Kinabatangan River & the Sukau Area ~ Sabah Borneo

the kinabatangan river as seen from the air

There was once a boy who lived in a village by the kinabatangan river. One day, while out playing in the river, a crocodile emerged and spoke with the boy. This large white crocodile named Terrunggari was well known to the people who lived by the river. Life was harmonious between the people and the river crocodiles. But time had come to protect that fine balance between man and crocodile. Berlintang, the crocodile who ruled the sea challenged Terrunggari to a duel for the supremacy of the rivers. Terrunggari explained to the boy that he will be taken to witness the battle and ‘if a pool of red blood surfaces, rejoice, for that means I have won. But if you see white blood, you must immediately warn your village that it will no longer be safe to enter the water.’ . And with that, Terrunggari dives into the water and a vicious battle ensued. The boy could not figure out who was winning, for the churning and thrashing of the water had made the river extremely murky. After a time, he noticed white blood bubbling to the surface. He was terrified! Terrunggari was dead and he must warn the villages. As he was about to turn and flee the scene, a larger pool of red blood floated to the river’s surface and Terrunggari emerges wounded but triumphant. He ensured that man and crocodile would continue to live together without fear.

This is a folklore that used to be frequently recited by the Orang Sungai or the indigenous people who live along the kinabatangan river. However, as it seems that this is a mere fairytale and man and crocodile will never live well together and the crocodile is losing its battle of survival.

Kinabatangan, is the longest river in Sabah Borneo and probably one of the richest ecosystems on this planet. And yet with such treasures, it is also one of earth’s most fragile and threatened ecological sites.

clouded leopard - the largest cat on Borneo

The great Kinabatangan river starts as a small trickle up in a crack in the Crocker Range in southwest of Sabah, collecting into a brooke, flowing into a stream and joined by other tributaries along this 560km long river, snakes its way through 5 types of habitat terrain – dipterocarp, waterlogged and limestone forests, and freshwater and saline swamps before joining the South Sulu Seas in the North. Alas, most of the habitats have disappeared along the river only to be replaced by 1000s of oil palm plantations acreage and agricultural land. What are left now are fragmented pockets of protected jungle reserves and abandoned land which is collectively a mere 26,103 hectares now protected under the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. The key players to ensure survival of the wildlife population in the kinabatangan area are the private plantation owners. There is now and active dialog exchange between NGO’s like WWF and private plantation owners to reforest a fraction of their land in order to create wildlife corridors that connect these fragmented forests.

Animals and Life in and along the Kinabatangan River

The floodplain of this lower kinabatangan river is home to over 1,000 plant species, including those that are endemic to the area and Borneo. For example:

1. Koompassia excelsa (Leguminosae: a tree reaching to 80 metres tall, commonly the site of hornbill nests and of wild bees’ nests, the wax of which was formerly an important item of trade)
2. Terminalia copelandii (a tree characteristic of very waterlogged sites, with potential for plantation timber production)
3. Ficus racemosa (a common riverside tree which produces abundant fruits eaten by mammals and fish);
4. Ficus albipila (Malay name:tandiran, this lofty fig tree is believed to be very rare and were found in certain locations in peninsular malaysia but is now extinct there. this tree is so tall that the honey bees feel safe enough to build nests on its high branches. )
5. Mitragyna speciosa (a specialist in colonizing oxbow lakes naturally converting to dry land through deposition of flood-borne sediments)
6. Begonia lazat (Malay name: riang) used as a vegetable by the local people around the kinabatangan area. It is extremely rare and has not been seen since 1995.
7. Ceriscoides ‘kinabatangensis’ (a new species of plant that was recently discovered. Very little is known about it, only that it is unique to Borneo, and the largest known population has been recorded in the Kinabatangan area)

It is also one of the only two areas in the world that hosts ten primate species and is home to about three percent of the world's total orang-utan population

The list includes :

1. two prosimians (tarsier and slow loris),
2. six Old World monkeys (pig tailed and long tailed macaques, the proboscis monkey, silvered langur, maroon langur and Hose’s or grey langur )
3. one lesser ape (Bornean gibbon)
4. one great ape (the Bornean form of orang utan).

The fruit trees, plant diversity and water source in the area sustains about 250 bird species, which includes:

1. Oriental Darter, also known as the snake bird, which has totally from the wetlands of Peninsular Malaysia but can be found here
2. The Purple Heron, Bornean Bristlehead and the threatened Storm’s Stork are rare but can still be found here
3. eight species can be of Hornbills

a banded krait resting in mid day sun

90 fish species have been recorded and the discovery of freshwater rays and sharks living miles upriver is a scientific find! There were reports of adventurers finding such creatures during river expeditions in the late 1800s and river shark (Glyphis sp. B), known from a few specimens, thought to be extinct, was rediscovered in the Kinabatangan. The challenge now is to find the illusive swordfish believed to live in these waters.Of course the highly endangered estuarine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), rare due to excessive hunting in the past, but its numbers have bounced back due to their protective status and young animals are often seen along the riverbanks during night safaris.

There are 50 mammal species including the Borneo Pygmy elephants which constitutes 10 percent of the world's total Borneo pygmy elephant population, Sumatran rhinoceros (although no record of sightings since1992), Four species of wild cats namely the clouded leopard, the leopard cat, marbled cat and flat-headed cat. The flying lemur is found here as well as a variety of bats, sunbears, civet cats, wild cattle or Tembadau and four species of deer namely sambar, greater mouse-deer, barking deer and lesser mouse-deer.

orang utans love to rest up on the highest branches of lofty trees

This great variety of wildlife and vegetation and the small ‘enclosure’ is the reason as to why the kinabatangan river and sukau forest is a popular site for animal spotting. The concentration of animals in a tiny area creates much human-animal confrontation which in turn may stress the wildlife here. Increase in tourism activity in recent years has also created pros and cons for the area. Pollution has increased caused by the number of resorts and increasing number of speedboats ferrying guests to smaller tributaries such as the Menanggol River for wildlife watching. Animals are trapped within this area of 26,000 hectares and efforts have been made to increase the corridors so that human-animal conflict can be reduced which normally results in fewer animals being destroyed in the process.

As this area is a floodplain, severe floods tend to occur once in several years and the flood inundates a much larger area often destroying young oil palm shoots that have been planted close to the riverbanks. A few private plantation owners have agreed to contribute parts of their low lying land to rehabilitation and reforestation and hopefully control excessive siltation and prevent further top soil erosion. Some plantations have planted their palm oil trees right up to the riverbank with no buffer zones hence leaching of fertilizers into the river and streams is also choking the habitat and with a marked decrease in produce from the river or freshwater prawns and fish, the local livelihood may also be at stake.

The only way now is to work together with more private landowners to allocate some portion of their land for the ‘corridor of life’ project and hope that it’s not too late.

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