Beyond extraordinary: Borneo’s wildlife and what makes it unique
Borneo’s biodiversity is unlike anywhere else on the planet, and it’s easy to become lost for words trying to convey how unique it is. It takes your breath away, and ‘extraordinary’ just doesn’t cover it.
Borneo feels like it should have been lost in time. The whole island from Malay Borneo to Indonesian Kalimantan, is filled with pockets of Eden where nature’s enduring power bursts forward from every living thing. The fact that Borneo is, infamously, very far from ‘untouched’ is heartbreaking, and underlines that its ancient and complex rainforests are perilously fragile. With ever-increasing conservation awareness, there’s a global drive to ensure that what’s left of its irreplaceable biome thrives. However, the situation is complicated, and protecting Borneo’s ecosystems requires unblinking focus and constant vigilance.
What wildlife can we see in Borneo?
We could enthuse about Borneo’s wildlife all day, but what exact species and ecosystems are we talking about? Orang-utans might be Borneo’s most well-known residents, and certainly one of the main reasons people are keen to visit, but the island’s ecology is about much more than a single species. Its biodiversity is rich and complex, with thousands of interlinked ecosystems within its landscape...
Orang-utans: the old man of the forest
Instantly recognisable thanks to their distinctive reddish-brown hair and spellbindingly human mannerisms, orang-utans seem to constantly fascinate us. Spending much of their time in the forest canopy, these solitary apes form strong bonds with their babies, who are dependent on their mother for the first two years of life. The rise and fall of their calls can be heard rising above the trees at dawn.
Seeing an orang-utan in the wild is a rare and precious sight, and, sadly, one which is becoming ever rarer as their habit shrinks. However, there are several protected areas of rainforest in Borneo and Sumatra where they roam free, as well as sanctuaries where injured or orphaned orang-utans are cared for and rehabilitated.
Whether sailing along a winding waterway through the dense wilderness of Kalimantan, keeping a watch on the feeding stations at a conservation project in Sepilok, or wandering through the Danum Valley’s vital canopy, seeing the Old Man of the Forest for the first time is an experience you’ll never forget.
Proboscis monkeys: movement through the trees…
The orang-utans aren’t the only primates in Borneo’s complex landscape. They share their forest home with twelve other primate species. Macaques can be glimpsed making their way down to riverbanks, while the whooping cries of gibbons - perhaps one of the rainforest’s most recognisable sounds - echo through the canopy. The distinctively long-nosed proboscis monkeys, only found in Borneo, live near water in groups, and can sometimes be seen showing off their swimming skills as they cross rivers in search of new feeding grounds.
Sun bears: soft shadows in Sabah
Bumbling through the dappled shade at Sepilok is another of Borneo’s most intriguing creatures: the sun bear. These fascinating bears are the smallest in the world, and their glossy dark fur and sandy collar and snout make them instantly recognisable as they climb trees in search of honey.
Sun bear numbers have drastically declined over recent decades, but dedicated conservation efforts are making a real difference by rehabilitating rescued bears ready to reintroduce them into the wilds of Malay Borneo’s northern forests. See this inspiring conservation in action in Sabah at the Sun Bear Conservation Centre.
Pangolins, leopards and the deceptive slow loris...
There’s also the slow loris, which looks cute but is the world’s only known venomous primate and can give a nasty bite! Sighting of Borneo’s larger mammals are even rarer, but patience is sometimes rewarded. You might glimpse a pygmy elephant matriarch leading her family through the island’s north east greenery, a clouded leopard, bay cat or sun bear prowling through Sabah’s lowland shadows, or even a quirkily-armoured pangolin shuffling across the forest floor after dark. Though you’d have to be extremely fortunate to catch sight of a rhino in Borneo, you can discover more about the colossal conservation efforts underway to bring together the world’s last remaining Sumatran rhinos in the hope of saving the species from extinction.
Unique bird-life: a skyful of beating wings...
In Borneo, the wildlife in the air is just as spellbinding as that on the ground. Its treetops, wetlands and coastline are home to over 600 bird species, and many more make migratory stopovers on its welcoming shores. Several species of hornbill, with their distinctively curved bills, glossy black and white plumage and flashes of bright colour, cut a striking contrast against the green of the rainforest.
