Kinabatangan River Wetlands by Herman (October 2006)

Short: The Kinabatangan River Wetlands are as per yet not classified under a contiguous park, but there are scattered forest reserves and plans are underway to combine them into a larger nature reserve to preserve one of the world's 10 mega-biodiversity sites better.


Sabah's Mega-Biodiversity Site

The Kinabatangan River (Sungai Kinabatangan), Sabah’s longest river drains Sabah’s East Coast, with its delta just below Sandakan. The Kinabatangan is Malaysia’s second longest river, 560 kilometres from its headwaters in the Maliau Basin to its outlet at the Sulu Sea. Malaysia’s longest river is the Rajang in Sarawak.

The Kinabatangan is known for its remarkable wildlife and fascinating habitats such as limestone caves (Gomantong are the more famous because of their edible swiftlets nests), dry-land dipterocarp forests, riverine forest, freshwater swamp forest, oxbow lakes and salty mangrove swamps near the coast. This rich area has for centuries attracted many seafaring nations, especially the Chinese, in search of exquisite jungle produce and other rate treasures of Borneo's forests like edible bird's nests, rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and hornbill casques for the Emperor and the wealthy mandarins of China. They also sought hardwood resin, damar; flexible rattan vines; beeswax to make candles; fragrant woods and oil-rich illipe nuts. This has naturally also created a wealth of myths and legends, and the name of the river itself means “Chinese River”. The people living along the Kinabatangan are generally known as ‘Orang Sungai’ or River People, but they do belong to various different ethnic entities. Up to about Sukau the vast majority of these people are Muslims but as one continues upstream there are also Dusunic, Paitanic and Murutic tribes who have been Christianised but also still practice some animism.

Though the ecology of the upper middle reaches of the river has been severely disrupted by excessive logging and clearing of land for plantations the original lowland forests and mangrove swamps near the coast have largely survived, and contain some of Borneo's highest concentrations of wildlife. The range of biodiversity in the Lower Kinabatangan surpasses that of every other site in Malaysia, and for that matter in any other place in South East Asia. It is one of the only two places in the world where ten primate species are found cohabiting, next to some 50 species of mammals and 200 species of birds, amongst others. Of special note are Borneo's indigenous proboscis monkeys and orang utans, Pigmy elephants and the near extinct Sumatran rhinoceroses. The area is also known for its great variety of birdlife, amongst others the Oriental darter which is already extinct in many other parts of South East Asia, the globally endangered Storm's stork and all eight species of hornbill in Borneo. Other species include freshwater ray, river sharks (until recently thought to be extinct), estuarine crocodiles and monitor lizards. All this has earned the Kinabatangan Wetlands a place amongst the world’s 10 mega-biodiversity sites.

Each year, the lashing rains of the northeast monsoon cause the river to swell rapidly. Unable to disgorge into the sea quickly enough, the river frequently overflows its banks and spreads across the flat lands of its lower reaches, creating a huge floodplain. The lower Kinabatangan teems with both animal and plant life, making it the best area for viewing wildlife, not just in Sabah but all of Southeast Asia.

In 1997, 270 square kilometres of the lower Kinabatangan floodplain was declared a protected area, and in 2001 this designation was upgraded to that of "bird sanctuary", largely through the efforts of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. However, further efforts to have the area declared a "wildlife refuge" or even "national park" have been opposed by the logging industry, and oil palm plantation owners seeking to expand their cultivated land. The Malaysian government faces now the delicate task of balancing economical interests and ecological conservation in one of the world's biologically richest areas.

How to Get to There & Accommodation

From KK either take a 40-mins flight, or a 5-hour bus ride to Sandakan, the gateway to the Kinabatangan and its wetlands. Tours can be arranged in Sandakan itself, or from KK through all major tour operators or even hotel concierges. Currently, most nature tourism is concentrated around Sukau, accessible by road or river and offering comfortable accommodation to visitors prepared to pay for well-managed tours.

Morning mood, Sukau

A heaven for birds

Crocodile in Sukau

Gomantong Caves

Note: while every care has been taken in compiling the above information the Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, its authors and associates cannot be held responsible for any inaccuracy, omission or alteration that may occur. Please contact us or the respective authors for further details and confirmation of facts and figures. © The Flying Dusun Sdn Bhd, 2005-2006; all rights reserved; reproduction in whole or in part without written permission strictly prohibited. 


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