Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary & Sukau

A trip down the River of Life

Most times, travellers to the Kinabatangan and Sukau make the effort to visit because it simply is the only place in Sabah or even Borneo for that matter, that the wildlife is so accessible. The Sukau/lower kinabatangan area is a zoo safari and night safari all rolled into one. The kinabatangan wildlife sanctuary is only 26,103 hectares in size and within this tiny area (hemmed in by palm oil plantations from all sides), is a great variety of animals and flora, some endemic to Borneo and some endemic to the area itself. The diversity of this area is unimaginable. There are a recorded 1000 plant species, 250 bird species, 90 fish species and reptilia and 50 mammal species cramped into the area. And sometimes during the rainy season between December and February, the river bursts its banks and floods over the floodplain inundating a vast area. The animals suffer a great deal from this as the higher grounds where they used to retreat to, are now palm oil plantations and they are left with little land to survive and even less to feed on during these months of hardship. It’s been known that animals starve to death during these times.

For the drier periods, visitors have a higher chance of animal sightings and animals like the pygmy borneon elephants, the orang utan, probocis monkeys, silver leaf monkeys or langurs, macaques, civet cats, snakes, estuarine crocodiles, otters, wildboars, birdlife such as the oriental darters or snakeheads they are called, herons, Wallace's Hawk-Eagle, Jerdon's Baza, Violet Cuckoo, Blue-eared Kingfisher, Grey-headed Fish-Eagle, hornbills and can be ‘found’, if your nature guide and boatman is experienced. There may be a lot more than meets the eye.

There are generally 2 ways to go about getting to Sukau area, one is by boat all the way which may take 2hours meandering up the languid river or the other is to take a 1 hour van or car ride on rough palm oil plantation roads to the jetty and then a 10 – 15min boat ride to the resort. It is however advisable that if you are pregnant or if you have a bad back, not to travel on the plantation road. The road condition is atrocious due to the rain and heavy vehicle use and 45km at 20km/hr of this travel will definitely be a painful affair if you are not accustomed to it.

Normally, just to make the trip a little easier, many take the tours out and stay a day or two at resorts, homestays and hostels along the kinabatangan river. The itinerary is very similar from one tour agent to the other.

The first day will be the menanggol river trip. This small tributary of the great kinabatangan is where visitors will get to see a variety of birds, snakes, monkeys and if lucky – the elephants and orangutans. Animals hang around water sources for the food. The fig trees that grow along riverbanks are a favourite source of food and their succulent fruit is highly sought after by all creatures’ great and small.

On the second day, a boat ride down to the oxbow lakes for a bit of bird and croc watching is a good idea. It gives the visitor a perspective of the type of habitat found at the lower kinabatangan. As a floodplain, the area can be unforgiving and can also be a source of life. The river has about 30 oxbow lakes and more ancient ones that have silted up by the natural change of river course. There are a few oxbow lakes that is host to a myriad of nature’s treasures and it all depends on luck – being there at the right time.

There are a few conservation programmes conducted by individuals who live or/and make a living from the area such as the Miso Walai Homestay and Sukau Rainforest Lodge.

Both are committed to creating a long term relationship with the untamable river. They are protecting and moving to restore some balance. Sukau Rainforest Lodge endeavors to reforest and rehabilitate the forest around the resort by planting a variety of saplings of species familiar to the plains. They also involve their guests in this tree planting exercise. Every visitor staying at the resort gets to help plant a sapling in a 64 hectare riverine land at Tenegang.

The saplings are stock from species such as Nauclea subdita (Bangkal Kuning), Octomeles sumatrana (Binuang), Ficus racemosa (Tangkol), Neolarmarkia cadamba (Laran), Terminalia copelandii (Talisai paya) and Litsea garciae (Pengolaban). This is one of many on their agenda to help and integrate into the community as well as preserve the land.

Miso Walai Homestay is under a community cooperative that helps the poor, indigenous rural community living in the Batu Puteh area and also carry out wetland restoration work in the surrounding floodplain forests of the Lower Kinabatangan.

In areas so fragile and so effected by human activity such as the lower kinabatangan river, it is crucial to look into responsible tourism and each individual who has the privilege to visit and be part of this ecosystem even for a day has a responsibility to retain a piece of it not only in memory and pictures but also in participation. With help and recognition from all sides, then will life at kinabatangan be preserved.

For more on work to be done at lower kinabatangan river, have a look at

Best Time To Go

Anytime except during the rainy season which falls normally from December till late January/early February

Getting There

The closest point-of-entry by air would be at Sandakan. From Sandakan, most visitors take tours out to the river.

By air

Air Asia - flies from Kuala Lumpur; Clark Airport (just outside Manila); Philippines; Bangkok: Thailand to Kota Kinabalu

Mas Wings airline - within the state of sabah and sarawak to Kota Kinabalu

Asiana - flies from Seoul : South Korea to Kota Kinabalu

Dragonair - flies from Hong Kong to Kota Kinabalu

Malaysia Airlines - flies from Kuala Lumpur; Brunei; Guangzhou & Shanghai - Mainland China; Hong Kong - Greater China; Taipei, Gaoxiung - Taiwan Region, Greater China; Tokyo & Osaka - Japan; Cebu & Manila - Philippines; Singapore; Seoul - South Korea; Flies from Australia via Kuala Lumpur to Kota Kinabalu

Silk Air - flies from Singapore to Kota Kinabalu

Royal Brunei Airline - flies from Brunei ; Flies from Australia via Brunei to Kota Kinabalu

By rail


By Bus

You can take any of the Sandakan-Sukau buses.

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