S: Upriver in the heart of the jungle, Sabah, Malaysia
Aug 20, 2004
Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary, outskirts of Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia
After finding our visit to the orangutan center outside Sandakan both amusing and interesting, we decided we needed more monkey time on our global tour of the world's primates. So we hired a guide to take us to the Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary about 1 1/2 hours drive from Sandakan. Our guide was retired, was once mayor of Sandakan, and had decided to work at the probiscus monkey sanctuary for kicks. The creation of the monkey sanctuary follows a common tale in Borneo about the destruction of precious forest habitat.
In the recent past, much of the tropical forests of Malaysian Borneo have been cleared by palm oil plantations in order to plant the highly profitable palms. Palm oil comes from the seeds of these palm trees and is used for cooking and detergents among other things. It is a huge export for Malaysia and drives much of the economy in Borneo. The ongoing clearing of forests is rapidly destroying habitat for such creatures as monkeys, orangutans, wild boar, deer, birds, etc. Nature groups like the WWF are trying to educate the locals and protect the land but this is a slow process. So meanwhile, precious forest disappears and the animals get landlocked into tinier and tinier forests.
The Probiscus Monkey Sanctuary was created 10 years ago when the land's owners were clearing the forest to plant palms. As they cleared away the forest approaching the sea, they soon realized that they were going to leave a large population of probiscus monkeys homeless. It is estimated that there are ~3000 probiscus monkeys remaining in Malaysian Borneo and the population in Indonesian Borneo is unknown. This endangered monkey only lives in Borneo. The plantation owners decided not to deforest 1/3 of their land in order to leave a habitat for the probiscus monkeys. Our guide was quick to point out the exact $ figure of lost palm oil revenue due to keeping this forest intact as habitat.
The owners have since created a tourist destination of the place by building a small lodge with rooms and a viewing deck. They feed the monkeys mangrove leaves, pancakes and cucumbers twice daily both because the monkey population outstrips the food supply of the forest area and because this creates a tourist attraction. The monkeys are still wild, have never been held captive, but have learned that at 11:00 and 4:30 each day they can enjoy some downhome flapjacks on a safe wooden platform. Come to think of it, if I lived nearby, I'd be on that platform everyday at those times with Aunt Jemima in hand. Not sure I'd put the cukes on my flapjacks however.
Male probiscus monkeys are distinctive looking with their giant floppy nose and round belly. The Malaysians call this monkey the "dutchman monkey" due to its appearance. Luckily, the Malaysians didn't realize there are plenty of Americans who share this "distinctive" physique. From the observation platform during feeding time, we were saw ~80 probiscus and macaque monkeys descend from the trees in all directions to eat, fight and play. It was a joy to watch these incredibly human creatures socialize.
There were three groups which did not co-mingle. Two families (one male per group of females and children), and a group of bachelors. In contrast to the orangutan/macaque feeding spectacle we saw the previous day, the probiscus monkeys weren't nearly as comical and animated but they were interesting in their interactions with one another. There were mothers with babies and clearly dominant males with several "wives". After the food was gone, they left the feeding platform to settle together on old fallen trees and digest. Eventually, they all lost interest and began to return into the recesses of the forest. Pretty interesting and worth the bouncy dirt road trip out of the city.
Amazingly, we've now seen mountain gorillas in Africa, macaque and probiscus monkeys and orangutans in the wild on our trip. I found all of them pretty darned entertaining and interesting. And I didn't even know I liked monkeys before this trip (other than knowing rule #32 of the "Comedy Screenwriters Handbook": Any TV sitcom or slapstick movie gets instantly 72.6% funnier if there's a monkey sidekick in it. See "Anywhich Way But Loose", "BJ and the Bear", "Friends". Nothing says "funny" like a chimp.)
Jungle Sanctuary, Kinabatang River, east Sabah, Malaysia
What our Lonely Planet called the "Jungle Sanctuary" turned out to be a rural homestay program with less than professional guides. After much piecing together of bits and pieces, we determined that the original "Jungle Sanctuary" was near our homestay village and was a minimalistic backpackers camp that had been chainsawed down in a dispute with local park authorities. Most likely, the facility was built on park land and the park authorities had decided they must have official permission to run such a facility. So our minivan ride from Sandakan to the upper reaches of the Kinabatang River took us to a tiny village that had several local houses acting as homestays for travelers where we stayed for 2 nights.
As we arrived midafternoon in our air conditioned minivan, a group of 5 sweaty, lethargic Western travelers suddently perked up at the possibility of returning to Sandakan via our minibus. They simply said it was too hot and they'd already seen a herd of 80 elephants at the river the night before so they were ready to head back to a/c. 24 hours later, we too would understand how oppressive the humid heat here could be.
The house we stayed in was accessed by a muddy river "dock" that consisted of wooden planks to get from the boat, across the 14' of mud shore, to the lawn. The home was built on stilts, had a great deal of interior space, and had no electric or running water. All the cooking was done by gas or open fire. The gutters of the home collected rainwater in tubs which were placed beside the toilet hole in the floor, and inside the shower room. The shower room was an empty room at the back of the house with a tub of water inside. Add a tub of clean water, and voila, you have a "shower room". I must admit both Dana and I really enjoyed a cold water bath to get a break from the heat.
