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Unique primates of the Kinabatangan River

29th March, 2020


There are at least ten species of primates that can be spotted in the Kinabatangan River, Sandakan. Most of these species are only found in the rainforests of the Borneo Island.

As you know, the primates have prehensile hands and feet. They are divided into three different groups in the Kinabatangan River, Nature Lodge Kinabatangan’s Tourist Guide, Zulayqah Roderick explained.

The first group is called the ape, which is the orang utan and Borneo gibbon.

The second group refers to nocturnal animals which is the slow loris and also western tarsier that can be spotted inside the jungle of Nature Lodge Kinabatangan.

The third group is the monkeys such as proboscis monkey, long-tailed macaque, short-tailed macaque, maroon langur, silver langur and Hose’s langur,

She said the maroon langur is also known as fake orang utans among villagers as they both share a similar dark-brown and pale reddish-orange furs.

Although the monkeys spend most of their time in the canopy, once in a while they can be spotted during the jungle walk tour within the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan too.

“All of them fear the same predators, which is the clouded leopard and the python snake. That is why the monkeys would sleep near to the riverbanks for their safety,” Zulayqah said.

Moving on to the apes, she said the Borneo gibbon can move faster than the orang utan.

“The orang utan would come to the jungle every now and then to search for food and water, but for the Borneo gibbon, they are quite reclusive and you will only hear their sounds from about two kilometres away,” she said.

Once in a while, the orang utan will stopover at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan to get water from the woody vine or liana and also from the bird’s-nest fern where the roots can absorb large quantities of rain water.

Human and sting bees are also the predators of orang utan as stung from the bees can kill the ape. “The Borneo gibbon would usually make their loud whoops call during the morning and afternoon.

“They will immediately flee from the scene when they saw humans coming, but sometimes if you are lucky, they will remain in their place staring at you, as if showing off,” she said. And now, let’s turn our attention to the nocturnal animals – the slow loris and western tarsier.

Like other primates, the western tarsier also stays up in the trees but at the height of seven metres downwards, which can be spotted in the jungle here during night walks.

“As for the slow loris, chances of spotting them is quite easy because they are also spending most of their time up on the trees and they will only descend to the ground during mid-noon to go for ‘toilet’,” she said.

The cute slow loris is actually hazardous for humans to cuddle because their bodies can release toxin, she warned. “The adorable slow loris are often adopted by people as pet but their sharp teeth are ripped off to prevent the primate from biting the owner. The bite can be nasty because it has toxin,” she explained.

The slow loris’ round eyes and sad appearance will tell people that they are stressed, she added. “When they are under stress, they will lick the secreted toxin released in their armpits and transfer it through the saliva when they bite humans,” Zulayqah said.

Not many people are aware of the danger because the lethal bite can send the victim into anaphylactic shock. She said the slow loris also has a peculiar habit in the jungle.

“Studies have shown that the slow loris purposely go down to the ground to defecate and make sure they will not consume the same thing (poo) again if they happen to be on the ground searching for food,” Zulayqah said. Next are the monkeys and there are six species to behold in the Kinabatangan River.

“The famous proboscis monkeys are the biggest among the six species, and they are also the highlight for visitors during their visit to Borneo Island which comprises Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei,” she said.

“There are less than 7,000 proboscis monkey populations in the Borneo Island. And about 3,500 to 4,000 of them are believed to be found in the Kinabatangan River,” Zulayqah shared.

“And the natural habitat for the proboscis monkey is the riverbanks and you can see them resting on the trees during a river cruise tour in the morning and afternoon,” she said.

The proboscis monkeys can be seen busy picking young leaves along the riverbanks or they would be jumping from trees to trees as if showboating for the visitors who loving it.

Both the long-tail and short-tailed macaques are very common and can be easily sighted in the Kinabatangan River area.

“They have a similar behavior, like humans, with a very high curiosity. They will try to observe what we are doing then they will apply as the saying goes ‘monkey see, monkey do’,” Zulayqah said.

She recalled some of the lodges operating along the Kinabatangan River here where forced to change their door knobs to auto-lock to prevent the macaques from encroaching.

“The macaques know how to mimic humans to open the fridge door and they even knew how to open the coke can.

“Last time, in the lodge, some of the guests left their Tiger beers at the smoking area, the monkeys managed to open the can and pour the beer on the floor… they lick it and got drunk.

“Some goes with hot coffee, they will try to blow it like humans do to cool it before they can drink. Their antics are very funny to watch but it has happened here,” Zulayqah shared.

However, the short-tailed macaque, where its tail resembles a pig-tail, is more aggressive than the long-tailed macaque.

“But the short-tailed macaque has a lower curiosity level than the long-tailed macaque as they will always mind their own business in the wild,” she said.

Tourists will have the chance to encounter the short-tailed macaque resting on the trees at the riverbanks while their young ones play and the mothers are busy nursing their infants during the river cruise tour.

The male, which sports a cool dark patch of hair in front like the mohawk style, will usually engage in a provocative stare to hold their ground if the boat gets nearer to the riverbank.

The babies of short-tailed macaque are usually adopted by the villagers where they will be slowly trained on how to climb and pluck coconuts when they grow up.

The rest of the monkeys are maroon, silver and Hose’s langurs where their diets are leaves, fruits and other vegetations.

“The silver langur has a dark grey fur and they are popularly known as David Beckham (England footballer) among the villagers due to the crest of fur runs along the top of the head.

“This arboreal monkey lives in a small family of between seven and twelve members.

“Some of their babies are orange in colour, which can be sighted at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary before they change to dark grey when they are two to three months old.

“But some of them still remain orange in colour until they grow up which is regarded as albino monkey,” she said to amazement of the visitors.

The Hose’s langur is a medium-sized monkey similar to the silver langur with a long, non-prehensile tail but they have white circles under the eyes like the panda.

“But it is not common to spot them nowadays as the live in a small group of family between two and nine members. Same goes with the maroon langur, because they are not living along the riverbanks.

“However, we managed to spot them resting on top of the trees in Gomantong Cave,” she said. The salt water crocodile ambushing along the riverbanks and eagle in the sky are the predators of the baby monkeys.

“The baby monkeys start to move on their own when they are one to two weeks old, and they will always become the easy prey for crocodiles and eagles.

“There are only two choices for the monkeys to save themselves if they are under attack, they will jump into the river if an eagle tries to swoop them, or jump up to the trees if crocodiles strike while at the riverbanks,” she said.

The monkeys usually defend themselves by choosing to stay up in the tree branches because if they stay in the lower branches, the crocodile can jump as high as three metres from the water to devour them, she said.

She added that the notorious crocodile can also hold their breath under the water for about two hours while patiently waiting for their prey.

However, visitors can count themselves lucky if they can spot five out of ten primates in Kinabatangan River during a brief holiday sojourn there as some of them are very reclusive.

As for the orang utan, they will turn out at the Nature Lodge Kinabatangan one or two times in one week, she cited.

“During rainy season, you won’t see them around because they hate getting wet because they will take cover under the big trees. They will only go out to dry their furs under the sun.

“Imagine at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, you will not see the orang utans come out in one month to the feeding ground during rainy season, whilst the gibbons, you will not hear their calling sounds for one month sometimes,” she said.

The Nature Lodge Kinabatangan in Kampung Bilit at Kinabatangan River are one of the several operators that offers river cruise tour and jungle trekking to see some of Sabah’s iconic primates.

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