One of the nicest encounters I had during my wanderings around Borneo, both in the Malaysian regions of Sarawak and Sabah and in Brunei, was the one with the funny long-nosed monkeys! Also known as “proboscis monkeys”, these creatures could easily be mistaken for the protagonists of a children’s cartoon. In the local language they are known by the name of Monyet Belanda which means “Dutch monkeys” in reference to the appearance that the Dutch settlers of the nineteenth century, men with long noses and pot bellies, had in common with these funny primates.
FEATURES OF PROBOSCIS MONKEYS
The proboscis monkeys are one of the typical and exclusive species of Borneo. They typically live along the rivers of the islands, in the mangroves and near the marshes and are a highly arboreal species to the point that occasionally they venture on the land only to forage. They have a brown-orange fur on the back, neck and head, while the arms, legs and tail are greyish. The male weighs 16-22 kg but can reach up to 30 kg and can reach a height of up to 75 cm. The females are smaller and typically weigh 7-12 kg and reach the 65 cm of height. One of the characteristics of these monkeys is their large nose that develops with age; while that of the females is much smaller, the nose of the males can be up to 18 cm long and serves essentially as a sounding board, capable of producing a strong nasal intonation similar to the bass. Males with larger noses are able to attract more females than their rivals, as the deep sound they can emit is able to intimidate other males (and even their predators) and attract many females during the phase of mating. For this reason, proboscis monkeys live in organized groups which are real harems made up of a dominant male, two to seven females and their respective offspring. They are also skilled swimmers thanks to their webbed limbs which help them escape from crocodiles, their main and fearsome predators. Another characteristic of these monkeys is the size of their belly which is directly proportional to their particular stomachs. The diet of these primates consists of leaves, seeds, immature fruits and, occasionally, also insects; their complex and large digestive systems have particular enzymes that help them to dispose of the cellulose of the plants and cancel the harmful effects of some toxins.
THE EFFECTS OF DEFORESTATION
Rampant deforestation of the region’s rainforests and the subsequent establishment of palm oil plantations has fatally depleted the natural habitat of proboscis monkeys. The dramatic consequence of all this is the ever-increasing danger that these primates are forced to face: in fact, due to the lack of trees, they must increasingly travel long distances on the ground to find food. Predators such as jaguars and crocodiles that consider the proboscis monkey a delicacy, are always lurking and this has resulted in the rapid disappearance of 80% of entire groups of these wonderful primates, are in the last 40 years. It is believed that around 16,500 specimens are left in the wild today of which 1,000 are present in Sarawak, 6,000 in Sabah, 300 in Brunei and 9,200 in the Kalimantan region.
WHERE TO SEE THEM
In Malaysian Borneo there are several areas where you can admire the monkeys:
- Kinabatangan River, Sabah
- Klias Peninsula, Sabah
- Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sabah
- Bako National Park, Sarawak
- Kuching Wetlands National Park, Sarawak
However, I was struck by a couple of these places where it is possible to see them in their natural habitat and live almost completely wild.
LABUK BAY SANCTUARY
The story of Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is truly special: in the mid-1990s this 400-hectare site about 38 kilometers from Sandakan was about to be converted to palm oil production when the owner discovered that several groups of monkeys were living in his own mangrove forest. He then decided to change his plans and conserve this small forest by opening a “sanctuary” for monkeys. Today Labuk Bay is a private property that is home to around 150 proboscis monkeys. The ideal time to visit the center is during the distribution of food which takes place on two platforms: platform A, open from 9.30 to 14.30 and platform B, open from 11.30 to 16.30. During this time, the staff feed the monkeys with beans, cucumbers and pancakes. . Thanks to this gesture, whole groups of primates descend from nearby trees and river mangroves to eat their meal. There are some rules to respect when visiting the center: don’t feed the animals, don’t touch them, don’t scream. Furthermore, there is a clarification to be made: the habitat is seriously fragmented and degraded, there is not enough food for all the monkeys living here, so they need supplementary food. Their habits and behaviors are very different from the proboscis monkeys living in their natural environment. Their diet is also very different from what they would have if they weren’t living in captivity. The Sanctuary offers an excellent opportunity to see them up close and photograph them. If, on the other hand, you are interested in seeing wild proboscis monkeys in their natural environment, opt for a tour on the Kinabatangan River or at the Klias Wetlands.
HOW TO GET:
The shrine is open daily from 8.30am to 5.30pm, the cost is RM60. A shuttle bus to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary departs daily from the Sandakan Hotel at 9.30am and from the Sepilok Orangutan Center car park at 10.30am. The bus arrives at the shrine in time for the 11.30am meal at Platform B. The return shuttle to Sandakan departs at 3.00pm and 5.00pm. The bus fare is RM 20 per person (one way).
Along this river you can see monkeys in their natural environment. An estimated 1,500 individuals reside in this area, making the Kinabatangan River the best place to see Sabah’s proboscis monkeys. Accessible from Sandakan, Kinabatangan is not only a top wildlife-viewing destination in Southeast Asia, but it’s also one of the best places in Borneo to see orangutans and pygmy elephants. Most tours along the Kinabatangan River include a boat cruise to the Menanggul River where numerous groups of monkeys congregate in the evening, especially the huge dominant males and large groups of bachelors who congregate in the treetops. We listen to their deep sounds that they emit to communicate, their different postures and various conversations.
I have seen them in both situations and I trust you that the experience on the Kinabatangan river is the one I liked the most, as all the animals were free in their natural environment and even if they are not seen as closely as in Lebuk Bay Sanctuary, this made for a decidedly authentic experience, reminding me what it would be like to live in harmony with the animal world if we weren’t continually destroying its natural habitat.