It was 1881 when William Pryer, the founder of Sandakan also the first British Resident in the area visited the Kinabatangan river. Based on his journal records, he had spotted bright blue kingfishers and hornbills too. It’s more than a century now, and still, the sighting of the kingfishers and hornbills are equally common as one cruises along the river during the highly sought, morning or evening river cruise.

The mighty Lower-Kinabatangan River sustains one of the world’s richest ecosystems. It is also recognized as Sabah’s first and Malaysia’s largest RAMSAR site. Other than being home to Borneo’s indigenous orang utan and proboscis monkey, the surrounding forest is one of only two known places in the world where 10 species of primates can be found.

This is Malaysia’s second-longest river with a massive length of 560km from its source in the Southwest Sabah to its outlet at the Sulu Sea, on the East Coast. A total of 26,000 ha was gazetted as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary under the State’s Wildlife Conservation Enactment of 1997.

A river cruise along the river at dawn or dusk is the best opportunity to see the wildlife. You might even sight the Bornean pygmy elephant feeding along the river banks, witness stunts of the Proboscis jumping from tree to tree or even catching sight of a wild orangutan. Crocodiles? Yes the saltwater crocs frequently make themselves visible as they linger by the riverbanks… or even more thrilling, is to spot their eyes slightly protruded from the water (well stay away…).

Fun Fact! All the eight species of Hornbills found in Borneo, make this area their home. The most commonly spotted hornbills would be the Rhinoceros Hornbill and the Oriental Pied Hornbill. The diverse species of birds seen here has listed the Lower-Kinabatangan as an Important Bird Area (IBA). Bird enthusiasts from near and far often booked a carefully designed birding tour with travel agents specializing in this niche interest.

Many major local tour companies run lodges in the Sukau, Bilit and Abai area with packages that include accommodation (ranging from backpackers to luxurious river lodges), transportation, meals and guided tours. Additional tours such as night walks or night cruises can be arranged as well to spot crocodiles, birds and nocturnal animals. How to get there? Some tour operators offer you the opportunity to take a 1.5 to 2 hour boat ride from Sandakan or typically it would be to go overland which is about 1.5 hours as well. If you opt to take a bus, your pit stop us Kota Kinabatangan where you will then make arrangements to be picked up.

The Kinabatangan is a great wildlife and education escapism for all types of travelers and is family friendly too.

Although an overnight trip is do-able, a minimum of three days is recommended to stay at the Kinabatangan. A longer stay will yield a better chance to spot this wildlife.

You may also want to experience a well established homestay program; MESCOT KOPEL which is available in surrounding villages and provide visitors with a good opportunity to truly experience the life of the Orang Sungai. Join in their cultural activities or even try your hand at the local way of farming!

Meantime, while in the Kinabatangan area, don’t forget to visit the Gomantong Cave, the largest cave and most important source of edible bird’s nest in Sabah and the Agop Batu Tulug Cave.

Last reviewed: September 7, 2021