Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sandakan Borneo

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, Sandakan Borneo

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Proboscis monkey pictures adult male close up
What a big 'honker' - all the more for alluring you, my dear!..Photos: Irene Isaacson

Of all the places to visit in Sabah, be sure to make time to go to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary. It is one of the best places in the world to see these weird monkeys and you will be rewarded with incredible up-close views of these strange big-nosed pot-bellied proboscis monkeys.

Facts about the proboscis monkey

1- Male proboscis monkeys have pendulous noses to attract mates.
2- Their large noses act as an echo chamber that amplifies their calls.
3- The proboscis monkey is endemic to Borneo.
4- They live around the island’s rivers, coastal mangroves and swamp areas and only head onto land to find food.
5- Proboscis monkeys live in harem groups that consist of a dominant male and at least two (but often up to seven females) and their offspring.
6- Proboscis monkeys are the champion swimmers among primates.
7- Their web webbed feet and hands allow them to outpace crocodiles.
8- Proboscis monkeys eat leaves, seeds and unripe fruit.
9- Their main predators on land are jaguars and some native people, who view them as a delicacy.
10- Due to deforestation of the rainforests, the proboscis monkey is listed as ‘Endangered’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

The idea for a monkey sanctuary accidentally came about in 1994.

A local landowner originally bought 400 acres of mangrove forest for commercial reasons.

Whilst palm oil and logging were high on his radar, the owner soon discovered the many groups of proboscis monkeys living on his land.

So he decided to help preserve them.

Hence the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary was born.

Unique Opportunities Offered By Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

The monkey sanctuary is 48km from Sandakan and is surrounded by oil palm plantations. The food sources for the proboscis monkeys has thus become quite depleted. So the regular feeds at the sanctuary supplement their restricted diet.

These proboscis monkeys are quite wild although habituated. It is their own choice to come to the feeding platforms. And this arrangement offers amazing opportunities.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary feeding at Platform A
Feeding time at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Not only can visitors get up close and personal with them, photography is a breeze too. No need for long telephoto lenses here!

What To Do When You Get There

When you get to the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, there are two major feeding platforms, Platform A and Platform B.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary Platform A
Platform A at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, surrounded by oil palm plantations

There are four daily feeding times: Platform A is at 9.30am and 2.30pm, Platform B at 11.30am and 4.30pm.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary – Platform A

We visited the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary in mid-April. By the time our tour group arrived at the Sanctuary, it was early afternoon.

In hot and humid conditions, we made our way along an elevated boardwalk.

Through the mangrove jungle towards Platform A, we passed by some macaques on the way.

Feeding At The Platform

The multiple small feeding areas around the large undercover platform were deafeningly quiet.

A rainforest hornbill flew overhead.

We could hear an occasional strange call in the distance. Everyone was poised with cameras aimed at the seemingly empty treetops.

Then a few keepers arrived and started to put fruit and vegetables down on the platforms. Within a few minutes as if on cue, wild proboscis monkeys began to appear.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary forest inhabitants
Some of the mangrove forest inhabitants of the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary – proboscis monkey troop, macaque and hornbill

Let The Action Begin

The silence suddenly became a low chatter as one or two appeared. Then more followed and soon there was a commotion.

10, 20 and then up to 40 monkeys just appeared out of nowhere.

Troops rapidly descended from the treetops as we held our breath in awe and excitement. How could we not have spotted them all before?

Mixed Troops Descend

There were big fat-bellied, red-faced adult males with huge dangling noses. Smaller females monkeys also had rather odd shaped large noses.

And then there were the babies. Some very young (less than two to three months old) blue-faced ones. The slightly older ones being more grey-faced.

The younger ones held on as mum competed with group members for the best banana or piece of sweet potato.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary family feeding
Large adult male and one of his females with her young baby proboscis monkey

The activity lasted as long as the food did. The monkeys supplement their basic forest diet with these delicacies. But after less than half an hour, the food was gone.

And slowly but surely the troop moved on. Leaping off the platforms and down onto the muddy mangrove floor, back to the forest they disappeared.

And then the silence returned.

Amazing.

A totally surreal experience.

They disappeared back into the forest undergrowth as if nothing had happened.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary – Platform B

Whilst Platform A offers some shade, there is no food or water available. But Platform B is in the vicinity of the sanctuary’s restaurant, Nipah (or Palm) Cafe, where there is also a large air-conditioned TV room to watch an informative video about the sanctuary.

Look out for the troop of resident silver leaf monkeys at Platform B as well. They are known to often sit on the handrails as may the proboscis monkeys.

It is hard to believe that these monkeys are totally wild. So when they visit the platforms from their natural habitat, what a privilege it is to see them.

A real Borneo Adventure!

Proboscis Monkey Endangered

The proboscis monkey is endemic only to the island of Borneo. Most live in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) with a few elsewhere on the island, including Sabah.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey in the mangroves
Potbellied Proboscis monkeys in the mangrove mudflats at Labuk Bay

Due to deforestation and hunting for food and Chinese medicines, they are now classified as endangered. In fact, their numbers have halved in only the last 40 years.

At this alarming rate, they will be gone soon. A tragedy indeed, if something isn’t done soon to prevent their extinction.

Habitat Of The Proboscis Monkey

Proboscis monkeys are arboreal, generally living in the trees. They prefer coastal swamps, mangrove forests and lowland forests with large rivers. So they tend to be found within 1km of rivers.

Their diet is mainly fruit and leaves, which is rather seasonal. Fruit is eaten from Jan – May and mangrove forest leaves from June onwards.

Large male proboscis monkey
A large adult male proboscis monkey displaying his distinctive bright red and black genitals

Unusual Proboscis Monkey Facts

Potbellies rule

The mangrove leaves are toxic and so the proboscis monkeys are particularly adapted to this unusual diet.  They have compartmentalized stomachs which contain fermentative bacteria. The bacteria break down the leaves and their toxins.

It is this unusual stomach anatomy that gives the proboscis monkey its huge characteristic potbelly. In fact, their stomachs can weigh ¼ of their whole body weight.

Big-nosed monkeys honk the loudest

Their odd and unusual noses are the biggest of all monkeys. Their large noses are different in both male and females.

It is the rather distinctive bulbous male nose which is thought to be a sexual attractant. The bigger the nose, the more voluminous the honking call is attractive to a female perhaps.

Perhaps even more so than the bright red penis and black scrotum of the males too!

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary adults feeding at Platform A
Some of the wild proboscis monkey troops at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Deep diving monkeys

Did you also know proboscis monkeys are also excellent swimmers? In fact, they are one of the top swimming primates. This is probably why crocodiles are one of their main predators.

It has even been suggested their large noses also act as snorkels, although this sounds rather fanciful!  However, they can dive up to an amazing 20 meters. Their webbed back feet also well adapt them to their riverside habitat.

Proboscis monkeys share the good life

Proboscis monkeys are not territorial. So many groups can geographically overlap with others. They live in troops or herds of up to sixty animals. Males have troops of their own, or there are mixed groups.

And males and females can move from group to group without fear of aggressive fighting.  This alone is helpful when their forest habitat is rapidly diminishing in size.

How To Get There

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary maps
From Top:  1. Map of Labuk Bay, Sepilok and Sandakan;     2. Map of Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Malaysian Airlines and Air Asia have daily flight times that allow for a day trip to Labuk Bay from Kota Kinabalu.

But if you are staying in Sandakan, then the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary has its own transport for visitors.

You can catch the shuttle bus from the Hotel Sandakan. It leaves each day at 0930am, arriving at Sepilok at 1030am, then at Labuk Bay in time for the 1130am feed.

The bus then leaves at 1500pm to return to Sandakan by 1700pm. It costs RM20 (AUD $7) one way.

Entrance Fee To The Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

It really is an inexpensive unique and memorable wildlife experience. And the entrance fee for a foreign tourist is only RM60 (AUD $20). A bargain indeed!

Labuk Bay proboscis baby monkey
Juvenile Labuk Bay proboscis monkey feeding high in the coastal mangrove forest

If you are keen on photography, there is an additional camera fee of RM10 (AUD $3)  – smart camera phones are exempt though.

Other Sandakan Attractions

Expect to spend at least four hours at Labuk Bay. If you wish to stay longer, there is accommodation at the Nipah Lodge in the Sanctuary. Or stay in Sepilok which is only an hour away and home to the world-famous Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

Compare prices of hotels in Sandakan here.

The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is also next door to the orangutan sanctuary. In fact, they share the same car park.

Or if you prefer tropical rainforest flora and bird life, then you simply must visit the Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC Sandakan). There are large Exhibition Halls, Plant Discovery Garden, and long canopy walkway offering a great way to discover the Borneo tropical rainforest.

And if bats are your thing, check out the Gomantong Caves in Sandakan Borneo too.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary

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