Native Animals of Borneo on an Epic Eco Tour

Borneo is famous for being home to the gentle, majestic and endangered orangutan. But the world’s 3rd largest island is filled with a wealth of other wonders. As we began researching Borneo prior to our visit, we realized it is home to some rather peculiar animals. Because palm oil farming has lead to the destruction of a significant portion of Borneo’s rainforest, the island’s animal habitats have shrunk. That’s driven many species towards the trees along the river banks. A cruise down the Kinabatangan River in the Sabah province will guarantee that you see many of the native animals of Borneo.

Alex on a boat along the Kinabatangan

Borneo Eco Tours

Our Borneo Eco Tours experience began by being picked up in a speed boat from the town of Sandakan. It’s the second largest town in Malaysian Borneo’s Sabah province. The region is well connected to mainland Malaysia via Air Asia and Malaysia Airlines. We were whisked off with four other Australians for a captivating two hour boat ride. We witnessed the native animals of Borneo up close, on our way to the award winning Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Famous BBC wildlife commentator, Sir. David Attenborough has previously stayed there.

Viewing Pygmy Elephants on Foot

After a short time on the boat, our guide received word that a herd of endangered pygmy elephants had gathered on a dirt path near the river bank. So our driver docked the boat and our group of 6 disembarked to get within 50 meters of the beautiful creatures pictured above. Our imaginations had previously led us to believe these were going to be tiny elephants, but adult pygmy elephants are still rather large creatures! They are part of the Asian elephant family, and are known to be smaller than African elephants. On average, they’re only slightly smaller than other Asian elephants. But they do have their own unique DNA.


This is unfortunately the only good photo of the elephants we were able to capture before one of our boat mates scared them off into the jungle. He’d had a few beers on the boat and his flip flop got stuck in the mud. He yelled out, causing a bit of a stir. The pygmy elephants then quickly dispersed from the path unfortunately. It was still amazing to be so close to them on foot, even for just a minute. We were still able to view them for a while in the distance before getting back on the boat.

Elephant sight seeing - Kinabantangan
Taken just after the pygmy elephants ditched the dirt path for the nearby trees


Crocodiles are not as cute as monkeys, especially since they sometimes eat them, but there is still something fascinating about these big guys. Reptiles provide a glimpse back into pre-historic times, and who doesn’t love dinosaurs fossils? T-rex certainly wasn’t a cuddly fella either, but people are excited by the idea of the days when he roamed the Earth. Given that crocodiles have survived millions of years makes them pretty cool to view up close in the wild, but probably not on foot! We stopped and viewed several crocs soaking up the sun while remaining on the boat.


Proboscis Monkeys

Before researching our trip, we didn’t know anything about one of the most exotic animals of Borneo, the incredibly strange looking proboscis monkey, who is entirely native to Borneo and also sadly endangered. As our boat approached a herd of red-nosed proboscis monkeys swinging in the trees near the river bank, we began to feel even more of a sense that we were in a truly distant land. Proboscis monkeys always live in tribes, and the tribe we had the pleasure of leisurely viewing was all female, led by one dominant male. The big-bellied guy below was the head honcho of the tribe, who seemed to take pleasure in flaunting all his assets.

Exotic Animals of Borneo

While we saw a few tribes of proboscis and macaque monkeys in the wild, we unfortunately didn’t see an orangutan on our way to the Sukau Rainforest Lodge. Unlike these monkeys, Adult orangutans live solo and build a new nest every evening in the trees, to sleep and avoid the predators that lurk below. But there are also smaller predators in the trees and our guide showed us several poisonous snakes who also pose a threat. They don’t say “it’s a jungle out there” for nothing.

Exotic Animals of Borneo

Exotic Animals of Borneo like Orangutan

Our boat mates took a separate early morning cruise. They saw an orangutan in the wild. Unfortunately that cruise was not included in our short package and no space was available. We were able to book the night cruise last minute and saw some beautiful owls. Our guide even found baby crocodiles floating atop the water as he zipped his flashlight around the river banks under a gorgeously clear starlit night. Being city people, a jungle cruise in search of native Borneo animals in complete darkness alternated between uniquely serene and an adrenaline rush.

King Fisher

The 20 room Sukau Rainforest Lodge is truly an amazing place to stay. In conjunction with Borneo Eco Tours, many incredible packages are available. They can even be suitable for an adventurous Borneo honeymoon.

Sunset Sukau

Disclosure: This article was written in collaboration with Sabah Tourism and their partners. But all opinions and photos included here are ours. We thank the amazing staff of Borneo Eco Tours and the Sukau Rainforest Lodge for providing us with one of the absolute greatest days we’ve ever experienced in our travels.


