Deep in the heart of a shimmering Borneo rainforest, a group of tourists gathers expectantly on a wooden platform in a clearing. All eyes watch the tree canopy above. A ranger calls out in an attempt to attract the monkeys. Gradually, several young females emerge from the trees, spy a cache of sugar-free pancakes and cucumber, and swing towards the feeding platform.
One adult male, its tufts of reddish-brown hair iridescent in the morning sun, hops on to the platform railing and locks eyes with a visitor. The magnificent primate, notable for its large prominent nose and extended belly, is so human in its expressions and mannerism that onlookers are moved to humble reverence.
Welcome to Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary (LBPMS), one of Borneo's real treasures near Kampung Samawang, about 40 kilometres from Sandakan. Located in the heart of a mangrove forest and an oil palm estate, it is home to a variety of endangered wildlife species, with the indigenous proboscis monkey exclusively found only in Borneo.
The proboscis monkey derives its name from the long drooping, red nose of the adult male; female and young animals are snub-nosed. The role of the drooping nose, which seems to straighten out when the animal is giving out its curious honking call, is unclear, although it is likely that it helps in attracting a mate.
The monkeys are reddish-brown in colour with long, thick, white tails and white rumps. In addition, the adult males have a cream- white collar and large bellies, giving them a rather portly appearance. Males are significantly heavier than females, weighing up to 30 kg, compared with the female's maximum weight of around 15 kg. All in all, this combination of features has earned male proboscis monkeys the name of "Orang Belanda" or "Dutchman" in parts of Borneo.
The monkeys live in loose groups, spending their days in trees close to the water, though they will walk across open areas when necessary, and can swim proficiently, aided by their partly webbed feet. The creatures are most active at dawn and dusk, when moving to and from feeding sites.
Specialized plant-eaters, proboscis monkeys appear permanently potbellied because of their huge chambered stomachs, which contain various symbiotic bacteria that help digest the leaves, seeds, and green fruits that form the bulk of their diet. They avoid sweet fruits, which could cause deadly bloating from rapid fermentation. This fact, coupled with the restricted range of the proboscis monkey, makes the species vulnerable to habitat loss and hunters.
Tourism revenue helps maintain the sanctuary, while visitors learn the importance of caring for, and protecting this fragile ecosystem.
"Both the environment and tourism are important, but we are more concerned with conservation than tourism," explains Ah Seng, a guide with LBPMS. To achieve that delicate balance, tourists can only visit the sanctuary during certain hours. The feeding of the proboscis monkeys at 11.30am and 2.30pm are the best times to visit.
An observation platform offers a perfect vantage point to view the monkeys and other wildlife, and there are also plenty of marked trails to wander around.
An educational and candid film highlights the dangers these creatures face due to destruction of habitat.
In addition, LBPMS also offers fully guided treks and night walks through the jungle to observe not only proboscis monkeys but also the abundance of other wildlife, including hornbills, wild boars, crocodiles, silver leaf monkeys and orangutan.
"As well as conservation, our objective is education", says Ah Seng. "The response has been good. A lot of local children have become interested in wildlife, and they'll try to save the proboscis monkeys for future generations."--Courtesy of Borneo Bulletin