Borneo – En Route to Sukau

Sunrise over the Kinabantangan river in Borneo

Dear Readers, on day three of our holiday it was time to pack up and head to the Kinabantangan river. We had a two-hour river trip to make to get to our lodge at Sukau, and I suspected that it was going to be one of those parts of the journey where we had to grit our teeth and get on with it. We were on a fairly cramped boat, it was hot and humid, the life-jackets made it hotter, and the engine drowned out all speech and the sound of birdsong. But then our boat skidded to a halt, and our guide Hazwan had jumped to his feet.

‘Elephant!’ he shouted.

And so it was.

Photo by Toni Burnley

This was a male, who was crossing the river – one of our group was an experience sailor, and thought that the elephant had entered the water way down stream and the current had pulled him to this spot. The river is very deep at the centre, and the elephant just seemed glad to arrived in the shallows. He ignored us and seemed to be enjoying the water, spraying himself and frolicking. I had not been expecting to see elephants, as they are both rare and shy, so this sighting made my heart leap.

We waited until we got a glimpse of his tusks, to make sure that ‘he’ was actually a male – in Asian elephants of all kinds, only the males have tusks. Most elephants live in family groups of 3-9 led by a matriarch, but the young males may form bachelor herds and the adult males, like this one, tend to be loners unless they are meeting up with a female for mating. This chap might have been crossing the river for romance, or to find food.

Photo by John Tomsett

The Bornean pigmy elephant is a distinct subspecies (although ‘pigmy’ is a bit of a misnomer, as these animals are not any smaller than their mainland Malaysian counterparts). It’s estimated that there are less than 4,000 of these creatures left in the world, mainly confined to the Kinabantangan river, Tabin and the central forest of Sabah. It is said that they have developed a longer tail than is usual for elephants to enable babies to grasp the appendage when they need to scale muddy riverbanks. This is a lovely story, even if not verifiable.


There are many huge fruits growing in the forest that would once have been dispersed by elephants: the wild jackfruit (Artocarpus integer), known as cempedak in Malay, evolved to be distributed elephants and rhinos as they deposit their dung around the forest.

Photo One by By Tu7uh - Own work, CC BY 3.0,

The fruit of a wild jackfruit tree. No wonder only an elephant or a rhino could eat it! (Photo One)

Elephants also love bananas: they may demolish the entire stand, leaves, fruit and all. This doesn’t appear to deter the fruit, which grows from underground rhizomes and so can soon put up new stems. It does mean that in areas where elephants are frequent visitors there are lots of ginger plants, which are rejected by pachyderms, who don’t find the volatile oils in the leaves and root very toothsome. The way that large mammals shape the ecology of the areas that they live in always intrigues me: all those webs and interweavings of life, where each part depends on another, have a complex beauty all of their own.

Elephants naturally come into conflict with humans in Borneo: although the banks of the Kalibantangan look lush with primary forest, the whole area is surrounded by oil palm plantations. Elephants love the young oil palms, and can destroy many hectares in a single night: this is not conducive to their safety, as you can imagine. However, with palms over seven years old the elephants only eat the cut fronds, and leave the plants themselves alone. The authors of my fieldguide ‘Phillipps’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo and Their Ecology’ (Quentin and Karen Phillipps) point out that it should be able to design oil palm plantations where the young palms are protected by electric fences, but the mature palms are left open so that the elephants can pass through. It remains to be seen if this is actually being done.

Photo by John Tomsett

Whenever I see elephants, I can scarcely believe that I’m not hallucinating. It seems extraordinary to me that these enormous animals (even these ‘pigmy’ elephants are up to 2.5 metres tall at the shoulder) can be found so close to human habitation, and that they are so tolerant of us watching them. They feel to me like something from a children’s book, as unlikely as the armoured bears of Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’.  And yet, here he is, playing in the water. He turns to find somewhere to leave the river, and we move on to avoid stressing him. That night, I find myself dreaming of elephants.


2 thoughts on “Borneo – En Route to Sukau

  1. gertloveday

    I was amazed when I first saw elephants eating bananas. As in taking a whole bunch and swallowing them down unpeeled. They must have very strong stomach acids.


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