Hanging out with the proboscis monkeys of Borneo

The proboscis monkey has a big nose, an even bigger belly and a huge survival problem. James Fair travels to the world’s third largest island to find out whether primates could help to conserve its precious forests.

Proboscis monkey of Borneo article spread

This, for me, was the best time of all – golden sunlight illuminating the lush green vegetation and the gingery-orange coats of the monkeys. In a reverie, I began to daydream that living among these peaceful animals wouldn’t be such a bad way to end up.

I’d hoped to see one swimming – proboscis monkeys are good swimmers, I’d read, and have semi-webbed feet – and they sometimes paddle across the narrow rainforest tributaries rather than leap over them. Disappointingly, these monkeys didn’t even dip a toe in the water.

Swamp wildlife

From Sukau, I travelled back down the Kinabatangan, flew to Kinabalu and then drove for about three hours to Borneo Proboscis River Lodge in the Klias Wetlands, a swampland of tannin-rich rivers, mangroves and palm trees. Proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques and silvered leaf monkeys were just as numerous, but there were no orangutans.

By now, I’d had three days of watching primates, and my waking hours were starting to assume a routine that involved being out on the water from sunrise until 10 or 11am, and then again in the late afternoon. I could predict roughly how the proboscis monkeys would react when I saw them, too, and I knew that at least half of the time, the group would make a rapid exit into the forest interior the minute our boat turned up.

So, I had to be quick, either with binoculars or my camera. Following the monkeys’ progress through the canopy was hard enough, but getting decent shots was next to impossible – they were agile animals, moving around high above me in low light levels.

Only when they had to jump from one tree to another did they come out into the open, and then they would make spectacular leaps, hurling themselves at nothing in particular from at least 20 metres above the ground.

Tricky subject

My guide, Chris, was determined that I should get photographs of leaping monkeys, so while I kept my eye stuck to the viewfinder, he let me know where the group had got to and when an individual was preparing to jump.

“OK, James, he’s going, going, going,” he cried, as I swung the lens round to the area where I thought the monkey might be. “Jump! Jump! Jump!” Chris yelled as I pressed despairingly on the shutter. Occasionally, very occasionally, I captured a blurry arm or leg or a headless torso, but mostly, it was just empty space. “Don’t give up the day job,” I thought, as another leaping monkey action shot went begging.

There was one occasion when I had five minutes to prepare as a youngster hesitated over a leap that the rest of his group had already made. Four or five times, he rocked back and forth at the end of the branch before retreating to the safety of the main trunk, no doubt cursing the day he’d been born a proboscis monkey.

It reminded me of the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where the two heroes are contemplating a leap into a deep river canyon. Perturbed, Sundance suddenly confesses that he can’t swim. “Swim?” exclaims Butch, “The fall will probably kill you!” Eventually, my own Sundance took the plunge, I missed it and Chris looked at me as if to say, “You didn’t fail again, did you?”

The thinker

I spent the best part of a week watching monkeys – and mostly proboscis monkeys at that – but I never tired of it.

My enduring memory is of the male sitting in the middle of his harem, shoulders hunched, peering from the depths of his green, green world with a mixture of fear and curiosity, silencing the chatter of excitable youngsters with a deep, growly bark that bore a passing resemblance to a didgeridoo.

Each night, I stayed out on the river until darkness fell, then returned to the lodge, enjoying the flickering, yellow-green lights of fireflies as the boat sped through the cooling night air.

And I wondered, as I could not help wondering, just whether the proboscis monkeys of Borneo will still have a home when it’s my turn to be reborn with the world’s most remarkable nose.



Proboscis monkey

  • ID: Males are recognisable by their bulbous noses and rich red-orange fur, which changes to grey on their lower body and lower arms. The females have smaller, upturned noses, but the same colouration.
  • Where: Proboscis monkeys are found only on Borneo and always close to water – either in mangrove forest or lowland rainforest.
  • Status: WWF estimates the total population at 7,000, making it more at risk than the orangutan.

 Long-tailed macaque

  • ID: A small monkey, with fur that varies in colour from light brown to grey on their backs, legs and arms. They forage in the understorey, where they feed on fruits, insects, leaves, seeds and birds’ eggs.
  • Where: Found throughout South-east Asia, from India through to Cambodia and Laos. Prefers primary forest, but can also be found in degraded forest at elevations of up to 2,000m.
  • Status: Regarded as Near Threatened by the IUCN.


  • ID: A large great ape covered in long, reddish-brown hair. Mature males develop cheek pouches. They have no tails, but are good climbers and spend most of their lives in trees.
  • Where: Orangutans once ranged throughout much of Asia, but today are only found on Borneo and Sumatra. They need primary tropical rainforest.
  • Status: The Borneo species is regarded as Endangered by the IUCN; the Sumatran as Critically Endangered.

 Silvered leaf monkey

  • ID: Smaller than proboscis monkeys, silvered leaf monkeys have dark grey fur with pale tips, which gives them their silver appearance. A newborn’s fur is orange, and it stays like this for five months.
  • Where: Found widely over South-east Asia and fairly common in Sabah. Can live in mangrove, swamp and riverine forests. Hardest to see (and shyest of) the four primates profiled here.
  • Status: Regarded as Lower Risk by the IUCN.


We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here