An Evolutionary Wonderland Under Stress

Borneo's rain forest cover is shrinking at alarming rates, but this island is still a remarkable haven of biodiversity and an eco-tourism dream

Ever since I moved to Asia in the early 1990s, the rain forest-rich island of Borneo has held a special allure. It's one of the last sanctuaries of biodiversity (new animal and plant species are still being discovered there) in a world getting more cemented-over with each passing year.

So during this year's lunar Chinese New Year in late February, I decided to get a look-see with my Japanese wife, Yuki, and my two daughters. I feared that if I waited another decade, there wouldn't be much left to explore.

Logger Threats

We decided to navigate a portion of Borneo from Kota Kinabalu, the capital city of the Malaysian state of Sabah on the north-west coast of the island facing the South China Sea. Borneo's vast rain forest cover has been under stress for many decades. About 50% of tropical timber globally comes from this sprawling island—and the Malaysia plywood industry has been logging furiously. Spreading palm oil plantations are a problem, too.

On top of that, Indonesia, which controls most of the world's third-largest island, has been encouraging the migration of farmers and other workers from overpopulated Java to Borneo. Meanwhile, poachers and hunters continue to decimate indigenous orangutans—red-haired, long-armed, and clever apes—for sport. (The Sultanate of Brunei is the third nation with territory on Borneo.)

All that said, an international and local conservation effort has stemmed the tide of development somewhat, and the Malaysian part of Borneo is still a devastatingly beautiful place to explore. Kota Kinabalu is fast emerging as a convention center with resort hotels and golf courses, and it does have attractions of its own such as excellent beaches, museums, and a beautifully designed city mosque.

Local Exploration

But I'd recommend considering KK, as it is called locally, a base from which to make day trips up country. About two and half hours out of town are the Poring Hot Springs and a nearby rainforest park.

After spraying ourselves with insect repellant, we decided to take a hike into the park, which includes a canopy walk of suspended bridges near the top of the tree line. The journey was difficult, so finishing the day in a hot spring was just the ticket.

Local tourist guides offer white-water rafting trips, and we took a less strenuous one down a portion of the Kiulu River. It took about three hours, and we encountered some wild water buffalo taking a soak at one point. There are quiet sections of the river where one can swim, and most tours offer a late lunch before returning you back to the hotel.

The highlight of the trip, at least in my book, was the two-hour journey to the national park at the foothills of Mount Kinabalu, the tallest peak in Southeast Asia. We were lucky, for our guide was especially well-versed in local flora and fauna, and pointed out some orchids—enormous and beautiful, but predatory—that can actually capture and digest small animals. (If you are into climbing, there are trails to the top of the 4095-meter (13,435-foot) peak.

For those with more time who can manage an overnight trip, the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary is a must-see. Another favorite is Turtle Island, where at night these creatures often come ashore to lay eggs. There is also excellent diving and snorkeling at outer outlying islands, not far from KK. Borneo is still paradise, but for how long is anybody's guess.

How to get there: Three-hour direct flights from Hong Kong are available on Dragon Air.

What to bring: Insect repellant and a light sweater for treks up country.

Fun Fact: Some 360 new animal and plant species have been discovered in Borneo since 1996.

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