Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan

Welcome to my article – Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan. This post narrates my revisit to the breathtaking Borneo rainforest, hosted by my long-time friend Alexander Yee, a successful entrepreneur and renowned conservationist in Sabah. My last trip here was in October 2016 and the majestic rainforest is still as visually stunning, if not more. Beyond aesthetics, the Borneo Rainforest is of vital importance for the health of our planet as it serves as a crucial carbon sink, absorbing vast amounts of CO2 and performing a significant role in mitigating climate change.

Wildlife Adventure in Sandakan
Venturing into the heart of the Borneo Rainforest, you will be mesmerised by the dense and verdant canopy that stretches endlessly in every direction, supporting a complex ecosystem that regulates regional weather patterns and nourishes a habitat for countless species of wildlife.

Brief Insight on Sandakan

Sandakan is located in the state of Sabah, East Malaysia, on the northeastern coast of Borneo, and is the 2nd largest city in Sabah. The city is renowned for its natural beauty and wildlife and serves as a gateway to various ecotourism destinations, including the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, where visitors can observe and learn about the endangered primates. The nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre is a hub for bird-watching and rainforest exploration. You can also explore the Kinabatangan River, known for its diverse wildlife, including proboscis monkeys, crocodiles, pygmy elephants, and various bird species.

For those seeking more exciting experiences, there are options for jungle trekking, cave exploration, and scuba diving around the renowned Sipadan Island. Sandakan has a diverse cultural heritage influenced by various ethnic groups, including the Kadazandusun, Bajau, and Chinese communities. Overall, Sandakan blends natural beauty, cultural heritage, and wildlife encounters, making it an appealing destination for nature lovers, history enthusiasts, and adventure seekers.

My Sandakan Travel Itineraries and Travel Tips

Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
To explore the attractions in Sandakan, including Sepilok, Kinabatangan, and Pulau Libaran Island, I would recommend allocating a minimum of 6-7 days. This will give you more time to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the region and enjoy the unique experiences it offers. The highway roads condition in Sandakan are generally in good condition while minor roads tend to be marred with potholes and uneven surfaces. As long as you stay alert and expect the unexpected, it’s a very easy place to self-drive in. But I would fully recommend engaging the travel agency – Nasalis Larvatus Tours, as the company owns and operate the three lodges listed in this article, so all your travel needs are well taken care of.
The travel flow would be as follows –
a) Depart Singapore for Sandakan (direct flight via AirAsia)
a) Arrive at Sepilok (2 nights)
b) Depart Sepilok for Pulau Libaran, overnight at Pulau Libaran (1 night)
c) Depart Pulau Libaran for Kinabatangan (2 nights)
d) Depart Kinabatangan for Singapore.


Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre

Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
Orangutans are primarily arboreal, spending most of their time in trees. They build nests in trees to sleep and rest. Orangutans are generally solitary animals, with males having larger territories that overlap with those of multiple females. They are generally peaceful, non-aggressive creatures.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
Orangutans are primarily frugivorous, meaning their diet consists mainly of fruit. They also consume leaves, bark, flowers, insects, and occasionally small vertebrates. Their foraging habits play a crucial role in seed dispersal, making them important agents of forest regeneration.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
Unfortunately, orangutans are critically endangered due to habitat loss caused by deforestation, poaching, and pet trade. The destruction of their rainforest habitat for logging, agriculture, and palm oil plantations poses a severe threat to their survival. Conservation efforts are ongoing to protect their remaining populations and their forest habitats.

Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC)

The Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC) is an educational and conservation facility located in Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysia. It is situated within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, which is home to one of the last remaining lowland rainforests in Borneo.

Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
The RDC has a well-designed visitor center that provides information about the flora and fauna of the rainforest. It offers interactive displays, exhibits, and educational materials to help visitors understand the biodiversity and ecological significance of the area.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
One of the key attractions of the centre is its canopy walkway. The walkway is elevated above the forest floor, allowing visitors to explore the different layers of the rainforest and observe its diverse wildlife from a unique perspective. It offers superb views of the surrounding forest and is a birdwatching paradise.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
The Sepilok area is known for its rich birdlife and the RDC has a bird tower that provides a vantage point for observing the canopy-dwelling species. Visitors can also join guided walks led by knowledgeable guides who can identify and provide information about the different bird and animal specimens.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
The RDC has several well-maintained nature trails that are excellent for trekking. These trails are designed to showcase the various habitats found within the rainforest, including freshwater wetlands, dipterocarp forests, and limestone forests. Informative signboards that provide details about the plants and animals are set up along the trails.
A pair of Pacific Swallows perched on the cable across the lake. They are highly migratory birds, undertaking long-distance seasonal migrations, with some populations travelling thousands of kilometres between breeding and non-breeding grounds.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
A juvenile Sabah Pit Viper was spotted during my forest night walk. The girth of the snake is just about our index finger. It’s a species of venomous snake native to the island of Borneo.
A Horsfield’s Tarsier was spotted by the rangers off the walking path. Tarsiers are primates, found only in SEA. This Western Tarsier is one of the three species that live in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra.

Recommended accommodation at Sepilok

Nature Lodge Sepilok’s new extension is on the left, called the Orang Utan and Gajah Wing. I love this lodge for providing an immersive experience in the heart of Borneo’s rainforest. The lodge blends harmoniously with its natural surroundings to provide a tranquil environment. It is an ideal lodge for nature lovers, wildlife enthusiasts, and those seeking a retreat away from bustling city life.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
Accommodation options at Nature Lodge Sepilok include chalets and dormitory-style rooms. The rooms are comfortable and furnished with basic amenities to ensure a pleasant stay. The lodge also has a restaurant that serves a variety of delicious local and international dishes.

Pulau Libaran

Turtles Conservation Sanctuary

After a 45-minute boat ride from Sandakan Yacht Club jetty, we reached Libaran Turtle Island, where the Walai Penyu Resort is situated. Walai Penyu Turtle Conservation is dedicated to the protection and conservation of sea turtles in Malaysia. “Walai Penyu” means “Home of Turtles” in the local Sabah dialect. The island is a testament to a conservation effort made possible through the hard work of my friend Alexander Yee, municipal authorities, and the island villagers. Through this cooperation, the island operates a turtle conservation hatchery, ensuring the sea turtles have a safe place to lay their eggs and for their young to be released back to the ocean without any threats from predators. 
The conservatory focuses on various aspects of sea turtle conservation, including research, education, and community engagement. Their main goal is to ensure the long-term survival of sea turtles and their habitats through active conservation efforts.
What started in 2010 was largely a private turtle conservation effort, and was voted “Best Tourism Product” in 2019 by the State of Malaysia and “Asean Sustainable Tourism” award in 2022. As the facilities had to be non-invasive to the local natural environment, it was decided that the maximum number of visitors be capped at 16 per night.
Located along the beaches of Pulau Liburan, Walai Penyu Libaran Resort’s tents are clean and well-organised. Although glamping was already popular in other parts of the world, the glamping concept at Walai Penyu was probably the first in Sabah when it was set up in mid-2013.
You will certainly love the laidback ambience on the island, with a view of the Sulu Sea on the horizon.
The visit to the island also includes community engagement. The company collaborates with the villagers from the local fishing communities to promote sustainable practices, such as ‘responsible’ tourism through the reduction of plastic pollution, and supporting alternative livelihoods that are in sync with sea turtle conservation. This sustainable tourism was audited and approved by Sabah Tourism Board.
One of the villagers demonstrated her skill at transforming plastic bottles that would have previously been discarded, into handicrafts that can be bought by visitors. Plastics get upcycled, the villager gets some fee for her handiwork, and the visitor gets a piece of travel souvenir, it’s a “win-win-win” situation.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
Visitors also get to learn how to prepare villagers’ traditional snacks – Malay Pancakes. It tasted really good. Visitors can also participate by cooking the snack.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
The pancake recipe for visitors to take home, for a tasty memory of Pulau Libaran.
A kampung unit with its wall lined up with plastic bottles. The change in the villagers’ usage habits is the result of various programs to encourage the villagers to recycle as well as upcycle. It was a long road, but the signs of the initiatives are encouraging.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
A kampung house perimeter demarcation lines beautified with recycled plastic bottles. Instead of just shadows, coloured shadow makes it more lively.


