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

Pygmy elephant

  • ID: An Asian elephant, but smaller, with relatively larger ears, a longer tail and straighter tusks. Once believed to be descended from a domesticated herd, DNA analysis has found that it is genetically distinct and probably a separate subspecies.
  • Where: These elephants are believed to only inhabit the forests of Sabah, though they may also move into East Kalimantan, Indonesia.
  • Status: Population estimated at between 1,000 and 1,500.



Getting there

  • My trip was organised by World Primate Safaris, which also organises tours to see mountain and lowland gorillas in Africa and lemurs in Madagascar. 

  • Other tour operators offer trips to see orangutans and other wildlife in Borneo.

  • My return flight from Heathrow to Sandakan in Sabah, via Singapore, was with Malaysian Airways.This journey emitted a gargantuan 8,800kg of carbon dioxide, more than eight times the annual emissions of the average Indian. It therefore cost a mammoth €177 to offset with atmosfair


  • WWF is active in Sabah, and partly due to its efforts, in 2005 the state government gazetted the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary – 26,000 hectares of riverine forest and floodplain.

  • Sadly, being a fertile area, this is also an ideal location for palm oil plantations. You can find more information here.

 When to go 

  • While there is no specific tourist season, the main rainy period lasts from November to January and is best avoided.

 What to take

  • I made sure I had these things wherever I went: a water bottle (it’s hot and you get thirsty quickly), a sunhat and suncream and a dry bag for all my camera gear in case of a sudden downpour.

  • If you plan on taking photographs of primates, you will need at least a 300mm lens and a tripod. You will also need to shoot on a high ISO rating because of the low light levels.

  • If you’re bothered by tiny wildlife that bites, take plenty of insect repellent.

Further reading

  • I enjoyed A Naturalist in Borneo by Robert W C Shelford, a book published posthumously at the beginning of the 20th century (Oxford University Press, ISBN 0195826345). Expensive to buy out in Borneo, it’s available on Amazon for as little as £10. Wild Borneo by Nick Garbutt and Cede Prudente (New Holland, ISBN 1845373782, £29.99) is also an interesting read.


Meet our travel editor James and the rest of the team here.  

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