BORNEO'S SHY "DUTCHMAN"
The dug-out canoe wobbles, and I instinctively grab onto the sides. Then the outboard motor catches and settles to a low purr and the canoe steadies as it moves forward through the thick, muddy waters of the Kinabatangan river.
The late afternoon sun's rays filter through the jungle around us, as we search for a creature I've flown half way around the globe to see. He is elusive and shy-and so rare that only about 7,000 of his species still exist - and Kinbatangan Forest Reserve in east Sabah is one of the last places on earth to see him. He is no beauty, and the Malaysians have nicknamed him "Monyet Belanda" or "Dutchman" monkey-the joke being that like the previous colonial occupants of Borneo, he is ginger haired, has a large nose and a pot belly. He is the Proboscis Monkey, inhabitant of the mangrove jungles of Borneo.
Along a narrow tributary off the main river the jungle is alive with bird warbles and the rustle of undergrowth as tribes of long-tailed macaques forage for their evening meal. The boatman slows to a crawl, and pulls up to an overhanging branch. Blending almost completely with a broad flat leaf, is a coiled green deadly poisonous Wrangler Pit Viper. Just ahead of our prow, a Stork-billed Kingfisher in a dazzle of blue wings dives into the river and emerges with dinner in his bright red beak. "That was lucky," my guide Al says. "We don't often see one of those here." More frequently encountered is the Oriental Darter, an ungainly, long-necked cormorant, who surveys us meditatively and then returns to preening his feathers.
But, there is still no sign of the resident with the Jimmy Durante schnozzle. I'm beginning to despair of finding the reclusive simian, when our boatman suddenly veers away to the opposite shore, pointing urgently at the tree tops. And there he is! My funny-faced friend!
He is a big guy, with a red snoot, so pendulous that it covers his mouth, and a belly that looks as though he's been tippling beer by the gallon. As I raise my binoculars, he is busy surveying his coterie of females spread out on nearby branches. Unlike the males, their noses are smaller and slightly up-tilted.
Big daddy scratches his armpit and turns to look speculatively at us, through small beady eyes. I'm enchanted! His dark red fur sits like a cap on his head, and blends into an orange cape over his shoulders and back, while his arms and legs look as though he is wearing grey gloves and leggings. He is so bizarre as to be utterly beautiful. And, evidently that's what his wives think too-according to zoologists, it is his droopy cucumber-shaped schnozz (the bigger the better) which singles him out as a highly desirable catch. So, judging from the size of his harem-I lost count after identifying nine females-our guy is one heck of a sexy dude.
I lower my binoculars, as we head back to the Abai Forest Lodge, the river now reflecting a dramatic sunset sky.
It's been an unforgettable experience, and one that makes me acutely aware of the fact that these unique primates, even more than the Borneo Orang-Utan, are struggling for survival. Unlike Orang-Utans who bond readily with humans, Proboscis monkeys can't be reared in captivity; they are reclusive animals who pine for their natural mangrove swamps and literally starve themselves to death within a matter of days. Also, because of their finicky digestive systems (they have more than one stomach, hence the size of their paunches) they are confined to a specialised diet of leaves, fruit seeds and flowers exclusive to low lying wetlands. In earlier decades much of these marshes were cleared and filled to make way for oil palm plantations, a lucrative cash crop in eastern Borneo. Consequently, these animals were in danger of being pushed to the edge of extinction.
To their credit, the Malaysian Wildlife Conservation Agency in Sabah has now established several wilderness parks in the Danum Valley, the Kinabatangan floodplain, and the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve to protect the Proboscis monkey and his kin. Even more heartening, is the news that Tourism Malaysia has adopted the shy simian "Dutchman" as their mascot. He is, after all, one of the country's most precious treasures.
IF YOU GO:
Malaysia Airlines connects Sandakan (on the East Coast of Borneo) to Kota Kinabalu, Kuala Lumpur, and other Malaysian and international destinations. The airline has a well-deserved reputation for efficient service, superb cuisine and a tradition of warm hospitality. For more information, visit their web site at: www.malaysiaairlines.com.my
The drive from Sandakan to the village of Sukau on the Kinabatangan River takes approximately 2-1/2 hours, and is partly along a rough gravel road winding through dense jungle, past small rural settlements and thousands of acres of coconut oil plantations.
Where to Stay:
Abai Jungle Lodge in Sukau offers excellent accommodation. See S.I. (Special Interest) Tours at sitoursborneo.com/borneo/abai-jungle-lodges/
Photos by Margaret Deefholts, except when otherwise indicated.
1. The Nosey Dutchman guarding his harem
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