Tabin Wildlife Reserve - Lahad Datu : Sabah Borneo

Day before the Day :

- Preparation and journey to Lahad Datu

It was a harrowing morning. The day before, I had just returned to Sandakan from a whirlwind 3 day trip taking in the sights at the Gomantong Caves, a trip down the Kinabatangan River, a night spent watching turtles lay eggs on the beach of Pulau Selingan, a few hours with the Orang Utans at Sepilok Orang Utan Centre and then back to Sandakan. A perfect trip for a glimpse of nature's wonders in their habitat if not a little too short a time.

But despite that, I had decided to try a little adventure of my own. Forget the 3days 2nights tour package. I needed to relive a little bit of the days gone by when life was not about deadlines and deliverables and I was once free to roam the earth with what little change I had in my pockets to get me as far as I could go.

Sitting in my little room at the Seafront Hotel in Sandakan 's old town, a motel - clean, basic - I had no idea what I was getting into. It was a long time since the good old backpacking days. So apprehensive was I that I finally relented to my inner voice telling me to book a package anyway. it's Borneo (said my inner voice), it's not exactly the easiest place to travel around..especially if you're traveling alone! After a long,long deliberation with myself, I did just that, went out, got onto the net and surfed for things to do and places to go. somewhere beyond the beaten path, if ever that's possible these days.

I came across a site on the Sumatran Rhino in Sabah and how they were conducting an in-situ (on site) research on the movements of these highly endangered creatures in an area called the Tabin Wildlife Reserve. This of course, peaked my interest. Why after all, our logo is the Sumatran Rhinoceros and how on earth we managed to miss this NGO's work on the rhinos.. how embarrassing!

That made it my mission. To find out more about the ins and outs of this unknown Wildlife Reserve. So I booked a 3days 2nights package to stay at Tabin Wildlife Resort which was incredibly lucky for me as it just so happen to be the low season and there were still rooms available. Considering there were only 20 rooms at the resort and the only accommodation available in the area.that was a big gamble to just go and hope for the best that there would be rooms available. Well lucky me!

I was then told that normally guests would fly from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu to get to Tabin Wildlife Reserve and since I was already in Sandakan, the only other way to go was by road. I could of course hire a 4WD to take me there, which would cost about RM270 per way or I could take a bus that leaves Sandakan at 7.00am . That would certainly be ideal. I would make it in time for the transfer from Lahad Datu Bus Station to the reserve by noon ..

Clearly a mistake on my part for having overlooked that I had used up all my recording discs for my videocam and I couldn't leave without my gear! So I eventually waited for the shops to open at 8.30am, rushed to buy the essentials and then to the bus station. The bus was long gone by then and there were no buses leaving till the next day.

But at the Bus station, there were also 4WDs and van taxis. These cost about RM22 - RM25 per person but the drivers normally wait until his vehicle is filled with passengers before leaving (about 6 persons will do). The wait was beginning to wear me down. It was 2hours later before I decided that it was time to make a move or miss my transfer to the reserve. With only 3 persons in the van with me, I had to pay for the extra 3 empty seats only to find out that the driver was going to leave for Lahad Datu anyway and 10minutes into the journey, he dropped by at his house to pick up his family of 4 for the journey!

The roadtrip was not anything to write home about. The travel time was supposed to take about 3hours but took 4 hours instead because of the numerous stops. I was indeed getting very hot and flustered in the van. The air conditioning wasn't working and the monotony of endless miles of palm oil plantation was making the it all a little depressing . my dreams of lush, green rainforest jungle cover was nowhere to be seen.

- Journey from Lahad Datu to Tabin Wildlife Rerserve

lahad datu bus terminal

We finally arrived at the bus terminal at Lahad Datu. It was a nondescript, open-air car park with rows of van taxis and lots of people hanging around chatting, selling fake brands - watches, sunglasses etc.everyone trying to hawk something to someone. It's a cowboy, dusty town .contrabands, you name's's available..

The Tabin Wildlife Resort staff waited for me at the station for over an hour. They happily bundled me into an 8 seater van and whisked me off down the main coastal road. 20 minutes into the drive, we turned off into a winding, laterite road and for the next hour - bumped our way into the interior towards the reserve passing through again. palm oil plantations. I was told that we were actually traveling through the plantations' private land and normally for those self driving - they would have to pay a toll of about RM5 - RM10.

