Proboscis Monkey Cling on to Fragile Ecosystems in Bako National Park, Sarawak

The impact of tourism industry and the decline of mangrove forests pose challenges to the population of the proboscis monkeys.

By Amanda Tee

Sarawak, 20 August 2009. Sarawak is abundant with forests, with a population density of only 19 people per square kilometre, so a trip there would not be complete without a visit to at least one of its seven National Parks. We were able to visit one that is an island off the coast of Sarawak.

Bako National Park is probably the oldest National Park in Borneo, having been gazetted even before Sarawak was included as a part of the Federation Malaysia. With an area of only 27 square kilometres (2727ha), the range of ecosystems that you can find in it is anything but scant. It houses seven different types of forests, with the Kerangas – “open forests” – making up 70 percent of it. Other forest types include the Mangrove, Riverine, Mixed Dipterocarp, Beach forests as well as Cliff Vegetation.

The Kerangas forest makes Bako National Park stand out; its forest trails doesn’t fulfill stereotypes of trekkers walking through shady forests – in fact, visitors are advised to bring an umbrella along in case of sunburn! It has a sandy terrain, which means that it isn’t easy for plants to thrive there, and many have developed interesting means to obtain their nutrients.

One such species is the pitcher plant or bladderwort that feeds on insects for nutrients instead of soil nutrients. Because it is an open forest, it also houses a whole different ecosystem of fauna too, the most famous being the proboscis primate.

Arriving on the T. Pandan Besar Beach by speedboat from the park headquarters, visitors are to attend a briefing by one of the park officials for an introduction of the island, on park etiquette as well as safety precautions.

Apart from the monkeys there are fragile mangroves that need the same support.

A topic that one of the Bako National Park rangers said in his brief made me marvel about the paradoxical environment with which the world was evolving in – there were two main obstacles their conservation efforts were facing. One, tourism has reduced the animals’ ability to be independent in their search for food, because of the ready supply of scraps they seemed to be getting from visitors. The other was simply the lack of budget for the rangers to carry out more cohesive activities for the sustained conservation of the park.

For the park to receive an increased budget on top of that subsidized by the country, forest lodges have also been built so that visitors have the choice of staying on the island overnight if they deemed so. The lodges are reasonably priced and can accommodate various group sizes, so for those who would like to take a few days off the urban life and enjoy the serenity of the natural world, this is almost the perfect place to go to.

The lodges have been built among greenery so that visitors are able to immerse themselves in the clean forest air the moment they step out of them. If they are lucky enough they might even receive a pleasant greeting from a wild boar!

Proboscis monkeys are the main draw at Bako National Park. They are also one of the main concerns of the park, with an estimated population of 150-250 that deem Bako National Park as their home – out of only 1000 left in the wild. They are native to Borneo, and are more comfortable in lowlands like its mangrove forests and swamps.

These creatures can easily be recognized with their distinctive large noses, and large bellies adept in catering to their diet and digestive system. The Indonesians are also known to attribute the amusing nickname “Orang Belanda” to them for these features, which they think is similar to that of a Dutchman back when Indonesia was part of a Dutch colony.

Bako National Park is one of the five recorded sites in Sarawak that support the conservation of proboscis monkeys, but efforts in this state to help maintain the population of these monkeys are also hindered by the decline in mangrove forests. Within the protected area, the mangrove leaves that are eaten by these monkeys cannot regenerate quickly enough for the next big meal.

Another factor for the mangrove reduction is the proliferation of the shrimp industry in Malaysia, causing mangrove forests to be converted to shrimp farms at an increasing rate. One advantage that Bako National Park has in terms of the safety of its animals is its water-surrounded land that keeps it free from poachers, as well as those who want to use its land and mangroves for agricultural purposes.

As visitors to the site we could be helping the park with its conservation budget, but we also have to abide by the rules of the park of not feeding or teasing the wild animals, and of course the general rule of all nature trails in the world: Take nothing but photographs, leave nothing but footprints.

Scenic pictures by Amanda Tee; primate pictures by Michael Ozaki.

Getting There

The Bako National Park is located some 30 km north of Kuching city.

Entrance Fee:

  • Adult RM10 (single entry), RM50 (multiple entry)
  • Student/Senior Citizen/Disabled RM5 (single entry), RM25 (multiple entry);
  • Child below 6 years – Free.


Forest Lodge with 2 rooms, 2 or 3 beds, fan, shared or attached bathroom and toilet (from RM78.75 to RM157.50 per house; or RM52.50 to RM105.00 per room. Charges includes government service tax). Forest Hostel has 4 rooms with 4 single beds each. Fan, shared bathrooms and toilets (RM15.75 per bed or RM42.00 per room).

Accommodation check in at 1400 hours, check out at 1100 hours. Bookings by telephone only or in person at the National Park & Wildlife Booking Office. Call Tel: +60 82 248088.

Camping is discouraged due to the risk of sparking forest fires.


Nature walks and treks on short trails (an hour), trails that lead to beaches and longer trails that lead into the forest. It is best to have a guide with you on longer trails.

Some rules and regulations enforced:

  • No going off the trail.
  • No littering.
  • No writing on rocks, trees and other facilities (not even on V-Day)
  • No feeding of animals.
  • No cutting and collecting of any plant; no collecting of animal specimen.
  • No collecting of shells on the beach.
  • No open fires.