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Tabin, the Sanctuary of Borneo Wildlife

Pig-tailed macaque

Located in east coast of Sabah, Tabin Wildlife Reserve is one of the best kept lowland rainforest of Borneo. I don’t want to hide the fact that most lowland of Sabah is now blanketed by oil palm. Tabin is surrounded by sea of oil palm, making it an oasis of the ecology desert (oil palm). In fact, this 112,000-hectare protected forest reserve harbors some of the rarest and endangered Bornean animals such as Pygmy Elephant, Sumatran Rhinoceros and Orangutan.

morning rays in rainforest
Last month I visited Tabin for 3 days. Though large part of Tabin is secondary rainforest being logged in the past, the forest regenerates really well over the decades. Tabin also has 9,000 hectares undisturbed primary forest known as the Core Area. Do you know that there are nearly 1,000 tree species in 50-hectare area of Borneo rainforest (Temperate Forest is up to 100 species only)?


Guess what was the first animal I saw in Tabin. Can you recognise the “aliens” below?

butt of macaques
Pic: “Aliens” in Tabin

LOL they are actually the butt of pig-tailed macaques, a common but cheeky monkey. At the left is a male with its testicles, the sexy red butt at the right belongs to a female ready to mate.

pig-tailed macaques
In late afternoon, you would see dozens of macaques gathering on the ground feeding, socializing and grooming one another. Tabin Resort doesn’t feed them so they keep a distance from human. But you better lock the door and leave nothing outside your room, because these monkey know how to open door and ransack your stuffs.

macaque gathering
I was surprised to see a long-tailed macaque among a herd of pig-tailed macaques as if it’s one of the members. Wonder if both species speak the same language.

Bornean Gibbon
Pic: Bornean Gibbon foraging on a fruit tree. You can always hear their “whoop-whoop” loud and long call early in the morning at Tabin.

There are 9 primate species in Tabin, but gorilla isn’t on the list (though the movie says King Kong is from Borneo). The most famous primate here is Orangutan. Tabin is one of the releasing spots for rehabilitated orphan orangutan from Sepilok. To ensure they can survive in the wild, rangers will track and evaluate the new comers for 2 weeks.

Tabin Wildlife Resort

Tabin Wildlife Resort is the only accommodation and tour operator in Tabin Wildlife Reserve. To visit Tabin, you can book a full board tour package with them (Accommodation, meals, transport, activities and guide services are included). They also offer special tours such as bird-watching and frog camp. Please note walk-in tourist might not be entertained.

River Lodge of Tabin Wildlife Resort
Pic: River Lodge of Tabin Resort

After an hour of bumpy ride on 44-Kilometres of unsealed road from Lahad Datu town, I checked-in to River Lodge of Tabin Resort around noon. River Lodge is just next to Lipad River and you would see foraging animals at the river bank sometimes.

room of Riverside Lodge
The chalet looks small from outside, but the room is really spacious and completed with attached bathroom/toilet, private balcony, air conditioner, ceiling fan and hot water shower. The accommodation is comfortable and electricity supply is available 24×7. I’m happy.

Hill Lodge of Tabin Wildlife Resort
Pic: Hill Lodge of Tabin Resort

For honeymooners, Hill Lodge offers more luxurious and private space, so nobody can hear what you both busy doing in your room. I think it’s great for family too.

Sunbird Cafe of Tabin Wildlife Resort
Pic: Sunbird Cafe of Tabin Resort

Sunbird Cafe is where I have my buffet meals (and free flow of coffee) and it is the gathering point for all activities. The cafe has Wifi so you can check your Facebook, but the line would be slow if too many guests are sharing the connection.

Dusk Drive & Night Safari

Compared to my jungle trips in other places of Sabah, the activities at Tabin are really leisure, nothing made me gasping for air there. But I sweated a lot, as rainforest is warm and humid, when the dense trees trap the heat and moisture under their canopy during daytime.

dusk drive at Tabin forest
We started our Dusk Drive at 5pm. Unlike Africa, where you can see hundred of animals on open grassland. In Borneo, you need to look quite hard for the animals hiding among the dense wood. Luckily, the guide does the job for us. A napping monitor lizard high on a tree set off the excitement.

oriental-pied hornbill in flight
As the habitat of about 260 lowland bird species (FYI, oil palm estate only hosts 9 to 12 species), Tabin is a favorite destination of bird-watchers. Out of 8 hornbill species in Tabin, I saw 4 of them (Oriental Pied Hornbill, Rhinoceros Hornbill, Wrinkled Hornbill and Bushy-crested Hornbill) during my stay. If you are a hardcore birder, they will bring you to Core Area (virgin forest) to look for Blue-headed Pitta and Blue-Banded Pitta, which are endemic to Borneo.

crested serpent eagle
Pic: Crested-serpent eagle is the most common eagle here. We also spotted Wallace’s Hawk-eagle and Changeable Hawk-eagle.

Bornean Falconet
Pic: Bornean Falconet

The highlight is Bornean Falconet (a.k.a. White-fronted Falconet), which is endemic to Sabah and the smallest raptor in the world (about the size of a palm). There was a group of three perching on a tree very far away from us. Fortunately, our guide let us to have a better look with his high-power telescope. I tried to photograph them through the scope but the photo was blur, well. 🙁

pygmy elephants
Then we heard a loud roar from the elephants deep in the forest beside us. “It was a mother calling its calf”, our guide said. Though there are 200 to 300 elephants in Tabin, sighting of them is not guaranteed. We waited there for over 15 minutes but no sign of them coming near. When I almost gave up, two Bornean pygmy elephants emerged from the wood behind our truck! After wandering on the gravel road for a while, both of them headed to a neighboring plantation for juicy young shots of oil palm. Somehow this smart mammal figures out the time when electrical fence is being turned off lol.

common palm civet
The daylight was out soon and lot of fireflies flickering on the trees, but we didn’t stop the fun drive. On the way back to resort, our guide turned on the spotlight and here we went for a night safari. Besides a pair of sleeping Rhinoceros Hornbill on the tree, we saw other nocturnal animals such as Common Palm Civet and Leopard Cats. We were also watching a red giant flying squirrel took off from a branch, it could glide 100 Metres from tree to tree, we were told.

Buffy fish owl
Pic: a Buffy Fish Owl. A Brown Wood Owl was nearby too.

Night Walk

Dusk drive is cool but it would be more thrilling to walk around and search for other forest dwellers in the dark. After dinner, everyone grabbed a flashlight and explored deep in the jungle. We pointed our light to the shrubs, tree top, forest ground, tree bark, etc. and came across something interesting.

Crematogaster inflata
Pic: Crematogaster inflata, these ants look like carrying a “gold” knapsack, which is the enlarged metapleural gland that can secrete whitish defensive fluid and their bites are very itchy. Thank you Arthur Chung for the ID.

A single tree of Borneo can house 1,000 insect species. There are at least 50,000 insect species in Tabin, which is enough for you to explore for a lifetime.

mushroom on elephant dung
Pic: mushroom growing on an elephant dung. Everything in rainforest is recycled and exist for a reason.

Pic: a small snake waiting quietly for its prey.

giant river toad
Pic: a giant river toad covered with irregular bumps. The big glands behind its eyes secrete poisonous fluid so don’t touch it!

Lipad Mud Volcano

The next morning we went to the Lipad Mud Volcano, something that makes Tabin special. The jungle trail to the mud volcano is 700 Metres and requires only 20 minutes trekking. We saw some fresh and old elephant dungs along the way, an evidence that elephants frequent this area. Anyway, I only found a tiny mouse deer and a few forest leeches.

jungle trekking in Tabin forest

coral fungus
Pic: a coral fungus

Lipad Mud Volcano
Pic: the Lipad Mud Volcano is as big as a football field and it is still growing. This might be the largest mud volcano of Borneo. Can you spot the tiny people in the photo?

animal tracks at mud volcano
Pic: elephant tracks at mud volcano

Animals love mud volcano as it is rich in sodium and calcium, the vital minerals that are not readily available in their normal diet. That’s why this is a good spot for wildlife sighting, as animals come here regularly for “salt lick” in late afternoon.

collecting mud
We love mud volcano too, not for salt lick but for skin care. Some says the mud is really good for skin so we collect some for facial SPA later.

face SPA with volcano mud
Some prefers to enjoy the muddy face mask on the spot.

walking in mud volcano
However, the outer ring of mud volcano is dry mud mixed with coarse sand. To collect the finest and silky wet mud, you have to go to the sources located in the centre, where you can see fresh mud burping and bubbling up from the ground. The mud in centre is deep and soft, so your shoes would be trapped in it. Some even lost their pant here (yes, that happened before).

Observatory Tower at Lipad Mud Volcano
Pic: the 5-storey observation tower next to the mud volcano. You can overnight there for more animal sighting.

mud volcano certiticate
Pic: making handprint certificate with volcano mud.

Lipad Waterfall

After getting ourselves dirty in mud volcano, we got on our truck and moved to Lipad Waterfall. The nature trail to the waterfall is only 400 Metres but we needed to cross a river as deep as our waist level.

Lipad Waterfall
Because of the heavy rain the night before, the water looked a bit murky, but it was clean and cooling. We washed away our mud at the river and took a dip in the waterfall pool.

Lipad Waterfall pool
Pic: Lipad Waterfall, pristine and unpolluted.

Other Activities

There are more things to do in Tabin. Just to list a few here.

You may check out the exhibition in Trogon Hall gallery, where they display some photographs and information of Borneo bio-diversity.

exhibition in

elephant skull
Pic: elephant skull in the Gallery

After a long day of trekking, it’s time to relax your tired feet by trying out the Rainforest Foot Soak at Eagle’s Nest. Various traditional tropical herb and plants (e.g. Kaffir lime leaf, Aloe Vera, Lemongrass, Betel Leaf, Pandanus Leaf, Galangal, Tumeric) are put in the hot water, and you can rub your feet against the smooth pebbles at bottom.

Rainforest Foot Soak

foot SPA at Tabin

So that’s my Tabin trip. You can see that our rainforest is an eco-treasure worths protecting and preserving. The good news is – Sabah government and NGOs are working together to connect all the isolated forest of Sabah, so wildlife can migrate freely among them for food and mates. In future, Tabin forest reserve will be part of the Heart of Borneo.

More Photos

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Photos taken in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

Snake Island of Pulau Tiga Park

holding sea snake

My day 2 in Pulau Tiga is as exciting as first day. Today I’m going to Snake Island (Pulau Ular or Pulau Kalampunian Damit) of Pulau Tiga Park. I’ve seen the video of dozens of highly venomous Yellow-lipped Sea Kraits or Banded Sea Kraits (species: Laticauda colubrina) roaming on this island. The poison of this sea snake is 3 to 4 times more potent than cobra!

Map of Pulau Tiga Park

Snake Island (Pulau Ular)

The trip to Snake Island is optional. You can pay RM40 (≈USD12) to visit two islands (Snake Island and Sands Spit Island) of Pulau Tiga Park. The tour also includes a snorkeling trip off the island, so it is a good deal.

going to Snake Island of Pulau Tiga
We depart at 9am and reach the Snake Island after 15 minutes. They only allow you to go during good weather.

Pulau Kalampunian Damit (Snake Island)
According to a legend, Snake Island is the resting place of a heart-broken princess, whose lover is turned into rock by black magic of her sisters. The angry king penalized the evil sisters by turning their islands into mud volcanoes (Pulau Tiga).

Snake Island of Pulau Tiga Park
Snake Island is so small that you need only 15 minutes to walk one round of the island.