Sabah, (so far on my trips there) seems to be one big plantation land..being cut up by palm oil plantations or acacia plantations and we're talking about 100,000s hectares of land, once thick impenetrable virgin jungle only as recent as 30years ago. As we travel the circumference of the large reserve, I discover palm oil plantation areas that seemed a lot larger than the reserve - the rows of palm oil trees were endless. We were passing through estates by names of Ladang Permaigah, River Estate, Kertam Estate and Permai Estate. I was soon aching to see some jungle.. tropical Borneon rainforest as far as the eye could see - Tabin Wildlife Reserve!

- Arriving at Tabin Wildlife Reserve

The laterite road took us to the borders of the reserve. We passed through a village, where many of the plantation workers lived amongst the villagers. Along the way, a lone rainforest tree, the Tualang tree towering above all else stands at about 100ft high. The tree would have been a little higher than the rainforest canopy 50yrs ago. Now it stands alone like the tower of babel, a morbid reminder of what it used to be. As we turned a sharp corner, we met up with some guests from the resort. They were standing about with binoculars and all. I was told that the elephants were nearby and anytime soon the male pygmy elephant will emerge from the bush on the regular walk through the secondary forest cover into the plantation in search of food. Tired and hungry, I decided it was best to skip the event, thinking the next day would be a better time to meet up with these creatures again. We took the turn and left for the resort.

- Tabin Wildlife Resort

The resort was established in 2002. With only 20 chalets dotted around the open area by the edge of the river, this resort can only cater a select number of guests. There is the camping site some 100m away, close to the information centre but the thing about camping in tropical jungles - there are lots of fears to overcome.if you have any. The bugs, creepy crawlies, unfamiliar sounds at night, going to the loo a distance away in pitch darkness and the rain.which can be very heavy at times. Although the package was cheaper, I opted for the jungle chalet instead. The river chalets are built partially on solid ground, extending over the edge of the riverbank. It's a lovely setting most times except during the rains when the gush of the river can be quite deafening. There are 12 units all lining the riverbank on one side of the main reception and restaurant. On the other side, a plank walkway leads to the jungle chalets. The chalets are equipped with air conditioning, hot/cold shower room, writing desk, double or twin beds, and some bedtime reading material that is designed to inform guests of the activities and Tabin's treasures to be discovered. Although I didn't have any unwelcomed guests in my cosy,wooden chalet but my immediate neighbours, Sandra and Alex from Germany had a resident gigantic gecko in theirs!

a welcome drink: just what's desperately needed after the long drive

The first evening that March, we had an incredibly heavy downpour which lasted 3hours. Dinner - steaming hot rice and some local dishes took away the chills in our bones. It can get quite cold in the rainforest especially at night. There were several other guests staying at the resort. Having some time to kill before the safari drive down the plantation road later on, we gathered round to discuss what the group had seen on the trip out earlier. I was told that when I passed them on the way in, they actually managed to catch a glimpse of the pygmy elephants crossing at a specific spot along the plantation road. It certainly was exciting for the guests as I was told yet wasn't all that easy spotting them. Once the herd has crossed the path, it should take them another 3 days or so to come this way again.

- The Pygmy Elephant

this young pygmy elephant is enroute from the reserve into the palm oil plantation in search of food. photo courtesy of sandra bakhsh and alex harth, germany. march 2006

The pygmy elephant is slightly smaller in stature to the ones normally found in Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand and Indochina . Initially it was first thought that elephants were brought to Borneo as gifts for the Sultan centuries ago but now experts believe the elephants to have been in Borneo for over 300,000 yrs. The Pygmy Elephants are found only in to Sabah ; and are not found in Sarawak or Brunei . They are Sabah 's national treasure, one of many beautiful inheritances that is disappearing fast. The elephant is sometimes regarded a nuisance. In one night, an elephant can destroy acres of young oil palms. The fragmented forest reserves and the deforestation in Sabah has placed these creatures in conflict with landowners and villagers. A gory picture taken in 2005 by a tourist was published in the local papers - a decomposing head of a pygmy elephant being washed down kinabatangan river. These conflicts often led to the elephants being killed. Translocation programmes of elephants have not been introduced in Sabah as yet. For more on the pygmy elephants,

The Reserve is hilly in the central and western regions. And its northern part connects to the lower reaches of the tributaries of the Segama River, Sabah 's second longest river. The controversy here at the moment though is that the logging concessions have been given out to log areas in the Ulu Segama Reserve as well as the Malua Reserve - but that's another long standing story of stay against change..