  • Alex&Bell

    Alex and Bell originally met while solo traveling after finishing university in 2002, in Brugge, Belgium. Alex grew up in the USA and Bell hails from Australia. During our nearly 20 year marriage we've lived around the world, including spending six years living in the Netherlands and Ireland. We have traveled to nearly 70 countries and enjoy giving readers authentic and quality travel tips. Alex is an award winning travel journalist and travel planner, who also freelances for other outlets. Bell is an award winning PhD scientist who currently works for a non-profit lung cancer advocacy research organization called Lungevity. Happy travels and if you have any questions leave a comment or drop an email!

13 thoughts on “Native Animals of Borneo on an Epic Eco Tour

  1. It is great to see the animals and have an understanding about their fate. They look amazing, and Aussie tourists ahha!!!!

    1. Haha, indeed Aussie tourists give American tourists a good run for their money 😉 Palm oil to Malaysia is like corn syrup to the United States, in that it’s in so much of the processed food. It’s big business and Malaysia accounts for over 50% of the world’s palm oil. It’s brought great wealth to some people and allowed Malaysia’s economy to be prosperous for Southeast Asia. But it has indeed eroded beautiful indigenous animals natural habitats. Eco tourism is great for the area because it’s about sustainability and bringing in revenue that doesn’t involve tearing down trees. As beautiful as the Sukau Rainforest Lodge is, they are all about not being wasteful and polluting as little as possible which is great, especially given the pristine area they are located.

  2. Sounds like you had a great time! Glad that you got to see all you did, and the pygmy elephants too, even if only for a short while! Had no idea that Sir. David Attenborough stayed at Sukau. Don’t think he stayed in the dorm like we did though! hahaha Great post and pictures – it can be so hard to capture wildlife!

    1. Hi Jess, we did, totally loved Sukau and all the animals! And yes, capturing the monkey’s is particularly tough as they move around so much! But the elephants were really amazing and at least there is one shot of them!

    1. We were able to get our photo with them from a distance, but only after one of our travel companions had scared them off the dirt path, unfortunately.

  3. I’d love to experience Borneo – maybe on my next trip to Malaysia I’ll get the chance!

    Just added you on Twitter so I can catch up with your travels!

    1. Hi Selina! Thanks for the comment and Twitter add!

      Malaysia is an amazing country with all the diversity and amazing food it has. Borneo has an added twist of being a bit more intrepid and culturally different from peninsular Malaysia given its close proximity to the Philippines, especially where we were in the northern part of the Sabah province. Cheers and happy travels!

  4. You saw an incredible variety of wildlife on this daytrip – love the pot-bellied proboscis monkey! We knew about Borneo’s orangutans (that’s what you hear most about), but little about all the other species. And, yes, one would think pygmy elephants are small, so it’s interesting to hear that they’re almost the same size as other Asian elephants. Maybe an eco-safari in Borneo should be on our travel wishlist?

    1. You guys should definitely put a Borneo eco tour on your travel wish list! A river cruise is one of the best ways to see the animals because there’s unfortunately been a lot of deforestation of the rain forest for commercial palm oil plantations, so this has driven much of the endangered wildlife near river banks, like the Kinabatangan which we travelled down with Borneo Eco Tours. Sabah is also great because there’s so much good Malaysian food which is already so diverse between ethnic Malay, Chinese and Indian but then the Sabah region has a large Filipino population and we ate one of the best meals of our life at the Kota Kinabalu Filipino market (you have to eat a fresh fish cooked in sweet and sour sauce in a banana leaf). And we have such great memories of the Sukau Rainforest Lodge- it’s definitely one of the very best places we’ve ever stayed. Beautiful, relaxing, comfortable, surrounded by adventure, and they cooked a fantastic lamb rendang, also one of the best meals we’ve eaten. Happy travels!

  5. This looks absolutely amazing. I was trying to see what wildlife tours we could do while we were in the Malaysia area but we ended up not having enough time to fit in Borneo 🙁 I have to do this next time we go back, I can’t imagine being so close to those elephants in the wild, crazy!

    1. Thanks Samantha! It was indeed amazing being so close to the pygmy elephants and the eco tour and Sukau Rainforest Lodge were fantastic. Definitely one of absolute top highlights of all our travels!…Malaysia is just flat out amazing, we also really fell in love with the food and diversity. We spent a week in Kuala Lumpur for a work obligation of Bell’s and didn’t have time to see peninsular Malaysia which is meant to be wonderful for beaches and colonial history. Have an amazing rest of your trip and we look forward to reading what we know will be great posts on beautiful Malaysia!! 🙂

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