“Borneo is one great luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself,” the British naturalist Charles Darwin said of the island deep in the heart of the Malay archipelago.
At 130 million years, its rainforest is among the oldest in the world. Its biodiversity is so rich, it is said that 10 square kilometres of Sabah, on the island’s north-eastern tip, contains more flora and fauna than North America and Europe combined. The Coral Triangle, a term referring to the waters between Borneo, East Timor and the Philippines, supports three-quarters of the world’s marine life. Scientists are still unearthing new species: in 2006 and 2007, 52 new subspecies of fish, amphibians and plants were discovered in Borneo.
The island comprises the Indonesian state of Kalimantan, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak and the sultanate of Brunei. Relatively little research has been done to document Borneo’s bounteous flora and fauna; there has even been little mapping, for that matter.
It was only in 1988 that Malaysian authorities reached the Maliau Basin, a circular crater about 25 kilometres wide in central Sabah. Dubbed “Sabah’s lost world”, the basin is surrounded by 900-metre cliffs and vegetation so old it is thought to be one of the world’s cradles of genetic wealth. So dense it’s almost impenetrable, less than half of it has been explored by scientists. But they have discovered more than 80 species of orchid, plum-red rafflesias – at more than a metre in diameter, it’s the world’s largest flower – and a new species of tree.
As scientists uncover biological rarities, however, rampant deforestation – some of it legal – is occurring on the island, placing its rare and endangered species, many endemic, in peril. It is reported that half the world’s tropical timber is drawn from Borneo, much of it destroyed to accommodate palm-oil plantations. Poaching and illegal hunting are also rife. Authorities in Sabah have promised to end all logging by 2014. They’re looking to develop another industry instead. “We have taken the lead for ecotourism development in Borneo,” the chairman of the Sabah Tourism Board, Dato’ Seri Tengku Zainal Adlin, tells me emphatically.
Sabah’s ecotourism policies are modelled on the United Nations’ principles, that promote tourism ventures that contribute to the conservation of natural and cultural heritage, engage indigenous peoples and are most suited to independent travellers.
Among Sabah’s eco initiatives is the Green Building Index, which requires all new hotels to have advanced waste and water treatment, Tengku Adlin says, although in our conversation he couldn’t name one new hotel that complies. Another policy, the Fair Trade Select, highlights tourism businesses using ethical products; so far, the only business endorsed is the handicraft shop, Kadaiku, which Tengku Adlin owns. “The government has ideas but little will to enforce,” a biologist working in Sabah tells me.
I have heard there is a clutch of private tourism operators in Sabah who have instigated their own eco initiatives. My first stop is Gayana Eco Resort, a recently refurbished overwater resort hugging a bay of lush rainforest and mangrove forest on Gaya Island, one of five islands comprising the Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park, a 15-minute boat ride from Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah state.
The bay was a marine wasteland when a local businessman, Ambrose Lee, bought Gayana four years ago, citing dynamite fishing and careless boating as among the causes of the devastation. Lee upgraded the resort’s villas, installed a sophisticated water-recycling plant and started rearing fish using sustainable stock for the resort’s on-site restaurants. Then he established the Marine Ecology Research Centre (MERC) to boost diminishing numbers of giant clam, a mollusc that can grow larger than a metre in length and live up to 100 years. Seven of the eight known species of giant clam are found in Borneo; they’ve been poached so heavily they’re endangered.
The centre’s work has been remarkably successful. In just a few years, MERC has established coral beds in the bay and raised more than 500 baby clams. You can brave the multicoloured fish that love to nibble on toes and swim out to see MERC’s efforts.
Alternatively, head to the interpretation centre established for school groups by MERC with aquariums displaying Sabah’s diverse marine habitats. Also on display are two turtle shells, part of a haul seized from a Chinese ship off the coast of Sabah in 2007. The boat had close to 300 turtles on board; all but 20 were dead.
“We begged the officials to give us these,” says Gayana’s manager, Tomas Kastberg Anderson, standing in front of a big hawksbill. “Just in case they’re the only turtles schoolkids who come here ever get to see.”
The best diving in Sabah is at Sipadan, an island off the east coast. It’s a stone’s throw from the southern islands of the Philippines, where the Islamic terrorist cell, Abu Sayyaf, is reportedly active. The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warns against travelling to Sabah’s south-east coast following a spate of kidnappings in the Philippine islands recently.
Instead, I venture to Sandakan, best known to Australians as the place where Japanese forces imprisoned 2400 British and Australian troops during World War II.
Sabah Tourism bills Sandakan as a “solar-powered theme park”, referring to its adventure and nature-based activities. Sandakan is also the heart of Sabah’s palm-oil industry; the flowering palms are prized for their clusters of nuts, which are crushed and used in margarine, biscuits and other processed food. The plantations stretch for hundreds of kilometres.
“In Sabah, we say palms grow as far as the eyes can see,” my guide, Jame Marajan, says.
We’re on our way to the giant Kinabatangan River. It flows from its source in the Maliau Basin and, during the north-east monsoon, forms a 270-square-kilometre flood plain in eastern Sabah, a few hours’ drive from Sandakan, before spilling into the Sulu Sea. Named a wildlife sanctuary in 2006, endangered animals – including elephants, Sumatran rhinoceroses, hornbills, macaques and orang-utans – live here in abundance. But the Kinabatangan sanctuary is a painful catch-22. It exists because the habitat of these creatures has been destroyed elsewhere. They have nowhere else to go. It also provides the perfect place for spotting rare species.