The homestay gave us a chance to see how simple rural Malaysians live. The home was clean and organized, but furniture was sparse with a foot-powered sewing machine in the corner of their living room. The family was comprised of the grandmother (mid 50s), a daughter (20s), her brother (14 yrs.), and grandchildren (5 - 14 yrs. old). There were no older men present though lots of neighborhood boys were around. The house suddenly came alive with all sorts of new children during mealtime and when we played guitar so we suspected neighborhood kids knew that the house with a Westerner visiting always had enough food to go around. It was a bit ambiguous to us who actually belonged to the family and who stopped by at convenient meal times.
The food was certainly no delight but impressive considering the kitchen facilities it was prepared in. We ate rice, cabbage, boiled vegetables, semi-sweet cakes, stir fried noodles and various forms of mystery beef and chicken in souplike broth. All of it was tasty enough with the exception of the "bowl o' joints". I tried one, I swear I did. But determined they were more for sucking on for flavor than they were for ingesting.
The main activity for us was our cruises upriver at dawn and dusk to view animals and birds. While we weren't totally certain which guide was paid to guide us and which were along for the ride, we were guided by a happy-go-lucky trio we came to call Huey, Duey and Louie. Or sometimes Larry, Curly, & Moe. By whatever name, they essentially used our boat trips as an opportunity to drink a bit too much local rice wine, smoke and giggle incessantly. Despite their lack of professionalism as compared to our earlier Borneo guides who were both knowledgable and respectful of nature, we did see all the animals expected with the exception of the elephants who migrate freely and cannot always be located.
The real names of our guides were Nelson, Aloee, and "Darling". Nelson was the brains of the outfit, Aloee giggled incessantly to display his lack of front teeth, and "Darling" was Nelson's buddy from Sandakan who'd come to the village to goof off. The three amigos found it hilarious to call their friend "Darling" at every chance they got. I felt left out of the joke, but also didn't have quite as much rice wine moonshine. Of the three, Nelson was the best English speaker. He was married to a Brit who had moved back to Britain with their kids in January so that their oldest could enter kindergarten in the UK. Nelson was planning to visit England soon but in the meantime was goofing off showing the spectular nature of the Kinabatang River to tourists.
On our various boat trips, we saw loads of birds including eagles, egrets, and the hornbill which is on every tourism poster for Borneo. It has a large orangish yellow beak and is quite beautiful and somewhat hard to spot closeup. We also were thrilled to see probiscus and macaque monkeys in the trees along the riverbank, a pair of orangutans lounging at the top of a durian fruit tree, and several baby alligators along the riverbank at dusk.
It can be quite difficult to spot an orangutan in the wild so we consider ourselves very lucky. The pair were at the top of a high tree near the river and we approached the tree from below to try to get the coveted closeup photo. After a few minutes, the large male orangutan decided it was time for us to go and begin picking the cantelope-size durian fruits and throwing them down at us. Luckily, the tree was dense enough that he couldn't accurately throw a fruit at us but nevertheless, it always amazes me when primates exhibit such intelligent behavior. Nelson and Aloee are apparently big durian fruit fans and were thrilled to have the orangutan throw them some treats for later. Like the probiscus monkey, orangutans' habitat is disappearing at an alarming rate and such wild organgutan sightings will become rarer and rarer.
Dana and I spent a few hours during the afternoon of our second day completely immobilized by the insanely humid heat (I literally slept on a floor mat in order to keep from dripping like a faucet). After the heat began to break, I pulled out my guitar and suddenly all the neighborhood kids appeared for a little laughing, singing and dancing. I've been traveling with 2 "rhythm eggs" but hadn't used them til that afternoon. They are bead shakers that are the shape of eggs. The kids loved shaking these along to the music while Nelson and I took turns playing. Turns out Nelson is an accomplished singer/guitar player. And he is definitely a ham. Later that night, after dark, we had another jam where we passed the guitar around and nearly every male older than 16 yrs. old played a few songs. Many of them were in Malay and all of them were impressively good. The Malaysians love music, karaoke, and guitar and aren't shy about singing. In my next life, when I'm a karaoke lounge host, I'm going to be a Malaysian. Then I'll be famous, get chauffeured around in minibus limos, and always sit closest to the noodle buffet.
The morning of our departure from the homestay village, we shared a car down the long dirt road from the village to the junction with the paved highway. This road which leads through palm oil plantation after palm oil plantation, is a dustbowl thanks to the frequent passing of mammoth plantation trucks. Our tiny compact car wasn't air conditioned and there was only one window crank for all four windows. So each time we passed a dustbowl truck, we'd pass the window crank around til all of us had rolled up our window. Once the dust subsided, we'd pass the crank around again, to roll our windows back down to get some relief from the heat. Along the way, a wild boar crossed right in front of us. Being the son of two Arkansas Razorbacks, and having really liked my Razorback fan plastic hog hat as a kid, this was exciting for me. The real thing looked just like my plastic hog hat, only not nearly as red and with a lot more mud caked to its fur.
At the junction, we caught a minibus to Lahad Datu and continued our pilgrimage of sweat.
More tales to come,