The vegetation at Tabin Reserve consists mainly of lowland dipterocarp forest, swamp forests and mangroves and even small patches of native coniferous in the higher elevations. Lowland dipterocarp areas were and still are the first areas to be cleared and there are very few virgin patches left in Malaysia . The reserve area stretches out an area of 120,500 hectares. It was originally registered as "Silabukan and Lumerau" forest reserve in the 1950's, and later placed under wildlife forest reserves of forest category class VII by the Forest Enactment of Sabah in 1968. This means that the jungle here is maintained for the sole purpose of wildlife preservation. However, the class VII category only covers what is known as the core area which is a fraction at only 8,600 hectares of flora with original genetic roots planted down in this land, dating back millions of years old - undisturbed, to grow and die in its own lifecycle and propagate its genes .

The Lipad Mud Volcano

The Tabin area is rich. It has salt licks, mud volcanoes and streams and all this goes into feeding and the wellbeing of animals and plants in the area. Many protected areas and jungles have their share of salt licks but very few where mud volcanoes exist. In Sabah, there are only two places that are accessible to the public. One is at Pulau Tiga, just off the coast of Kota Kinabalu and the other is at Tabin Wildlife Reserve. There are 3 spots within the 1205 Sq km area (485 sq miles) but only 1 is accessible - The Lipad Mud Volcano.

tracks all round the base of the volcano

The other one is within the core area about 20km away but this area is restricted to those who have permits from the wildlife department to enter. For other recreational visits to a mud volcano, we were taken to the one closer to the resort. We climbed onto the pick up truck and sped off on a bumpy ride towards the SOS Rhino office. About 50m from SOSRhino, a small trek leads off to the mud volcano. Sandra, Alex, our guide Michael, trudged through 800m of muddy trail. Along the way, there were a number of tree samples which had coloured tags pinned on them. The research was conducted by university students in an attempt to distinguish the various categories. Red, Blue,Yellow tags differentiated tree samples from soft, medium and hardwood species. Plants - the understorey of the jungle lined the area. Michael who is of Iban origins and comes from Sarawak, shows the vegetation that his mother and mothers before her have been using as herbs or vegetables in their daily use.

wild begonias..edible and medicinal

The jungle begonia, a beautiful stunted plant with vibrant tiny pink-white flowers is more than just an ornamental plant. The natives pick its thick leveled leaves to cook with fresh fish. It can also be eaten raw and tastes quite palatable . a little sour, which gives a lovely flavour to the dish.

March was the mating season for the cicadas and the jungle was just vibrating with a sharp resonance...

The Cicada

cicada nest

The Pomponia Imperatorial, found in Malaysia is the largest of species growing to a length of 15cm or 6in. Cicada nymphs spend an average of 2 - 5 yrs incubating and feeding on root juices, living underground . In the final nymphal maturity, they construct an exit tunnel to the surface and emerge. The cicada homes can be seen stacked up into little funnels on the jungle floor and are made from mud collected and molded high in cylindrical blocks. As they emerge from the funnel, they attach themselves to branches nearby and moult. When they moult, they shed their skins, and the abandoned skins can often be found left on trees, still clinging to the bark.

Soon we arrived at a clearing in the forest. The trail stopped near a high watch tower. From the watch tower a gradual incline leads to the source of the volcano. All around the clearing was a crisscross of animal prints. several prints were identified.. the easiest being the elephant tracks then the deer tracks, wild boar tracks and sometimes the rhino tracks but this is very rare.

Thinking that the bubbling mud oozing out would be scorching, I was really surprised it to be otherwise. The grey viscous liquid is what the animals come here for. Michael urged me to have a taste of the mud. A dark swirl in the mud is supposedly rich in mineral. Large animals come to mud volcanoes to pep up on their supplements of sodium, magnesium, calcium, potassium, iron, and some researchers believe that a substance called kaolin in the soil, neutralises toxic substances. It is thought that plants have many toxic components and animals protect themselves from these substances by consuming kaolin. The mud tasted like, well .mud.

standing at the base of the mud volcano. caked with layers of mud over the years, the peak is difficult to get to...only way is to crawl to the top..

Big animals like the elephants and rhinos also wallow in the mud to take away the heat as well as the bugs that feed on their blood. I had first hand experience on how annoying these bugs were. An 'elephant fly' made a beeline for me... a quick and painful prick. Perhaps not much of a bother to the elephant with its thick hide but can be annoying if there's a swarm. Apparently, the presence of these flies meant that there were also elephants lurking very close to where we were. Unfortunately for the entire duration at Tabin, that was as close as I got to an elephant.

So, having tasted the mud, I was also encouraged to slap some on my a facial mud naturale . .. And I'm sure something like that would have cost a lot of money a tub at the fancy spas. Visitors can wallow at the mud baths but it's a slow crawl from the edge of the volcano to its core and there's nowhere to clean it off until back at the resort. It's a great experience though.

The watch tower nearby overlooks the entire area and gives a good birdseye view of the mud volcano. An orangutan nest (some days old) was seen on a treetop nearby. The tower could be a good place to stake out for a night as it is high enough to watch the wildlife that visit the area without being intrusive. Humans have a very strong scent which other animals are able to pick out.

SOSRHINO (now known as BORA - Borneo Rhino Alliance)

SOSRhino office at Tabin

SOS rhino has its main in-situ centre here at Tabin. This reserve is believed to have the largest concentration of Sumatran rhinos in Sabah numbering between 7 - 20 individuals. The trekkers and officers at SOSRhino patrols the reserve in search of evidence of the rhino's existence. Rhinos are extremely difficult to track. They are extremely shy, wary and are solitary animals. Although, creatures of habits, and camera traps can help track them but they are clever creatures as well. Once they have experienced the flashes from camera traps, they remember their positioning and more often than not, researchers find that new tracks lead behind the camera trap . For more on sumatran rhinos, have a look at or wwf Malaysia. The patrol staff has also reduced illegal clearing of land by villagers or illegal immigrants. Any clearing of land seen will be reported to the authorities. Although poaching is still ongoing in the area, with the presence of patrols, poachers are a little more wary of their activities. How much impact that has, with the absence of strong backing from the wildlife departments and government with regards to the judiciary punishments of such crimes, is not known..

Unfortunately with logging concessions given out once again to companies to log certain areas in the Ulu Segama and Malua Secondary Forested areas, the vast areas required for the rhinos and elephants to roam and mate will be reduced significantly. Although, authorities have been justifying that logged forests can still sustain wildlife populations especially primates and apes as they are flexible and able to cope with changes in habits - eating and living. The jungle is not only a home, it's a medical hall for animals. For example, an elephant may take a number of herbs and plants to purge itself of roundworms such as The sea bean liana (Entada pursaetha DC.),The leaves or vines of the thorny plant tonjii (Harrisonia perforate Merr.),The leaves or stems from the black catechu {Acacia catechu Willd.), The boraphet plant ( Tinospora tuberculata Beaumee), The fruit of the ebony tree ( Diospyros mollis Griff.),The bark of the forest siris ( Albizia procera [Roxb.] Benth.), The bark, flowers, and fruit of the golden fig tree ( Ficus benjamina Linn.), The fruits of the bael fruit tree ( Aegle marmelos [L.] Corn ex Roxb.), The roots of Job's tears ( Coix lachrymal-jobi Linn.) . Elephant care manual for mahouts and camp managers...

The wildlife rely completely on their knowledge of the forest and their instincts. With what we take away, we reduce their chances of survival into the next decade...

Sepilok Orangutan Appeal UK and the Orangutans

hopefully this young lady and her babe in arms now living at sepilok, will one day find freedom at Tabin Reserve

Sepilok is overburdened with orphaned orangutans. The rangers there have released a number into the reserve surrounding the Sepilok centre but there is a need to repatriate several rehabilitated individuals to Tabin which has a bigger roaming area and also to increase the gene pool with interactions with other existing orangutans in TWR. TWR is believed to be home to only 1,600 wild individuals and can take in a lot more being twice the size of Singapore - there's a lot of roaming space. With that, sepilok Appeal also aims to conduct detailed behavioural research on them. For more on the ongoing project conducted by Sepilok Orangutan Appeal, please click on the following:

Night Safari

That evening, after dinner - we were all bundled into the pickup truck. Makeshift wooden planks were laid out across at the back in 3 rows. We sat ourselves as comfortably as we could. Herman, the extremely experienced (not to mention, handsome) ranger clicked on a bright torch and off we went. Within the vicinity of the resort, Herman managed to catch sight of a Kancil or mousedeer foraging in the bush. We made a quick stop before the little creature scurried off into the darkness. The 1 1/2hour drive through the dark night brought some very interesting sights. we came across a juvenile Buffy Owl, probably on its first few inaugural night hunts ; a leopard cat (Felis bengalensis) sitting at the edge of the plantation stalking a prey hidden in the undergrowth nearby ; a slow loris ; sambar deers galloping across the plantation into the jungle ; bearded wild boars startled by the bright lights..charging aross the plantation road. Although we didn't get to see a number of animals that previous guests had claimed to have seen on their night safaris.. Several sp. : the largest predator in Borneo . the clouded leopard (neofelis nebusa), common palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus), binturong or bear cat (Arctitis binturong), the elephants amongst others.

Tabin Wildlife Reserve is a great place to go if visitors would like to get to know more about the diversity of wildlife in borneo. Although most of the area has been logged and is surrounded by even larger plantations, there is at least a little refuge for the small pool of wildlife here.


For birders, one of the better places to watch birds is actually around the resort. There is a small library at the resort where they have a few refernce books on the wildlfie that can be found in the surrounding jungle. Early morning is great especially from the restaurant - there's an open patch where the birds come to forage in the morning.

Some of the birdlife found in Tabin are:

  • the oriental darter
  • storm's stork
  • crested serpeant eagle (common)
  • wallace's hawk-eagle
  • white fronted falconet
  • common sandpiper
  • emerald dove
  • raffle's malkoha (common)
  • chestnut bellied malkoha
  • greater coucal (common)
  • buffy fish owl
  • brown wood owl
  • whiskered treeswift
  • scarlet rumped trogon
  • black backed kingfisher
  • ruddy kingfisher
  • blue throated bee-eater (common)
  • dollarbird (common)
  • black hornbill (common)
  • oriental pied hornbill (common)
  • rhinoceros hornbill (common)
  • rufous piculet (common)
  • grey capped woodpecker (common)
  • orange-backed woodpecker (common)
  • dusky broadbill
  • black and red broadbill (common)
  • banded broadbill
  • black and yellow boradbill (common)
  • blue headed pitta
  • garnet pitta
  • pacific swallow (common)
  • scarlet minivet
  • black headed bulbul
  • red eyed bulbul (common)
  • spectacled bulbul (common)
  • yellow bellied bulbul (common)
  • hairy backed bulbul
  • green iora
  • lesser green leafbird (common)
  • asian fairy bluebird
  • magpie robin (common)
  • white browed shama (common)
  • white crowned forktail
  • black capped babbler
  • short tailed babbler (common)
  • ferruginous babbler (common)
  • sooty capped babbler (common)
  • scaly crowned babbler (common)
  • chestnut winged babbler (common)
  • striped tit babbler (common)
  • fruffy backed tit-babbler
  • dark necked tailorbird
  • ashy tailorbird (common)
  • malaysian blue-flycatcher
  • verditer flycather (common)
  • rufous winged philentoma
  • asian paradise flycatcher (common)
  • black naped monarch
  • pied fantail (common)
  • yellow rumped flowerpecker (common)
  • orange bellied flowerpecker (common)
  • ruby cheeked sunbird
  • purple naped sunbird (common)
  • crimson sunbird (common)
  • little spiderhunter (common)
  • black headed munia (common)
  • eurasian tree sparrow (common)
  • asian glossy starling (common)
  • bronzed drongo (common)
  • greater racket tailed drongo

Best Time to Go

  • Anytime. Better to go during drier seasons ie march - october but apparently there is a higher frequency of elephant sighting from September to November.

  • Getting There

    By air

    from kl

    Daily flights by or to Kota Kinabalu and take Mas Wings from Kota Kinabalu to Lahad Datu

    from kota kinabalu

    Daily flights by Mas Wings to Lahad Datu

    By bus

    Travelling time = 4hours ; 179km

    from Sandakan to Lahad Datu

    There's a bus company called Syarikat Chin, T: 019 883 4962 that leaves from sandakan open air bus terminal at batu 2 ½ at approximately 7.30am . please make it at the terminal by 7.10am latest.

    Another Bus Company called Optis Jaya . Pick up point : Sandakan Checkpoint Batu/Mile32 ; Drop off Point: Lahad Datu Bandar Sri Perdana leaves at 1.10am

    from Lahad Datu to Sandakan

    the same buses make a single daily return trip to Sandakan

    By Van/4WD Taxi

    from Sandakan to Lahad Datu to Sandakan

    Both the van and 4WD taxis leave whenever they can fill each trip with passengers. normally for 6 persons. Otherwise, the drivers will wait and if there are not enough passengers, they may postpone the trip till the next day. Best to get to the bus terminal by 7.00am . but always more reliable to take the bus. My trip by van taxi took an extra 45min travel time because of the innumerable personal stops the driver made along the way.

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