one of those “once in a lifetime” –moments, that will stay with you for the rest of your life.

Even though I love to photograph things and trying to capture the feeling of the moments I encounter, sometimes I want to put the camera away for awhile and just live the moment – absorb the surroundings into myself and feel the life around me. This was one of those moments. As much as I enjoyed photographing, I enjoyed lowering my camera while standing in the boat, and just peacefully watching the elephants.

A rare Bornean Pygmy Elephant in the bush at the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo.

The Situation of the Bornean Pygmy Elephants

The Bornean Pygmy elephants also really were as cute as they were said to be; baby-faced and much smaller in size than, for example, their African counterparts that we had met before.

Their tails are so long they sometimes drag on the ground as they walk, relatively large ears, plump bellies, and they are more gentle-natured than other Asian elephants – from which the Bornean Pygmy elephants are also genetically different.

DNA evidence has proved these elephants were isolated about 300,000 years ago from their cousins on the mainland Sumatra and Asia. The sad truth is that there are only about 1500-1600 individuals left in the world and the conservation efforts to keep the population alive are vital to the survival of this extraordinary species.

One of the primary threats to these elephants is the loss of continuous forests, as it is a grave threat to many other species in Borneo, too.

Logging, expanding agriculture, and the palm oil plantations are all reducing contact between the elephant subpopulations, as well as shrinking the forest areas available. I hope that the Bornean Pygmy Elephants’ cause won’t get overshadowed by the more famous species, like the orangutans, but instead be given as much importance and attention. They are a high conservation priority, yet they still remain the least-understood elephants in the world.

Bornean Pygmy Elephant in the bush at the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo.

Seeing Proboscis Monkeys – The Nose Monkeys, And Other Creatures

We were also able to see several proboscis monkey populations during our boat trips along the Kinabatangan river. They were hanging out in the treetops, but many of them were noticeable without binoculars. The proboscis monkeys are native to Borneo, and they truly were one of the most interesting-looking monkeys I’ve ever seen.

The good thing is, they are relatively easy to spot, so there’s a good chance to see them during a trip to the Kinabatangan river. As we saw several herds of different sizes, I was also able to get fairly good chances to photograph them. But without a relatively long zoom lens, you won’t have that many shots.

On many occasions, we parked our boat under the trees and observed the monkeys sitting on the branches. The alpha males always have the biggest noses. And the bigger the nose, the more respected the male proboscis monkey is and the more popular he is among the females.

A baby proboscis monkey with its mother at the Kinabatangan River in Malaysian Borneo.

Seeing wildlife in Borneo is not the same thing as spotting wildlife, for example, in Africa. Animals are fewer here and maybe even more sparsely scattered, even though they live in much smaller areas. The conditions are also very different. Bare this in mind, while you are in Borneo and you won’t get disappointed.

There still are so much to see, and the Kinabatangan River area is one of the best places for wildlife spotting, so when you are here, you are in for a treat. You will see lots of long-tail macaques and other small monkey species, loads of different birds, and even forest pigs. There are always life around you, even if you don’t see it all the time.

You can take several boat cruises daily and in between them, hang out on your lodge’s terrace, sip a cold drink, and just watch the river run slowly by only a few meters away. And don’t miss the dashing sunsets when the sky discolors in tens of different shades of red and orange while listening how the river carries the sounds of the jungle right to you.

Why Should You Go On a Cruise to the Kinabatangan River?

It is true, that the slice of the forest along the shores of the Kinabatangan River is shrinking as we speak, which is a serious problem to the fauna and flora of the whole region. When we saw the situation by ourselves on the spot, it made us sad, and it also made us to really understand the severity of the situation. But all is still not lost, and by visiting the region, supporting the conservation organizations and their continuous work in protecting the forests and its wildlife, you can cast your voice on behalf of the conservation.

During our visit, we also participated in the Abai Tree Planting Project, the Pelacongan Bondok Abai Rukee. We both made a donation to the cause and planted a tree to the shore of the river. Acts like these are small, but when significant numbers of people do them, they will matter in the long run.

On the Kinabatangan river, there still is an amazing world of its own, filled with unique creatures and wonderful experiences. There still is a tranquility and some pure magic in sitting in a small boat in the middle of the river and trying to spot different animals among the trees and dense vegetation. And if you’re as lucky as we were, you can still even see the endangered pygmy elephants!

And after you’ve experienced all this by yourself, I could almost guarantee that you too will agree that this region with all its flora, fauna, and diversity, is worth conserving for the generations to come.

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Take a boat ride to the Kinabatangan River in Borneo and keep an eye out for the Bornean Pygmy Elephants and Proboscis monkeys.