So far during my stay in Borneo I have spent time at two wildlife sanctuaries I would recommend to anyone – the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, both in Sepilok. One reserve I have also visited, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, was a stark contrast to my two local Sepilok-based centres.
Getting to Labuk Bay from where we are based takes about 25 minutes by van. On the morning we headed out I was still not quite acclimatised to the heat so I rested my eyes for part of the way, enjoying the van’s air conditioning. When a fairly sizable bump in the road jolted me properly conscious I opened my eyes and almost instantly felt like we were in another world. Out at Sepilok, where I will be based for about ten weeks, we are right on the edge of the jungle – virgin rainforest sings and sways outside my window, and it murmurs the constant conversations of incredibly diverse wildlife. Here, though, as we neared Labuk Bay, rows and rows of palm trees sped past my vision – oil plantations. Until then I hadn’t actually seen any plantations, and now it seemed there was no end to it – not even when we reached the sanctuary itself.
Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, it turns out, is privately owned and the original plan for the whole area in the ‘90s was to completely convert it to a palm tree growth site as part of an oil plantation. Apparently, however, during the development process the owner came across some native proboscis monkeys and decided to spare fragments of the animals’ natural habitat in order to keep a number of them protected. Thus, if you visit this so-named sanctuary you will find a vast expanse of palm oil trees enclosing small pockets of mangrove forest, which is where the monkeys have been allowed to stay. Today the sanctuary is composed of this fragmented mangrove habitat along with man-made feeding platforms, logs, dead trees and other natural furnishings in front of various tourist viewing decks. Four times a day when fruit and vegetation is scattered across the feeding platforms they are utterly swamped with monkeys.
Proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) are an incredibly unique species only naturally found on the island of Borneo. With ongoing habitat destruction being such a common theme in this area of Southeast Asia, across the last three generations of proboscis monkeys (about 38 years) it is estimated that the population has declined by between 50-80%. This species is classed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as Endangered, and it faces the typical barrage of threats for this region – habitat destruction (especially due to the species’ preference for coastal and riverine environments) from logging, plantations, human settlement and forest fires, and this monkey is illegally hunted for food and traditional Chinese medicine. Unfortunately proboscis monkeys have a tendency to move quite slowly, which makes them easy targets.
When I was studying my degree at university I remember having to do a presentation on an endangered species of my choice, and this was the animal I chose. I had never seen a proboscis monkey – or heard of them – before researching unique species to talk about, and I was fascinated. Their common name, of course, refers to the almighty proboscis (long nose) the monkeys possess – especially the males. The nose may act as a resonator for vocalisations, and can even swell depending on a particular individual’s current temperament. They are such an interesting creature to watch, and seeing them in person was something I’m really glad I have finally been able to do.
Another intriguing monkey frequently seen at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is the silvery lutung (or, silvered leaf monkey – Trachypithecus cristatus). Silvery lutungs do not inhabit such a restricted region as proboscis monkeys, thus they naturally have a higher population number. The IUCN currently classes them as Near Threatened. When I was at Labuk Bay and the first silvery lutung leapt out of a tree onto an exposed branch, its orange baby clutching onto its fur, the gathered crowd exclaimed in excitement. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, a dozen more of these monkeys were vaulting out of the brush and crawling along the viewing platform railings, hurrying to grab some edible green stalks the rangers were handing out. They were close enough to touch, and I watched as people took ‘selfies’ with seemingly uncaring monkeys directly behind them. This really reinforced my feelings that Labuk Bay is spreading such a different message to the Sepilok centres – at Labuk Bay the monkeys are encouraged to get close to people, and they have no fear of humans.
Silvery lutungs do not have the same allure that many Bornean animals have to poachers for traditional medicine, but they are hunted for food in certain regions and make a very popular pet. At Labuk Bay there was no education on why wild animals should not be kept as pets – in fact, the opposite was being pushed; the idea that these monkeys are not disturbed by humans, and can be removed from natural habitat. This is not a message I support.
The third species found at Labuk Bay that I was particularly interested in is the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) – no, not a monkey, but an absolutely stunning bird. On Borneo you can find eight species of hornbills – so far I have spotted two (the oriental pied, and the rhinoceros hornbill). Oriental pied hornbills have a large geographical range throughout Southeast Asia and into China, and because of this habitat availability they are classed as Least Concern by the IUCN despite their actual population numbers being unknown.
One of the most defining features of this bird is the ‘casque’ – the hollow, hard structure composed of keratin above the beak. While rhinoceros hornbills have a striking orange and yellow casque, oriental pieds have pale yellow and black. They are a large bird that can weigh over 900g and can have a length of over 85cm. This species is monogamous, and at the volunteer house we are lucky enough to have a mating pair that frequents our garden’s trees. If you visit Labuk By it is likely you will see at least one of these birds; they are also attracted to the tourist viewing area with food lures.
After becoming quite familiar with the very education/conservation-focused sanctuaries in Sepilok, Labuk Bay was a bit of a surprise for me. The animals are encouraged to get close to tourists, and I couldn’t see any thorough educational material about any of the animals and the threats they face or their conservation whatsoever. If you want to get unnervingly close to monkeys then this destination definitely ticks the box, but it’s not a place that I believe promotes respect for the animals, nor does it curb the “Oh look, I want a pet monkey!” mentality that adds fuel to wildlife trafficking. I have spoken to a few rangers at Sepilok about Lubuk Bay, and I did have a good point mentioned to me: tourists bring money, and money is what will improve things there. Tourists want the thrill of seeing a wild animal up close; tourists pay for selfies. Labuk Bay is certainly not, in my opinion, spreading the right message at face value, but eventually they would like to. What they have is a start.
I would still rather promote places that teach the beauty and importance of wild nature (and why it should stay wild), but I do understand that Labuk Bay is doing what it can temporarily – and at least these animals have a safe home to live in with plentiful food. I’m just glad that Sepilok’s centres are run very differently.