Photo: Go a little into the heart of Borneo.

Proboscis monkeys and fireflies tour

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While you are in Sabah, you will probably plan to visit some of wildlife areas where proboscis monkeys spend their days, such as the popular Kinabatangan region near Sandakan. However, if you are just on a quick visit to Kota Kinabalu, it’s still possible to see them on a day tour, just a couple of hours outside of town.



Proboscis monkeys (nasalis larvatus) are endemic to Borneo. They are one of the largest monkey species native to Asia and are listed as endangered due to the decline of their mangrove forest habitat. Known for the males’ distinctive large nose, which hangs below its mouth (and a small pointy one for females), they have an orange and white coat, a rather large pot-belly and the mature males have a permanently erect bright red penis. All of these have given them the local name of monyet Belanda (Dutch monkey) with reference to Borneo’s colonial past (or possibly some modern-day tourists).

Just monkeying around. Photo taken in or around Proboscis monkeys and fireflies tour, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Just monkeying around. Photo: Sally Arnold

Proboscis monkeys live in large groups with one dominant male and a harem of females, usually followed closely by individual or groups of males. They become action monkeys at dusk and dawn, but for the rest of the time, are difficult to see.

It’s also possible to see fireflies as well as the monkeys on a trip from Kota Kinabalu. Of the thousands of firefly species in the world, five are recorded to be found in Sabah. The firefly is actually a beetle, and the Sabah species live in mangrove forests, seeming to prefer the berembang tree or crabapple mangrove (sonneratia caseolaris). As darkness descends, they flash in unison to create a wondrous Christmas tree-like phenomenon.

Just monkeying around. Photo taken in or around Proboscis monkeys and fireflies tour, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Just monkeying around. Photo: Sally Arnold

Tours to view both the monkeys and fireflies are available departing Kota Kinabalu late afternoon to several areas: the Kilas and Garama Rivers, both near Beaufort south of Kota Kinabalu, and the Kawa Kawa/Nanamun area near Kota Belud, north of Kota Kinabalu.

The southern area is best for spotting proboscis monkeys, and the northern area better for fireflies, although all can be seen in both places, if you’re lucky. Kilas River is the most popular with tour groups. The river is large, and so are the boats. Be warned that there are reports of boats being overcrowded. Garama River is a smaller, quieter and less popular trip. We did this trip with Only in Borneo Tours.

Not a firefly. Photo taken in or around Proboscis monkeys and fireflies tour, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Not a firefly. Photo: Sally Arnold

We were picked up from our hotel at 13:30 for a two and a half hour drive south. As there’s no wildlife action until later, we were offered coffee and tea and traditional snacks including pisang goreng (fried banana), and given a tour of a Bisaya (the local ethnic group) house set up for tourists with labels. Here we were shown sago worms, betel nut and a number of local health potions. It’s mildly interesting, and really just to fill in the time waiting for dusk. There is a small gift shop and cold drinks are available to buy. Binoculars can be rented for 10 ringgit. A few mozzies buzzed about so don’t forget the repellant and a jacket, as it can get cooler in the evenings.

Our small group of six plus guide and boatman boarded an open fibreglass dinghy. It has a canopy that can be pulled up in case of rain, but probably wouldn’t offer much protection in a tropical downpour — bring a raincoat. Our guide, Sulani, was very knowledgeable, and spoke good English. For the first hour or so, all we saw were the common longtail macaques, a monitor lizard and some bird life.

Look carefully. Photo taken in or around Proboscis monkeys and fireflies tour, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Look carefully. Photo: Sally Arnold

Later we were lucky to see a hornbill swoop overhead, and as the light faded, the action begun. Proboscis monkeys are a lot of fun to watch as they leap between trees, but they are difficult to photograph. We saw several troupes as we headed back to our base camp, and they all put on a bit of a show.

It’s also possible sometimes to catch a glimpse of silver leaf langurs or crocodiles in this region, but we didn’t spot either.

Our guide tearing it up. Photo taken in or around Proboscis monkeys and fireflies tour, Kota Kinabalu, Malaysia by Sally Arnold.

Our guide tearing it up. Photo: Sally Arnold

Once it was completely dark we were able to view the fireflies. The species in this area (pteroptyx valida) are the rarest. They are born and live on the same tree for their entire life, which is handy if you’re a tourist wanting to watch them. It really is magical as the trees light up and flicker in unison. If the fireflies appeal to you more than the monkeys, the species in the Kota Belud area are more abundant and flash more slowly.

After the boat trip, we returned to the camp, and were fed a local buffet dinner before the return journey, arriving back in Kota Kinabalu at 22:30.

This is wildlife in the wild, so it’s not guaranteed that you will see anything. It’s a treat when you do, as all are threatened by increasing palm oil plantations.

Only In Borneo Tours: Wisma Sabah, Ground Floor, Lot G13, Jalan Tun Fuad Stephens, Kota Kinabalu; T: (019) 840 0402; (088) 262 507; sales@oibtours.com; www.oibtours.com. All tours are 170 ringgit for adults, 140 ringgit for children. The Garama Wetlands Tour runs 13:15-22:00, Klias Wetlands Tour 13:30-22:00 and Nanamun Fireflies Tour 14:00-22:00.


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