Kinabatangan is home to one of the most diverse ecosystems in Malaysia and is recognized as an important wildlife corridor. The Kinabatangan region has become an important conservation area due to the threat of habitat loss and deforestation. Several conservation organizations and eco-lodges are actively involved in preserving the area’s biodiversity and promoting sustainable tourism

Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
The Kinabatangan River is the main highlight of the region and offers a unique river safari experience. Visitors can explore the river and its surrounding tributaries by boat, providing opportunities to spot wildlife along the riverbanks, such as monkeys swinging from trees, crocodiles basking in the sun, and various bird species soaring overhead.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
The Oriental pied hornbill is classified as “near threatened” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The primary threats to their population include habitat loss due to deforestation, logging, and agricultural expansion. Additionally, they are sometimes hunted for their beaks, which are considered valuable in traditional medicine and for decorative purposes.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
The proboscis monkey (Nasalis larvatus) is a unique and fascinating primate species known for its distinctive appearance and behaviour. They are easily identified by their prominent, elongated noses or proboscises, which are more prominent in males than in females. Proboscis monkeys are classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) due to habitat loss and fragmentation caused by deforestation, agricultural expansion, and logging.
A Proboscis monkey moves from tree to tree by jumping. It was fun with Alex spotting and anticipating their jump and kept me primed to shoot them.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
Pygmy elephants were spotted along the river cruise. They are the smallest subspecies of Asian elephants, with an average height of about 8 to 9 feet (2.5 to 2.75 meters). Elephants play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the Kinabatangan region. They contribute to seed dispersal and create pathways through the dense forest, which benefit other wildlife species. Their foraging habits help shape the vegetation, leading to increased plant diversity. (Pic from Nature Lodge Kinabatangan)
Nature shutterbugs have a lovely time spotting the wildlife and firing away.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
A flock of birds flying in a V formation is a common sight during migration season. This flight formation has intrigued scientists and observers for many years. There are two reasons why birds might fly in a V formation – it may make flight easier, or they’re simply following the leader. 
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
We spotted a Black and Red Broadbill building its nest along the river. This is a visually striking bird known for its combination of black and red plumage. Its unique appearance and interesting behavior make it a sought-after species for birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts.

Recommended accommodation at this location

Nature Lodge Kinabatangan provides comfortable accommodations in the form of traditional wooden chalets or dormitories. These accommodations are designed to blend in with the surrounding environment while offering modern amenities to ensure a pleasant stay for guests. The rooms typically feature private bathrooms, and fans or air conditioning.
One of the main attractions of Nature Lodge Kinabatangan is its proximity to the Kinabatangan River. The lodge conducts boat trips along the river, allowing guests to observe a wide variety of wildlife, including proboscis monkeys, orangutans, pygmy elephants, crocodiles, and various bird species. The river cruises are usually conducted in the early morning or late afternoon when animals are most active.
Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan
In addition to river cruises, the lodge offers guided jungle treks and night walks, providing guests with the opportunity to explore the nearby rainforests and encounter unique plant and animal species. Trained guides accompany guests on these excursions, sharing their insights into the local ecosystem.
A soothing sight to wake up to at the lodge, a morning mist at Kinabatangan River. Sets my mind at ease.


Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan

I like to think of my “Wildlife Adventures in Sandakan” trip as a great eco-tourism jumpstarter venue after more than two years of the pandemic international borders closure. Although it was my 5th visit to Sabah, it still felt like one can never get enough of the stunning nature. Exotic yet familiar, it was certainly an ideal location for anyone resuming travel again. Do plan a visit to The Land Below The Wind soon.

Thanks for coming along with my pixels journey. For other travel inspiration please check out my other travelogues here. The link to the Facebook album can be referred here.

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