Your guide to the Borneo rainforest, focusing on Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysia. Everything you need to know and some more besides.
Borneo Rainforest Facts
Age: 130 million years
Area: 183.68 million acres
Species: 15,000 plant, 1400+ insects, fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians
Where is the Borneo Rainforest?
Borneo, the third largest island in the world, was originally covered in thick forests, bogs, swamps and rivers. However, during advancements on the island during the 80s and 90s, the landscapes of Borneo underwent a dramatic change. Larger and more industrialised countries benefited from the flattening of rainforests, at a rate which the human race has never witnessed before.
As a result of oil palm, peat fires, and timber harvest, the northern parts and much of southern Borneo’s rainforests have disappeared. The remaining rainforest-covered areas lie to the north and north-eastern-most parts of the island.
It would be tricky to categorically determine the best Borneo rainforest experience, as its ancient jungles span millions of hectares. As it is the most well-known, people often assume Danum Valley is the best rainforest experience in Borneo. However, there are many more places in which you can experience the island’s dizzying array of flora and fauna with ease. So here we compare the best Borneo rainforests and the wildlife that call them home, so you can work out which are right for you.
First, it is always important to remember that Borneo’s remarkable rainforests are under threat from deforestation and developing palm oil plantations. For this reason, every rainforest experience we develop focuses on conservation and awareness. We believe that this sustainable approach not only benefits Borneo’s natural habitats but makes for a far more enriching travel experience, too.
Animals in the Borneo Rainforest
This rainforest in Borneo is famous for its biodiversity – in simple terms, just how many and how varied the species of animals and plants are in this mind-blowing place. Some of the world’s most incredible ecosystems find their homes here, including peat swamps and heath forests, which provide a home for rare and beautiful creatures. Thousands of species of plants and trees have been discovered within the rainforest (so far), as well as hundreds of fish, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles. Here are just some of the incredible creatures that thrive in Borneo’s thick forests.
With the separation of the habitats of Borneo from the rest of the world for millions of years, the species here are often totally unique to the island. The Bornean orangutan is just one example, having diverged from the Sumatran species around 400,000 years ago. These incredibly intelligent beings are critically endangered due to the ongoing threat to their habitats. With ETG, you can visit some of the best places to see Orangutans in Borneo while keeping conservation in mind.
Having separated from the Asian Elephant species on the continent’s mainland, Bornean elephants are again a subspecies unique to the island of Borneo. Differences can be seen not only in the appearance of these incredible creatures but also in their behavioural qualities. Noted to be rounder and smaller than mainland Indian Elephants, Bornean pygmy elephants have shorter trunks and long tails.
Also called the Sumatran rhinoceros, the Bornean rhinoceros is another creature that has lived in Borneo’s rainforests for thousands of years. Critically endangered, this smaller species of Rhinoceros need space, water, mud, and 50kgs of leaves, bark, and berries each day. With habitats disappearing, their species has declined drastically, with fewer than 250 estimated to still remain in the forests of Borneo, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula.
CURIOUS TRAVELLER'S GUIDE TO BORNEO
If you’d like to discover more, why not download the Curious Traveller’s Guide to Borneo? This is where you’ll find our experts’ edit of hotels, experiences and beaches. We also break down the best time to visit Borneo by month and share more information about our approach to conservation in-country.DOWNLOAD NOW
How to Experience the Borneo Rainforest?
It would be tricky to categorically determine the best Borneo rainforest experience, as its ancient jungles span millions of hectares. As it is the most well-known, people often assume Danum Valley is the best rainforest experience in Borneo. However, there are many more places in which you can experience the island’s dizzying array of flora and fauna with ease.
First, it is always important to remember that Borneo’s remarkable rainforests are under threat from deforestation and developing palm oil plantations. For this reason, every rainforest experience we develop focuses on conservation and awareness. We believe that this sustainable approach not only benefits Borneo’s natural habitats but makes for a far more enriching Borneo travel experience, too. Find some of the most fascinating areas of the Bornean rainforest below.
Sepilok is the gateway to the rainforests and incredible wildlife experiences of Malaysian Borneo’s northern state, Sabah. Sepilok is known for its Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and you should get to spot the majestic apes in semi-wild conditions – seeing them swing down from the canopy at feeding time is something I will never forget.