Head to the foothills of Mount Kinabalu for some of Borneo’s best birdwatching opportunities, where patient birders are rewarded with sightings of some of the areas 300 species, ranging from tiny, camouflaged warblers hidden in the undergrowth to majestic falcons soaring overhead. Bright green Bornean magpies chatter from the branches, colourful woodpeckers flash past, and many other rare and wonderful species flit through the hillside forests.
It’s not just birds that fill Borneo’s skies. Gunung Mulu National Park in Sarawak sits on the world’s largest network of limestone caves, which are home to literally millions of bats. Visit at sunset to watch in awe as they leave the cave, fluttering in waves through the evening skies to feast on insects in flight.
From macro to micro
Borneo’s wildlife superstars are its large, high-impact creatures, but if you dig down into the details of the island’s plant and insect life, a whole other world of biodiversity comes into focus. At the very core of Borneo’s biome are dipterocarp forests, where giant trees tower over a wide diversity of plants below, providing home and food to thousands of creatures from microscopic insects to big cats. Carnivorous pitcher plants lurk in corners where other plants won't grow, luring insects to drown in their depths. Thousands of stunning varieties of wild orchid thrive in hidden corners, with new species still being discovered every year.
Living amidst the plant life are millions of creepy crawlies unlike anything you’ve seen before. You might come across a giant millipede gliding over a wooden walkway, a rainbow-hued butterfly landing just a few feet away, or a colony of ants marching through the leaves on the forest floor.
Marine wildlife: another world beneath the waves…
It’s no surprise that Borneo’s phenomenal diversity continues offshore. The crystal seas around Borneo’s islands are teeming with life, from turtles, manta rays, sunfish and leopard sharks to seahorses, cuttlefish and crabs.
Hammerhead sharks, tuna and barracudas swim in the clear waters around Sipadan, off Borneo’s north east coast, while close to shore millions of tiny creatures shelter in its steep coral shelf. Gaya Island, off Sabah’s west coast near Kinabalu, combines lush inland jungles of monkeys and monitor lizards, with rich biodiversity beneath its sheltered waves. Float over giant clams, anemones, starfish and coral gardens in this snorkeler's paradise, and learn about vital turtle conservation projects.
How does eco-tourism support Borneo’s conservation projects?
One of the most important factors pushing forward positive change for Borneo’s wildlife is the continuing growth of high quality eco-tourism. In the starkest terms, it’s an island of divided governance, where there are limited options for generating income. If more money can be made by protecting the rainforest than by cutting it down, it will be protected. Eco-tourism can cause a beneficial ripple effect too: the more people who visit Borneo in a responsible way with a light footprint, the more the message of its desperate need for protection gets heard.
Our travels to Borneo are always perspective changing and inspirational. We’re passionate about facilitating ethical, sustainable trips to Borneo for anyone interested in wildlife, helping you to have life-changing experiences, alongside supporting crucial conservation of one of the most incredible places on the planet.
How do I start planning an ethical trip to Borneo?
Get in touch with us for a chat about your hopes and priorities for a wildlife holiday to Borneo. We’ve got over a decade’s experience of sustainable and eco-aware travel in Borneo, and up-to-date, detailed knowledge of combining mind-blowing holidays with ethical, wildlife-centred experiences. The delight is in the details - from watching iridescent butterflies landing by your feet, to that first sight of an orang-utan through the trees.
Best places to visit in Borneo for wildlife
Sepilok orang-utan sanctuary - learn about the inspiring conservation work helping to protect the orang-utan’s habitat, and see these iconic primates in their natural environment.
Kelabit Highlands, Sarawak - take a close look at Borneo’s vibrant flora, including pitcher plants, orchids and rhododendrons.
Kinabalu National Park, Sabah - trek through the foothill forests of Mount Kinabalu to see the area’s abundant birdlife.
Gunung Mulu National Park, Sarawak - explore the largest limestone cave complex in the world and watch millions of bats soar through the sunset skies.
Gaya Island, Sabah - snorkel over coral gardens around Gaya’s coastline, and explore its richly forested interior
Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo):
Tanjung Puting National Park - head out into the forest along the Sekonyer River on a traditional klotok boat, watching the banks for glimpses of orang-utans, macaques, elephants and others.
Palangkaraya and the Kayahan River - stay aboard a riverboat or in a traditional Dayak longhouse, exploring Kalimantan’s wild interior. See orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and macaques well off the beaten trail.