I stay at the Borneo Nature Lodge, a new venture run by the Sabah-based tour operator, Borneo Trails. It’s a simple affair flanking the edge of the river comprising six wooden cottages surrounding reception and restaurant cottages. What sets it apart from similar lodges in this area is a 3000-watt solar system augmented by stationary bicycles. Guests can pedal to produce the energy needed to run the lights and fan in their rooms; apparently an hour of cycling a day produces 500 watts, more than needed to run basic utilities. (As I pedal, I wonder how many days I would need to cycle to compensate for the carbon produced by flying to Sabah.) The idea is novel enough, Marajan tells me, to put the lodge in the running as Malaysia’s first accredited ecoresort.
I’m unconvinced. Nobody at the resort can tell me the size of the solar-power system; a sign on the door of my room says I can save the world by reusing my bedlinen and towels; old-growth rainforest timbers have been used in the lodge’s construction.
At six the next morning, Marajan and I head out on the river in a wooden dinghy to spot animals. A thick blanket of mist hovers over the water, hindering visibility. But the animals are here; we barely travel 200 metres before seeing a herd of endangered Borneo pygmy elephants, a small mammal that a recent study concluded was an entirely new species of pachyderm.
Further on, two families of proboscis monkey frolic noisily in the trees. This endemic primate with a distinctive hooked nose is also endangered. We take a different route in the afternoon, meandering along a small tributary with trees crowding the edge of the water. Here we spot more proboscis monkeys, raucous hornbills, brilliant blue kingfishers, languid monitor lizards and the recently built nest of an orang-utan, perched precariously between two branches at the top of a tree.
For a closer look at proboscis monkeys the next day, Marajan and I head to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, a 600-hectare private reserve with 300 wild primates on the outskirts of Sandakan.
For a fee you can watch the monkeys being fed twice daily. Three groups come crashing through the jungle when they hear the gatekeeper tap his bucket, two of them harems of seven to 10 females with dominant males.
The latter are muscular and easily identified by their boisterous manner and size; when they aren’t eating, they pester the females with their bright red erections. Marajan shrugs and tells me this is the way all alpha males are, though I see a third group – this time all bachelors – also unquestionably aroused.
Borneo’s most famous primate is the orang-utan. To see them I head to the Shangri-La Rasa Ria, a large resort on a beach 45 minutes’ drive from Kota Kinabalu. The resort supports a 25-hectare orang-utan rehabilitation centre on a forested knoll five minutes’ walk away.
Established in 1996 together with the Sabah State Wildlife Department and Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre, Shangri-La has rehabilitated 36 orang-utans during its tenure.
Raising funds from daily viewing sessions – which are open to visitors and in-house guests – the rehabilitation centre takes in orphaned babies and rears them until they are ready to be released into the wild.
When I visit, the resort has four infant orang-utans including Ten Ten, a ball of orange fluff that was rescued on October 10, 2010, hence the name. It’s impossible not to fall in love with this cheeky little ape, who turns on the charm for guests by swinging in the branches of a low-slung tree while blowing kisses to her smitten caretaker.
But orang-utans aren’t the resort’s only contribution. It recently began bottling its own water into glass flagons, cutting the resort’s use of plastics by 90 per cent.
The Chinese hotel group has banned shark fin from the hotel, with bluefin tuna and Chilean sea bass to follow soon.
“We’re not an ecoresort by any means,” says Regina Sulit, the spokesperson for the Shangri-La Rasa Ria. “We’re just trying to do our bit.”
Gayana Eco Resort on Gaya Island has 52 overwater villas, a swimming pool and two restaurants.
Villas cost from 1062 ringgit ($332), including breakfast, non-motorised water sports and transfers from Kota Kinabalu; see gayana-eco-resort.com.
Borneo Nature Lodge, run by Borneo Trails, has 12 basic rooms with en suites on the banks of the Kinabatangan River. All meals are included, but the quality is low by Malaysian standards; bring some snacks.
All-inclusive two-day packages with transfers from Sandakan cost 690 ringgit a person; see borneotrails.com.
The Shangri-La Rasa Ria, a 45-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu, has 420 rooms and all the amenities of a big resort in two wings: the four-star garden wing, which is closed for renovation, and the five-star ocean wing.
Double rooms from 696 ringgit; see shangri-la.com.
Tampat Do Aman, an eco-tourism company owned and run by Howard Stanton, the British former manager of the Rasa Ria, gets rave reviews for its 2.5-hectare “jungle camp” overlooking a small beach near Kudat, on the northern tip of Sabah. For now basic accommodation is in a long house; by the end of the year the company will have 15 villas and a dive centre for exploring this coastline’s pristine underwater world.
Beds from 30 ringgit; see tampatdoaman.com.
Alorie Lepa Lepa promises exclusive but sustainable living at its sleek 87 overwater pool villas when it opens in the Celeb Sea next year. Environmental measures include low-impact building materials and construction, low-energy appliances and a marine research centre that will work to rehabilitate damaged reefs.