Orangutans, sun bears, and elephants – oh my!

Three days in Malaysian Borneo

“I think that we are the luckiest people in the world,” my son announced as he tossed me an impish smile from the front of our boat. Yesterday, we’d been thrilled to find a pygmy elephant down by the river’s edge – our guide said it was the first he’d seen in months. Today, we’d stumbled upon a small herd of them. We could hear their loud trumpets echoing in the jungle, along with the crashing sounds of plants and trees being trampled underfoot. Every few minutes, we caught sight of a rounded back or an oversized ear behind elephant sized stalks of grass. Once, a juvenile male stepped fully into view and we all frantically clicked our cameras as he happily munched along the river’s edge.

We came to Malaysian Borneo in hopes of seeing wild orangutans – a critically endangered species with barely more than 100,000 animals remaining in Borneo and Sumatra. Over the past 60 years, the population of Bornean orangutans has declined by more than 50% due to loss of habitat, hunting, and illegal wildlife trade. Our first stop on a three day, two night adventure on the Kinabatangan River was the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, where orphaned orangutans are raised and eventually released to a protected forest reserve nearby. Later, we were thrilled to spot a wild orangutan along the river, about two hours inland from the coast.

At the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center

In addition to orangutans, the jungles of Borneo are home to many other unique species, including proboscis monkeys, sun bears, Sunda clouded leopards, and Bornean pygmy elephants – all of which are listed as endangered species.

The elephants, in particular, captured our hearts with their pint sized bodies and charismatic calls. There are 1500 on the island, and scientists have determined that the subspecies was isolated about 300,000 years ago and left to evolve separately from other Asian elephants. Their primary threat is loss of habitat due to logging and palm oil plantations.

My son was thrilled to see real elephants in the wild and to make two new friends on our journey.

According to our guide, the Kinabatangan elephants hold an “elephant congress” once a year when all of the herds come together in a group of several hundred for a few days.

While in Borneo, we stayed at the Sukau Rainforest Lodge, which is located in eastern Sabah along the Kinabatangan River. To get there, we flew from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu (the big city in Malaysian Borneo) and then onward to Sandakan. There, we met up with a dozen other travelers and boarded a boat for a 2.5hr trip downriver into the jungle. The lodge is recognized by National Geographic for its unique location and eco-friendly practices. In addition to being wowed by the wildlife, my son was thrilled to meet two other boys his age in the group, whom he played with nonstop for three days.

Sukau Rainforest Lodge

I left Borneo with a mixture of feelings – happy to have seen orangutans, elephants, proboscis monkeys and more, but also filled with worry, wondering about the future of the rainforest and its animals. My family and I agreed we’d “adopt” an orangutan as soon as we got home, to help support the rehabilitation center that we’d visited and their efforts to keep orangutans from going extinct.

“This is once in a lifetime experience,” my son continued. “It’s something we’ll always remember.”

Learn more about wildlife conservation in Borneo: