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 Natural History

Sabah is blessed with some of the world's most astounding natural diversities. Sites such as the Maliau Basin have not even yet been fully explored, and each new research team finds animal and plant species unknown to science.

Sabah's formidable topography, unique habitats - Mt Kinabalu, South East Asia's highest mountain is found here - and climate, its relative isolation and the fact that even during the ice ages there was little change have all contributed to the present biodiversity.

Sabah's environment has much deteriorated over the past thirty years, an unfortunate side effect as vast tracks of the world's oldest rainforest have been used liberally to develop Malaysia.

Now, the remaining jungles are protected, many of them in national parks, most of them easily accessible and with good infrastructure for travellers.  

See also: Places of Interest / Forest Reserves in Sabah 

Some of Sabah's Natural Highlights


There are some 13 species of primates in Borneo, at least nine of which can be found in Sabah. The Proboscis monkey is maybe the most spectacular: the male sports a huge nose, in addition to a 'beer-belly', and it is clad in an orange 'jacket' with white 'leggings' and a long white tail. The female only sports a little nose. They live in two distinct groups, the bachelor group and the harem group. The latter can consist of up to 20 animals, whereby the alpha male is constantly on the look out for intruders from nearby bachelor groups... In Sabah, this monkey is easily observed in Sukau, and also in Klias. At dusk they settle in trees along the river banks where they are observed at leisure during a river safari.

The Orang Utan is probably the best known primate in Borneo. Highly endangered due to rapid habitat loss, the future in the wild for this ape looks bleak. In Sandakan, at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre, orphaned and pet orang utans are trained to live again an independent life in the rainforest. The programme may last up to six years before the apes can be relocated to some of Sabah's undisturbed national parks or wildlife reserves. To observe orang utan in the wild is extremely difficult though with some luck you can spot them around Sukau in the Kinabatangan area, at Danum Valley and also at Tabin. For an almost guaranteed sighting visit the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sepilok; your entrance fee will go towards the conservation of this endangered species.

Other primates include the gibbons, rare to see but often heard: its melodious call can be heard in the jungle early in the mornings. Amongst the smaller primates are tarsiers and slow lories, and langurs and leaf monkeys are amongst the more elegant inhabitants of the jungle, albeit extremely difficult to find. Two macaque species inhabit Borneo, the pig tailed and long tailed macaques. Though very shy like all primates they often live close to human habitations where they profit of our typical signs of civilisation: waste and garbage. There they find easily food for their large groups. They breed fast, another factor that contributes to the fact that this is maybe the only species in Borneo that is not really endangered and concerned by habit loss.   


Over 100 different species of mammals are found in Sabah, the largest amongst them being the Borneo pygmy elephant. This elephant was previously thought to the a subspecies of the Asian elephant (Elephans maximus), but recent DNA studies have shown that this elephant has developed on Borneo. To-day it is only found in Sabah in small pockets of forests, often adjacent to plantations and human-animal conflict is a delicate issue here. Even though highly endangered and totally unique it continues to be threatened by rapid habitat destruction. Government efforts have been stepped up recently to ensure the survival of this species. With luck you can observe them in the Sukau area, at Tabin Wildlife Reserve and in Danum Valley.

Other unique mammals include the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Clouded leopard and Malayan sun bear, the Banteng (tembadau/wild ox) and the elusive Bay Cat as well as other felines.  


There are more than 500 species of birds in Sabah, some of them extremely rare due to the special habitat they prefer. Some birds only live in the higher regions of Mt Kinabalu and Trus Madi mountains, and thus naturally can only be found here in Sabah, and nowhere else in Borneo such as the Kinabalu magpie. All eight species of hornbills that occur in Borneo are represented in Sabah, plus some splendid rarities such as Bulwer’s pheasant and Argus pheasant, Giant pitta, and Bornean bristlehead.


Sabah's flora keeps on astonishing visitors and researchers alike. Being a 'biological hotspot,' Sabah's plant variety is particularly lush and again specialised habitats such as the higher ranges of Mt Kinabalu provide a home to plants found nowhere else on Borneo. Amongst the most impressive flowers is certainly the genus Rafflesia, and in Sabah there are a few places where you have good chances finding them in bloom: Poring Hot Springs area, and the Rafflesia Conservation Area, near Tambunan. As recent as 1996 a new species was discovered, the Rafflesia tunku-adlinii. It is different from others in that is has no white spots on its petals, the otherwise characteristic mark of most Rafflesias.

There are over a 1000 species of orchids, and at the Tenom Agricultural Centre you can admire a great variety. Most wild orchids, unlike commercially grown hybrids, don't flower year-round so don't be disappointed when you only see the smaller orchids commonly found in Borneo's rainforests...

The Nepenthes belong to the carnivorous plants and the largest, containing up to four litres of digestive liquid, can be found on Mt Kinabalu and Trus Madi. One Nepenthes species in the Maliau Basin provides shelter and breeding ground for a species of specialised frogs!

The forests also provide building materials and medical herbs which the indigenous people of Sabah have used for times immemorial. With natural forests dwindling at a fast rate it was realised that there is actually more than just wood to it - the so-called non-timber-products (NTP) are becoming increasingly important economic factors. They include, amongst others, water, climate, materials for traditional implements, medical herbs, shelter for animals and humans, eco-tourism facilities... a well known NTP is rattan, popular in furnishing, and of course also bamboo, well documented for its countless applications. 


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