About Sukau

Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary

The Kinabatangan River (Sungai Kinabatangan) is located in Sabah, eastern Malaysia, on the island of Borneo. It is the second longest river in Malaysia, with a length of 560 kilometers from its headwaters in the mountains of southwest Sabah, to its outlet at the Sulu Sea, east of Sandakan.

Kinabatangan is known for its remarkable wildlife and fascinating habitats such as limestone caves at Gomantong hill, dryland dipterocarp forests, riverine forest, freshwater swamp forest, oxbow lakes and salty mangrove swamps near the coast.


The ecology of the upper reaches of the river has been severely disrupted by excessive logging and clearing of land for plantations. However, the original lowland forests and mangrove swamps near the coast have largely survived and provide sanctuary for a relatively decent population of Saltwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus), and contain some of Borneo's highest concentrations of wildlife. Of special note are Borneo's indigenous proboscis monkeys and orangutans, Asian elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros. The area is also known for its great variety of birdlife.

Each year, the lashing rains of the northeast monsoon cause the river to swell rapidly. Unable to disgorge into the sea quickly enough, the river frequently overflows its banks and spreads across the flat land of its lower reaches, creating a huge floodplain. The lower Kinabatangan teems with both animal and plant life, making it the best area for viewing wildlife, not just in Sabah but all of Southeast Asia.

In 1997, 270 square kilometers of the lower Kinabatangan floodplain was declared a protected area, and in 2001 this designation was upgraded to that of "bird sanctuary", largely through the efforts of the various NGOs. However, further efforts to have the area declared a "wildlife refuge" or even "national park" had been opposed by the largely oil palm plantation owners seeking to expand their cultivated land.

Thankfully by August 2006 following media attention after a decapitated elephant's head was found floating down the river, the area was finally gazetted under the State's Wildlife Conservation Enactment of 1997 as the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. It is now under the preview of the Sabah Wildlife Department.

Currently, most nature tourism is concentrated around Sukau, accessible by road and offering comfortable accommodation to visitors prepared to pay for well-managed tours. The most populated area and also the Central Administration for Kinabatangan is Kinabatangan Town, located along the Sandakan-Lahad Datu highway, and about 90 kilometers from Sandakan Town. The largest cave system in Sabah, Gomantong Caves, also can be found in this region.

Sukau village is situated on the lower course of the Kinabatangan river, one of the longest rivers in Borneo. Cruising by village boats on this river and it's tributaries offers one of the best opportunities in Sabah to observe Bornean wildlife. Of particular interest is the rich primate fauna; this is one of only two areas in Asia with 10 primate species. These include several Bornean endemics (only found in Borneo), such as the Proboscis monkey, Maroon langur and the Bornean gibbon.

Kg. Sukau is also located on the boundary of an important protected area in Sabah, the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary. It is one of only a few protected wetland sites in Sabah, and is part of an important conservation area for primates, larger mammals (such as the Asian elephant) and other wild animals of the wetlands (otters, Storm's stork and the flat headed cat are notable examples). 

For centuries, the rare treasures of Borneo's forests acted like a magnet for traders in search of edible bird's nests, rhinoceros horn, elephant ivory and hornbill casques for the Emperor and the wealthy mandarins of China.They also sought a hardwood resin, damar; flexible rattan vines; beeswax to make candles; fragrant woods and oil-rich illipe nuts.

River Safari
Observing wildlife needs a little patience, good common sense, luck, good timing and a pair of binoculars! Take a boat ride during the early morning (6 am) or late evening (4 to 6 pm), on the main river and it's tributaries. These are the best times for spotting wildlife along the Kinabatangan river and it's tributaries (start around 2-4 pm and cruise till dusk); there are good opportunities to observe resting proboscis monkeys which sleep along the river banks. It is suggested that one takes the cruise up to Tenegang Besar (starting around 2pm) or Resang. On your return journey, between 4pm - dusk is one of the river at the best times to observe wildlife.

Dawn along the Menanggul river (6.30am), followed by an excursion upriver to the Kelandaun ox-bow lake (there is a short circuit trail at the ox-bow lake). Back in Sukau by lunchtime, for it gets too hot for both man and other wildlife!

Limestone forests
There are two fascinating forested limestone hills nearby where gibbons and langurs can often be heard and sometimes sighted. One can be seen just as you enter the village area, on ones left. Another is Keruak cave, several minutes downriver from Sukau. This is worthwhile to visit as you will trek through one of the most peculiar of lowland forest in Sabah - seasonal freshwater swamp forest. Here bizarre breathing roots of Lophopetalum, strikingly buttressed trees of Dillenia and sprawling surface roots of Mallotus muticus can be found.

About 20 km away, is another important limestone massif, called Gomantong. Gomantong Hill is the largest limestone outcrop in the Lower Kinabatangan area, and contains at least nine caves. For centuries, the Gomantong Caves have been renowned for the valuable edible birds' nests made by two of the four species of swiftlets that roost in the caves. During the harvesting months, visitors may be able to witness the birds' nest collectors in action. 

Getting there
One can fly from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan on Malaysia Airlines, whilst those from Kuala Lumpur can take direct daily flights to Sandakan on AirAsia. Alternatively, one can take an air-conditioned coach to Sandakan or Lahad Datu from Kota Kinabalu

From Sandakan, one can find busses to Sukau waiting in front of the Genting Mas Supermarket. They normally leave Sandakan between 10 to noon. They cost RM 30per person/one way. If in a group, one may also charter the whole mini-bus for RM300 one-way or hire a private car from Sandakan For RM 400. Alternatively, you could try local tour operators or an experienced guide.
In Sukau, boats can be chartered from the villagers. Depending upon the destination, the rates can vary between RM 50 to RM 200 for a typical boat. Note, for safety reasons, village boats will usually take up to 6 persons only.

In Sukau, many of the major tour operators maintain lodges. All lodges offer packages, which usually include transport, accommodation, food and guiding services. However, most of the money spent in these Lodges leaves the area. 

Apart from established tour lodges, travellers who are interested in experiencing the culture will find staying at the homestay in Sukau as part of their exhilarating experience to the Kinabatangan. Homestay allows visitors to become more integrated into the community of Sukau - the Orang Sungai , than if they stay in a lodge and also give the visitor a chance to experience family life, customs and dynamics.

Currently, there are 13 families participating in the homestay programme in this village which started in 1998. Families who participate in the homestay programme received guidance from the Ministry of Tourism, Environment, Science and Technology of Sabah with a certification by the Ministry on household standards and facilities.

Food and meals are available in the village. For a simple, prepared meal the standard price is around RM5/meal, although this may vary. Or, if you are adventurous, find out what fresh food is available (river prawns, fish) and taste the different ways it can be cooked. Prices are quite reasonable. It is advisable you let the restaurant folk know you will want meals in advance, this will help them get fresh food and prepare a tasty meal.

Getting there is an adventure in itself!! Mini-buses can be fairly frequent, but are sometimes erratic, in and out of the village - so be prepared! More information email to onesukau@gmail.com or Phone No: +6019 582 1977

When to visit
The Kinabatangan region can be visited all year round, though it is often flooded during the wettest part of the year in December and January. The main flowering and fruiting season, from April to October is generally fairly dry and a good time to spot many birds and animals. 

During the northeast monsoon, from November to March, there are often heavy showers during the afternoons, particularly during December and January. During the rainy season, however, it is possible to negotiate many of the river channels leading in to the oxbow lakes, where there is a greater concentration of wildlife.