Pulau Ular
Besides a jetty and a shelter, there is no other facility on Snake Island.

warning sign at Snake Island
Pic: a warning sign. Watch your steps! You must be accompanied by a guide. We are happy to have Mr. Mohammad Syaheer, the “snake catcher” from Pulau Tiga Resort, to go with us.

forest of Snake Island (Pulau Kalampunian Damit)

tree roots of Pulau Ular
Though Snake Island is tiny, it has interesting plant such as tall Pisonia tree, which has smooth bark and grows well in sandstone, limestone and shale of Snake Island.

rocky beach of Snake Island
At first glance, Snake Island looks like an ordinary island with rocky shore. I saw the feather and dropping of white-bellied sea eagle, a bird that preys on sea snake.

looking for sea snake under the rock
Actually the sea snakes are sleeping in the crevices between the rocks. Mohammad is so brave to pull one of them out of the hole. I can’t forget it’s one of the most poisonous snakes in the world!

tourist holding a yellow-lipped sea krait
He even let us to touch and hold the sea snake. Surprisingly, its skin is dry and feel like plastic. We only saw two sea snakes. The guides say probably it’s not mating season and most sea snakes go hunting in sea during daytime.

You may watch the 2-min video below about Snake Island:

Click Here to see wider video

Sands Spit Island

After the visit to Snake Island, we stop briefly on Sands Spit Island (Pulau Kalampunian Besar), which is only a few Kilometers away.

going to Sands Spit Island

aerial view of Pulau Kalampunian Besar
Pic: old aerial photo of Sands Spit Island (Source: Sabah Parks)

Sands Spit Island was used to be a sand bar in the sea (see photo above). Technically, it didn’t look like an island.

vegetation on Sands Spit Island

creeping plant on the beach

sandy beach of Pulau Kalampunian Besar
However, over the years, some vegetations such as Casaurine trees and salt-tolerant creeping vine (Beach Morning Glory) set foot on Sands Spit Island, giving this white sand bar a green cover. A new island is born…

beach of Sands Spit Island

Pulau Kalampunian Besar

Personally, I think Sands Spit Island has the BEST Beach in Sabah. The white sandy beach is long and unspoiled, and the sea water is the clean crystal blue color.

Sands Spit Island of Pulau Tiga Park

Sands Spit Island
Pic: you can see Pulau Tiga from Sands Spit Island

We enjoy every moment on this lovely island. Our footprints are the only human trace on Sands Spit Island. I don’t mind staying there whole day long, but sadly, we have to leave…

You may watch the following 2-min video of Sands Spit Island:

Click Here to see wider video

A new video taken at another end of the Sands Spit Island:

Click Here to see wider video


As the last activity of the island tour this morning, our boat sends us to Tiga Trail, a snorkeling point near Pulau Tiga. In lucky day, you can see sea turtle there.

Tiga Trail of Pulau Tiga, Survivor Island
Pic: the dark area in the sea is coral reefs rich with marine creatures

corals of Pulau Tiga
The water is warm and only 1 to 4 Meters deep. The weather is nice, so the visibility underwater is very good. The corals are in healthy state, with many reef fishes foraging among rich variety of seagrass and hard & soft corals.

fish in sea grass of Survivor Island
FYI, you can rent snorkeling gears (snorkel, mask and fins) for RM30 (≈USD9) per day, if you don’t have any. For those who are not a good swimmer, they can use the life jacket from the boat.

sea grass of Pulau Tiga Island
Pulau Tiga Resort also has a dive center on island. To go deeper to see more marine creatures such as nudibranchs, cuttlefish, bamboo sharks and marbled stingray, you can arrange with the resort for scuba diving trip in Pulau Tiga Park. For non-divers, they still can experience diving in Discovery Scuba Diving programme (RM200≈USD61 per person, RM300≈USD91 for two).

