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I have ALWAYS wanted to go to Southeast Asia. When I found out this year’s Society for Conservation Biology was going to be in Kuala Lumpur, I applied immediately to give two talks (which were accepted – yay!). Now that I knew I would be going to Malaysia for work, I also knew I had to organize an add on trip for play! This post summarizes my four day visit in Deramakot Forest Reserve in Sabah, Borneo.
How Did I Find Deramakot?
I had one goal – to see as many wild animals as I could (with a focus on mammals and especially orangutans), but I knew nothing about Malaysian wildlife tourism. I knew going to Google or Pinterest would give me information overload, so I proposed the question to my Twitter followers, many of whom are scientists, knowing they would provide me with off-the-beaten path suggestions full of animal adventures.
To see orangutans, you have to go to Borneo, so I knew I would be headed there. A lot of the responses coalesced around Danum Valley, perhaps the most famous ecotourism destination in Borneo. When I looked into Danum Valley though, I found several problems: it was pretty expensive, seemed kind of touristy, and was starting to book up fast. I posted the same question to Facebook, and my former labmate who worked in Borneo, told me about Deramakot Forest Reserve.
He put me in touch with Zahari Bin Zainal, a Malaysian guide who has been leading tours in Deramakot since 1999. Zahari was incredibly helpful in answering my questions about Deramakot. I decided to book a trip with him after the conference.
What is Deramakot Forest Reserve?
Deramakot Forest Reserve is a protected area located in Northeastern Borneo, north of Danum Valley. It differs from Danum Valley in that it is not pristine, it has been selectively logged since 1956, but it is still rich in wildlife. This is largely because it is a Forest Management Unit.
Deramakot has been spit into different units and these units get selectively logged every 1-3 years making it a sustainable practice. Only certain trees are felled. This greatly differs from clearcutting land, which is not sustainable and bad for wildlife.
Some disturbance in forests can even be good for wildlife! It creates new micro-habitats for species and provides new food. For example, elephants in particular like secondary growth (i.e. new plants growing in).
Part of Deramakot Forest Reserve is set completely aside for wildlife and never logged. Deramakot is also surrounded by 6,500 km squared of forest, which together contains ~50% of all orangutans in Sabah. This is said to be the most important wildlife refuge in Borneo.
What Did We Do?
In a nutshell – LOOK FOR ANIMALS! We did this two ways: (1) by hiking in the forest and (2) driving around the park looking for animals.
Because I wanted to see mammals the most, we prioritized driving. Driving allows you to cover more range, and provides more open areas (from the road), so you can scan the landscape, increasing your chances of seeing an animal. In the forest, it is much harder to see mammals, but this is definitely the way to look for birds, other smaller vertebrates, and insects.
You can also see wildlife by boat on the Kinabatangan River. The day we went, it was storming, and our river cruise got cancelled. Luckily, I had a few more days in Borneo and was able to reschedule a cruise in a different area. I’ll have a full post up on this amazing experience soon.
Deramakot Forest Reserve has lots of orangutans (~700) and is one of the few sites where you can see all five species of wild cats in Borneo. I saw so many cool animals that this warranted two different posts: one on mammals and the other on other wildlife. They will be up soon.
I highly recommend Deramakot Forest Reserve for an ecotourism adventure in Borneo. In addition to how beautiful it was, I loved how quiet it was. Sometimes we went whole days without seeing other tourist vehicles, and even when we did see them, it was just one or two cars.
Thank you to the Phillips’ Field Guide to the Mammals of Borneo, which helped me write this post. This book is not only amazing as a field guide to Bornean mammals, but also includes fantastic information on Borneo’s tropical forest ecology. It’s a must if you are going to Borneo!
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.
Can I pick your brain for a second? I have so many questions. I’m taking my kids to Borneo for the main reason of seeing animals. Originally I was planning on doing the kinabatangan river trip and danum valley, but my friend told me about the deramakot area and now i’m thinking of heading there instead. Is there a reason you chose this area over the others, as they are supposed to be good for wildlife also? Was it mainly to be in less touristy areas – which agrees with me also. Did you end up liking your guide and would you recommend him? Can I have his contact info if you did? How much did you pay to stay there? How much was your guide? Did you see any elephants also? Thank you for al the incessant questions I posed. I really apprciate your help.
Hi Risa! Thank you for your questions. I believe I put our guide’s contact info in here – Zahari. You can message him on Facebook or email him at [email protected]. I did like him and his wife (that is who I went with) and I recommend him. I especially liked him because we could do what we wanted (we didn’t have a car full of other tourists) and he showed me a lot of things that were local (grocery stores, restaurants). I choose Deramakot because I heard Danum Valley was more expensive and crowded. I don’t think it is super crowded, but at Deramakot we hardly saw any people. Maybe 2-3 cars a day. Yes, they have all of the same wildlife as Danum Valley. If you get the Phillips’ Mammal Field Guide mentioned in this post, it includes comparisons between the different parks and the wildlife you’ll see. I believe Deramakot was MYR 5500.00 for everything including the guide fees. We did not see elephants. I think they are harder and more seasonal in Deramakot, but we JUST missed them. On our way out we saw fresh dung and footprints from the night before. I think you can see elephants best along the Kinabatangan River. Zahari is a wealth of knowledge! He will help you see what you want to see, but remember no guide can control where the animals are 🙂
The chance to see orang utan and maybe some elephants are pretty good in Bukit Piton. We were really lucky. We managed to see one elephant, a few orang utans and many others animals.
That’s awesome! I’m jealous.
Re your post on Deramakot, Borneo I travelled there a few years ago but it was part of a group trip. I saw a clouded leopard but made a mistake with my camera settings so didn’t get the photo! I am hoping to go back next year myself but can’t seem to find any trip which will take single travellers and I don’t want to spend a fortune on single supplement. Were you travelling yourself and if so how to you do it? I also want to travel to Tabin – did you do this as well?
Hi! That is so awesome! I’m jealous. Email Zahari. His contact info is in the blog post. He will take single travelers (he took me and I was single), but he may be able to add you to another group he is taking if your dates are flexible. I just contacted Zahari. I got his information from another researcher in our lab. He planned everything, but involved me with every decision along the way. I did not visit Tabin. Only Deramakot and another spot on the Kinabatangan River which I still need to blog about! I am really backlogged on blogs.
Cool stuff (from one biologist to another!). Quick questions on Deramakot: how many nights/days did you stay there? In which lodge did you stay? And where did you get picked up from, Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, or Lahad Datu? Or some place else? Was the tour all inclusive (i..e., meals, accommodation, etc.). I am planning on going in June to see Orangutans in the wild (to complete my bucket list item of seeing all 3 non-human great apes in the wild, after seeing chimps and gorillas in Uganda).
Thanks in advance!
Hi Srini! Thank you! I have A LOT more to write about Deramakot. I am focusing on my book right now, so I am backlogged. I think I stayed there 3 or 4 nights. In the post, I put a contact (Zahari), he is who I went through to book the trip. I don’t remember the exact name, but we did not stay in a lodge, but facilities on site through the park. They are more meant for staff and not official hotels. I flew into Sandakan. Everything was arranged by Zahari and he included everything in the price. That’s so exciting! I still need to post my photos of all of the mammals I saw in Deramakot.
Leech tip: Duct tape! I was in Taman Negara, Malaysia, and then near Ketambe, Sumatra, and had leeches in both places. After trying everything else, I dried the area really. Then, applied a quick patch of duct tape. Poof….no bleeding!
I did see Orangutans in the wild in Gunung Leuseur National Park…what a treat!
Thanks for the story. So many options for places to explore over there! Safe travels!
Thank you! I still have so much Malaysia stuff to post even though it was over a year ago. I have a leech video to make and you are so lucky you saw orangutans. I only saw the tree branches move.