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Go Wild in Borneo: 5 Best Animal Encounters for Families

Looking for the ultimate family wildlife experience? ELISA ELWIN reveals why Borneo, Malaysia is the perfect travel destination for budding eco-warriors

Slow loris
Slow loris

A Borneo wildlife tour is more than just a spectacle: it’s a hands-on eco-tourism experience! Surrounded by lush rainforests and exotic birds, you’ll meet animals like sun bears, pygmy elephants and curious proboscis monkeys. Kids will discover how orphaned orangutans learn to climb and help turtle hatchlings scurry safely into the ocean.

More than half of Borneo is rainforest, and deforestation is taking a toll. Many of Malaysia’s unique species are critically endangered or threatened — and time is running out to protect them. A Borneo eco-tour gives kids of all ages a close encounter with conservation efforts. It’s an eye-opening look at the threats these species face, and the eco-warriors fighting to protect them. If your little ones love to imitate the Irwins, this is a trip they’ll never forget!

Read on to learn all about Borneo’s best animal encounters.

1. Orangutans

An orangutan with its baby in Borneo
An orangutan with its baby in Borneo

Kooky, majestic and cheeky — any encounter with Borneo’s ‘Man of the Forest’ will surely be memorable! Kids can get up close and personal with these great apes at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Located in the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the Centre takes in and rehabilitates orangutan orphans. It’s one of Borneo’s biggest family attractions, and its volunteers are on the front lines of orangutan conservation. Threatened by deforestation or logging, there are less than 105,000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild. Throughout the tour, kids will see themselves reflected in these incredible creatures who climb, swing and play just like they do. 

Orangutans in Borneo
Orangutans in Borneo

Between six and nine years old, orangutans are paired with older ‘buddies’ who help them learn all the skills they need to survive in the wild. From the viewing platform, you’ll see playful orangutans swing into view and tuck into a healthy meal twice a day. Tickets give you access to both feedings: one at 10am and one at 3pm. Be warned: these curious creatures are known to be light-fingered! Lockers are provided for your bags to keep your belongings safe. To prepare for your encounter, kids will love Meet the Orangutans, an Animal Planet documentary filmed at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. You can also ‘Adopt an Orphaned Orangutan’ at the Visitor Centre to help support the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre’s mission.

Where to find them: Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

2. Sun Bears

Malayan sun bear in nature
Malayan sun bear in nature

Get ready for a bear-y special family activity! If your little one always has Teddy in tow, they’ll be enchanted by the sun bear, the world’s smallest bear species. Also known as the ‘honey bear’, these animals are quite charming with their long tongues and lazy attitudes. Unfortunately, their adorable features mean they’re often captured illegally as pets.

The Sun Bear Conservation Centre provides a safe space for captive sun bears to be rehabilitated. Strolling through the natural forest enclosure, you’ll find educational signage in English. Families can learn about the sun bear and its importance to Malaysia’s ecosystem. BSBCC is located next to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, making it convenient to visit both parks with an overnight stay in between. You can meet the bears on BSBCC’s website — the park gives each bear its own quirky nickname. You can also download printable sun bear colouring and activity pages perfect for keeping little eco-warriors busy on the plane there!

Where to find them: Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Sepilok

3. Turtles, Selingan Island

Next, trade in the jungles for sandy beaches, and make your way to the Turtle Island Marine Park. You can reach Selingan via a 90-minute boat ride from Sandakan, and believe me, the journey is worth it! There’s plenty to do during the day, from snorkelling to sandcastles and relaxing on the beach. Prepare for an overnight stay, though: it’s after dark that the real magic happens on Turtle Island. After 5pm, the beaches are cleared so Borneo’s turtles can safely come ashore to lay their eggs. In peak season, from July to October, these determined mums can produce more than 100 eggs each! There’s some waiting involved, as the turtles set their own schedule and can arrive as late as 10pm. This can make it a late night for younger kids. There’s a video presentation shown, but we’d recommend bringing some activities to keep boredom at bay.

Green Turtle Hatchlings
Green Turtle hatchlings

When it’s ‘Turtle Time’, there’s plenty to see as well as green turtles and hawksbills coming ashore, you’ll also see the Turtle Island rangers hard at work. Staff patiently measure the turtles and tag any first-time visitors for research purposes. Rangers also collect the eggs to incubate in the nursery, safe from predators. The night ends with the release of the newest turtle hatchlings. Seeing the tiny turtles make their first foray into the ocean is unforgettable! Turtles nest year-round at Selingan Island, making it easy to fit into your itinerary. Kids can also ‘adopt’ a turtle nest, receiving a certificate of adoption, their name displayed, and updates on how their hatchlings are growing.

Where to find them: Turtle Island Marine Park, Selingan Island

4. Proboscis Monkeys

Proboscis monkeys
Proboscis monkeys

If you had a blast meeting Borneo’s orangutans, you’ll love spotting more native primates in the wild. The best way to see proboscis monkeys, macaques and more? A casual family cruise along the Kinabatangan River. Proboscis monkeys are a sight to see, with their goofy looks and giant noses. If you come across these mischievous creatures in the trees, you may find they’re just as curious about watching you! They’re also known to dive, swim and even belly flop. As well as monkeys, you can spot native birds and other wildlife — the thick jungle is home to orangutans, macaques, gibbons, tarsiers, and the rare slow loris. Best of all, you’ll see them all in their native habitat. Travelling by boat is also a great family-friendly option, with no tough trekking required. Just sit back, relax, and keep your eyes peeled!

Where to find them: Kinabatangan River

5. Pygmy elephants

Pygmy elephant
Pygmy elephants

The jungle of Sabah, Borneo, is the only place in the world you’ll find the pygmy elephant (or Bornean elephant). While not quite pocket-sized, Pygmy elephants are smaller than their African counterparts — about 2.5 metres tall. Adults can eat up to 150 kilograms of plant material per day, so thriving rainforests are critical to keeping them well-fed. With less than 1,500 left in the wild, it’s not guaranteed you’ll see these rare creatures on a Kinabatangan River boat trip. However, herds are known to gather on the riverbanks, so the whole family should be looking to add the pygmy elephant to their wildlife bingo card! For the best chance of spotting them, you’ll want to spend a few days on the river. Intrepid Travel’s Borneo Family Adventure tour includes two nights in the area, with sunset and afternoon boat trips.

Where to find them: Kinabatangan River

How to get to Borneo

Malaysia’s flagship carrier, Malaysia Airlines, flies to Kuala Lumpur, with connections to other parts of the country. Flights take around eight-and-a-half hours from Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne, seven-and-a-half hours from Adelaide and five-and-a-half hours from Perth. Budget carrier Scoot flies to several Malaysian destinations via Singapore from Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. They include Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Kota Kinabalu and Langkawi.

Family-friendly Borneo wildlife tours

SI Tours offers half-day to three-day nature, culture and adventure tours for travellers of all ages.

Intrepid Travel has a nine-day Borneo Family Holiday package that begins and ends in Kota Kinabalu and includes Kinabalu National Park, Kinabatangan River, Sandakan, Sepilok and Turtle Island.

As a bonus, these tours also help support local conservation efforts, with an emphasis on sustainability and cultural sensitivity.

The writer was a guest of Tourism Malaysia


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