You may watch the following 1-min video of snorkeling in Pulau Tiga:

Click Here to see wider video

Reptile Paradise

Besides rich marine ecosystems, Pulau Tiga Park is also rich in terrestrial flora and fauna. In fact, Pulau Tiga is first protected as a forest reserve, before it is turned into a marine park. To me, Pulau Tiga is the Kingdom of Reptiles. Other than sea kraits, I saw many other reptiles such as the Yellow-ringed snake below:

guide holding a yellow-ringed snake
Again, Syaheer the snake catcher is in action. Yellow-ringed snake is almost a guaranteed found if you do a night walk in the jungle of Pulau Tiga, especially after rain. Some says its poison is mild and cause only serious headache, but some says it’s fatal. Well, the only way you can find out is to let it bites you, just kidding.

yellow-ringed snake of Survivor Island
Yellow-ringed snake is passive, so it is never a problem to the guests. FYI, its yellow color will fade if it’s very hungry. Python also lives on this island but I saw only its abandoned nest. I spotted the small Lizard Snake twice, but they flee so fast that I can’t photograph them.

monitor lizards on Pulau Tiga Island
The main predator of Pulau Tiga is Monitor Lizard. You can find a dozen of them wandering at the kitchen area behind the resort. Most of them are 4 to 5 feet long. Normally they stay away from human so they never pose a danger to tourists (as long as they don’t provoke the lizard). Below is a 1-min video of them:

Click Here to see wider video

monitor lizard killed on road
Monitor lizard lives happily on Pulau Tiga like a king. If it lives in city, it’ll just become one of the road kills or have tyre mark on its long tail.

forest skink in Pulau Tiga
Skink and lizards are just everywhere. To name a few, I saw or heard Rough-backed ground skink, Striped tree skink, Brown skink, Green tree lizard and Tokay gecko.

hermit crab of Pulau Tiga Island
Pic: near the coastal area, hermit crab is also everywhere.

hornbill of Pulau Tiga
You can see Oriental Pied Hornbill early in the morning (6am-7am) around resort. I also saw 4 of them perching on a Casaurina Pine in a night walk. They told me the guide and guest saw a white hornbill 2 years ago, probably an albino. Other birds that you can see on Pulau Tiga are Megapod, Frigate Bird, Magpie Robin, Blue-naped Parrot, Great Egret, White-breasted Woodswallow, Nightjar, etc.

crab-eating frog
Pic: a crab-eating frog in the mangrove stream outside my room. It’s one of the few frogs that can tolerate saline environment.

Signage: Do not feed the monkey

long-tailed macaque
Long-Tailed Macaques are present in the island, but they prefer to stay in the wood. They can become a major nuisance if tourists feed them.

Monitor lizard and python also prey on this naughty monkey. You can ask the resort staffs who witnessed the terrible scenes of monkey being consumed alive by those reptiles. I hate monkey, so their stories sound awesome to me, especially the part that monitor lizard swallows the head of a baby monkey. Yes, I’m sick, whatever. Anyway, the island needs predators to control the monkey population.

forest of Survivor Island
Pic: Ranggu and Keruing trees dominate the island forest
There are 8 nature trails of different length in Pulau Tiga (see map below). The resort tells me they find pangolin and coconut crab in the forest.

Layout Map of Pulau Tiga

huge fruit of Putat Laut tree
Pic: Putat Laut tree (Species: Barringtonia asiatica) only grows on undisturbed beach. Its huge drift seed can survive for 15 years.

Just walk around the beach, you will see some interesting trees such as Putat Laut, Ketapang (Umbrella Tree) and Penaga Laut.

There are so many more to see in Pulau Tiga. I stayed there for 3 days 2 nights and explored only one-third of the island.

More Photos

You may check out my photo album on Pulau Tiga Island if you would like to see more nice pictures:
photo album of Pulau Tiga Park

Related Posts
Pulau Tiga the Survivor Island
Accommodation on Pulau Tiga
Sands Spit Island

Photos taken in Kuala Penyu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo