Monkey Business in Borneo's Rain Forests

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Proboscis monkeys are not actually that agile. they can be heard long before they're seen, grunting in the jungle canopy. The males have potbellies and, of course, those bulbous noses, giving them a resemblance to old drunks. They climb trees in the same way — crashing around, missing their targets and tumbling down to the lower branches. Proboscis monkeys are, in short, a hilarious sight, and Malaysia's Bako National Park, in Sarawak, Borneo, offers a chance to catch them in their wondrous awkwardness. Reachable only by boat from the small village of Bako, 40 minutes' drive from the regional capital Kuching, it's way off the beaten track, but worth it.

The monkeys are endangered — in fact on the verge of extinction — and the local population is just 150. Although that's considered relatively good, sightings are never guaranteed. But we were lucky. Troops of large, red-nosed males, with their harems and button-nosed babies, whooped their way across the dripping rain forest. Young males gathered separately, to groom or fight each other in the mangroves.

Proboscis monkeys are not the park's only drawcard. There are long-tailed macaques, shy silver-leaf monkeys, bearded pigs and grass-green whip snakes. But although this enclave bursts with color, the land beyond is becoming increasingly monochromatic. Massive palm-tree plantations are destroying Borneo's habitats. The proboscis-monkey population has dropped between 50% and 80% in the last three generations and now stands at about 7,000 across the island. Junaidi Payne, the chief technical officer of the WWF's Borneo Malaysia Program, says that we owe a moral responsibility to the animals. "The human species has come to a sorry, wretched and unsustainable state," he declares, "if the main reason to do or not do something is based on money and economic expansion." Which makes the proboscis monkey a creature of amusement, and of grave concern, all at once.