The Kinabatangan River
With pygmy elephants, proboscis monkeys and orangutans, the Kinabatangan River is home to phenomenal wildlife as well as a wide array of birdlife and marine animals. Wildlife sightings are very common, and we’d go as far as to say the Kinabatangan river is the best wildlife experience in Borneo due to the sheer variety of animals there.
In our opinion, Danum Valley is the most classic rainforest experience in Borneo. Here, there is a good chance of seeing wildlife in the primary rainforest (what people might imagine being the ‘ultimate’, archetypal rainforest experience), which the Kinabatangan is not. It really is enchanting, and you can bathe and tube on the Danum River and walk on the incredible Danum valley canopy walk, returning to mind-blowing accommodation like Borneo Rainforest Lodge.
Tabin Wildlife Reserve
The lesser visited Tabin Wildlife Reserve feels a little different to Danum. Due to the spacing between vegetation in Tabin, it’s much easier to spot wildlife and it’s actually home to more species of birds than Danum. Animal characteristics are often clearer to see as there is more sunlight penetrating the forest.
Deramakot Forest Reserve Park
Dermakot Forest Reserve is a lesser-known Borneo rainforest experience but arguably the best place in the world to see the clouded leopard. Orangutan sightings are less common than in other places but along with the clouded leopard the area is home to the slow loris, flat headed cat, pygmy elephant, colugo, Bornean gibbon and otter civet. So, if big cats are your priority, then it is the best rainforest option for you. Deramakot Forest Reserve park chalets are simple, much like the accommodation in Tabin. The main activities are safari drives, which makes it different from elsewhere in Borneo, but short walks are available too. Deramakot is the longest Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified tropical forest in the world too and a fantastic example of positive rainforest conservation collaboration. Do note that it is more out of the way compared to the Kinabatangan, Tabin and Danum. It is 5 hours from Sepilok, south west of both the Kinabatangan and Danum Valley, and could involve an overnight stay break up the journey.
Threats to Borneo’s Rainforest & Wildlife
Due to the sheer number of natural resources found in Borneo’s rainforest, it has been a hub of international interest. Timber, minerals, palm oil and more have all been the focus of deforestation on a mind-blowing scale, with just 8% of the remaining rainforest under protection from such schemes.
Deforestation is also carried out to make way for the growing of crops. Palm plantations, an incredibly lucrative plant for farmers in need of money, are popular uses of space, meaning more forest must be removed. Coffee is another popular crop, which also requires plenty of space on the island.
The forest itself is not the only natural resource found in Borneo. The animals that live in the forests are also a target, with poaching threatening the lives of the animals for which the rainforest is their only habitat. With more and more roads created throughout previously forest-covered areas are allowing easy access for illegal poaching of already critically-endangered species.
Species that are unique to the Borneo Rainforest are under incredible threat, with the destruction of habitat already causing the drastic decline of species like the Bornean Rhinoceros. Taking away their homes and food sources and impacting delicate ecosystems are all hugely disruptive to life in the rainforest.
Tribes & Communities in the Borneo Rainforest
The population of Borneo is made up of a collection of multicultural groups, forged throughout the history of the large island. The main two groups of people consist of tribes occupying the more inaccessible interior of Borneo, commonly known as the Dayak people, and more agricultural communities along the coasts. For the Dayak people, consisting of around 50 distinct tribes and groups, the rainforest is a vital resource for their survival.
Dayak culture is entirely unique to the island, with tattoos and dance expressing great importance for many of the smaller groups. Some tribes consist of just a few hundred people, so the different languages spoken by different tribes are at serious threat of dying out. The rainforest in Borneo provides a home to the Penan people, who are hunter-gatherers that rely on the resources of the forest for survival. It is estimated that less than 10,000 Penan still live today, with a small percentage of Penan still nomadic.
The ongoing threats to the animals and plants in the central rainforests are an imposing threat on these indigenous communities. The Penan people have a history of protesting logging by blocking vital transport routes, displaying just how passionate they are about protecting the lowland forest. Food, shelter, and livelihoods are at serious risk with the threat of deforestation, not to mention the loss of traditional ways of life of these tribes.
Borneo with ETG
Tourism, when done right, can be a great way to improve conservation and sustainability efforts in places like Borneo. Evocative forest views and eye-opening wildlife experiences await you, all while teaching people about the importance of conservation in such delicate ecosystems. With responsible tourism, we can help to support the wildlife and communities most affected by deforestation.
This article was originally published in February 2020. Updated in October 2022.
CURIOUS ABOUT BORNEO?
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