Hanging out with the proboscis monkeys of Borneo

The proboscis monkey has a big nose, an even bigger belly and a huge survival problem. James Fair travels to the world’s third largest island to find out whether primates could help to conserve its precious forests.

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Proboscis monkey of Borneo article spread

The proboscis monkey has a big nose, an even bigger belly and a huge survival problem. James Fair travels to the world’s third largest island to find out whether primates could help to conserve its precious forests. 

Most people have played that game where they fantasise about what animal they would like to be reincarnated as. Ooh, a dolphin, perhaps, splishing and splashing around in a coral atoll somewhere in the Caribbean; or a tiger – grrr! – sleeping all day and padding through a gilded forest as evening falls.

Well, having recently returned from Sabah, the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo, I can definitely cross one species off my list of future bodies to inhabit – the proboscis monkey.

It's a proboscis monkey's life

Everything is stacked against it. First, nobody would call the proboscis monkey a beautiful animal.

The male’s nose resembles a pair of testicles, and while the females are nasally compact in comparison, I knew as soon as I saw one that she reminded me of something, but I wasn’t sure what. On the third day, I twigged – it was the childcatcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And the term ‘pot-bellied’ does not do justice to the size of their stomachs.

I’m sure proboscis monkeys are beautiful to each other, but it’s still something to consider when assessing your options, and anyway, there’s more.

Their diet consists of nothing but leaves. Occasionally, they’re allowed a piece of fruit, but it must be an unripe, unsweet, tasteless piece of fruit. The odd seed is OK, but give a proboscis too many carbs and it swells up like an erupting volcano, overheats and dies.

Bringing sexy back

Still, proboscis monkeys don’t know what they are missing, fruit-wise, so maybe this isn’t such a big deal either. No – the absolute clincher was something I read while relaxing in the library of the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge one evening.

In Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo, Elizabeth Bennett explains that the species lives in social groups, normally comprising females, their babies and juveniles, and one male. The male stays at the centre of his harem, follows the females wherever they go and has sex with any that are receptive. Simple enough, you’d think. But no...

“The young proboscis monkeys frequently pull hard on the male’s upper leg, screaming all the while,” Bennett writes, “but a more successful tactic is to lean over the amorous couple from the front and try to tweak the male’s nose.” It is when I read stuff like this that I begin to doubt the theory of evolution. Just how interfering in the adults’ sex lives contributes to the survival of the species is beyond me.

That said, there’s something far more worrying about coming back as a proboscis monkey than the prospect of eating nothing but leaves and having your oversized hooter yanked every time you indulge in a bit of rumpy-pumpy, and that’s having no forest left in which to live.

The island of Borneo, the species’ only home, is one of the powerhouses of the palm oil revolution, and its rainforest is being logged as fast as tubs of margarine, bars of soap and bottles of shampoo disappear off supermarket shelves.

Palm oil worries

My journey through Sabah started when I left Sepilok Nature Reserve and its orangutan rehabilitation centre for Sim Sim Water Village, a collection of dwellings and businesses built on a pier on the outskirts of Sandakan. From here, I travelled by boat along the coast and up the Kinabatangan (‘kin-a-bat-ang-an’) River on the way to the heart of the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary.

Much of the forest flanking the river has been logged at some point. Tall, spindly trees, signs of secondary growth, predominate, and from time to time I could see that behind the green wall there was nothing but grassy scrubland. At one point, I even passed a palm oil plantation.

Two people I met who’d taken the road from Sandakan told me that what they’d seen was worse – just miles and miles of uninterrupted palm trees. I like to think that tourism could slow down the rate of conversion, but it’s far from proven.

Wild orangutans

Despite this gloomy prognosis, the wildlife around the Kinabatangan River merits your eco-dollars. Travelling upriver, I saw five orangutans, several groups of proboscis monkeys and some pygmy Asian elephants.

One large male orangutan, 50 foot up a tree and with the look of a teenager contemplating the prospect of an evening in with his parents, let me gawp at him for 10 minutes before climbing halfway down the trunk and escaping into the tangled forest interior. I’d assumed I wouldn’t see any wild orangutans, so that was a real bonus.

The wildlife was even more prolific around the Kinabatangan Riverside Lodge. I saw no more orangutans, but there were proboscis monkeys almost everywhere I went, plus plenty of long-tailed macaques, several groups of silvered leaf monkeys and a palm civet. I even witnessed a fight between two large water monitors, dribbling as they grappled in the undergrowth.

Into the heart of Borneo

In the late afternoons, the proboscis monkeys gathered near the water’s edge, having a last feed (yum, leaves again) before settling down for the night. Different groups sleep close to each other so that the females can size up other males – well, their noses at least – just in case they’re missing out on some top-class genes.

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