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About half of Sabah is still forested now. Most of it are forest reserves while others are gazetted parks and wildlife reserves and other protected areas.
But in today’s fast developing world, rapid and massive deforestation in the state have caused habitat destruction and pushed many species into danger and even to the brink of extinction.
Wildlife poaching to supply the illegal pet trade or to feed those with a taste for rare exotic meat has also sped up their extinction.
Here are some animals that our generation is still privileged enough to see.
1. Sumatran Rhinoceros
None is more critically endangered than the Sumatran rhinoceros. Already declared as extinct in Sabah’s wild, this solitary mammal has, for decades, been poached for its horn that is said to fetch as much as US$30,000 (RM128,034) per kilogramme for its purported medicinal properties.
Efforts in the last 20 years to revive the depleting population have failed, and all that’s left are two females and one male being held in captivity.
A male called Tam and two females named Iman and Puntung are under the care of non-governmental organisation Borneo Rhino Alliance at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahad Datu district. Scientists are still attempting to produce offspring through in vitro fertilisation but have yet to find success.
2. Borneo pygmy elephant
Said to be the “cutest”, the baby-faced elephants of Borneo are smaller than other Asian elephants and believed to be descendants of a domesticated herd given to the Sultan of Sulu in the 18th century. They are also more gentle in nature than other Asian elephants.
Borneo’s pygmy elephants are genetically distinct from other Asian elephants, smaller with relatively larger ears, more rotund, with longer tails and straighter tusks.
Although hunted by poachers for their tusks, these elephants face a bigger threat from habitat loss, which has led to more and more human-wildlife conflicts that cause both loss of life and monetary value to villagers and oil palm plantations.
Over the years, dozens of elephants have been found killed, poisoned, or trapped in man-made areas.
Now, they are said to number around 1,500, mostly in central and east part of Sabah.
Known locally as tembadau, this species of wild cattle could easily be mistaken for your average domesticated cow; similar size and shape, horned, and ranging from a tan brown to black with their characteristic markings of a white rump and “stockings”.
Experts say no more than a few thousand are left in the wild in Sabah, but this is fast dwindling due to, again, poaching and habitat loss.
Relatively unknown to the public, they are on the international Union for Conservation of Nature’s endangered list, but little research has been dedicated to this animal.
They are forest dwelling, elusive animals that travel in herds, and many people will never see them in their lifetime unless they are involved in wildlife research or protection, nature related tourism, or live in forests.
The Sunda pangolin, the only species found in Borneo, is critically endangered. Unsurprising given that 22,220 specimens were recorded as smuggled by a syndicate in Sabah in just two years. Reports say that numbers have fallen by 80 per cent in the last decade.
Demand for the scaly mammal is greatest in China and Vietnam, where their meat is considered a delicacy and the scales are purported to have medicinal qualities.
Across the globe, the pangolin is considered endangered and protected and any international trade has been forbidden.
People travel from all over the world to see Borneo’s shaggy red-haired orangutans, either in the wild or at a rehabilitation or rescue centres and its no wonder.
Their human-like mannerisms, keen intellect and antics often leave visitors in wonder. Some have learnt how to communicate in sign language, and fashion tools to help them forage for food.
Critically endangered, the orangutan faces several threats: major habitat loss due to deforestation for open oil palm plantations, forest fires, the illegal pet trade, illegal hunting and trafficking.
But their cuteness and intelligence have made them an icon for wildlife conservation, and several dedicated organisations have emerged to look into their plight.
6. Proboscis monkey
Also called “dutch monkeys” in an unflattering reference to their big noses and protruding bellies, these easily recognisable primates are endemic to Borneo.
With a complex social structure of one alpha male and a harem of adult females per group, the proboscis are a fascinating species to watch, not least due to their comical appearance, but also their mannerisms.
Living close to the water, proboscis monkeys are keen swimmers and can leap from branches straight into the water.
Although suffering from population decline due to heavy loss of habitat over the years, the proboscis monkey is the most likely on this list to be spotted in the wild, due to their proximity to rivers and water sources. They are believed to be about 5,000 left in Sabah’s wild.
7. Sun bear
They are adept at tree climbing and feed on insects, but have a fondness for honey and honeycombs, hence their other nickname: the honey bear.
Short, black, water-repellent hair, and a crescent-shaped light marking are their most significant physical feature. As cubs, they are ridiculously cute, making them a target for the exotic pet trade.
Their gall bladders are highly sought after in the black market and used to purportedly treat a variety of ailments.
8. Clouded leopard
The Sunda clouded leopard is the apex predator in Borneo, and the largest wild cat on the island.
Majestically marked like a leopard with stocky build, and superb hunting and tree climbing skills, they are the largest carnivores and the biggest natural threat to other wildlife in the forests.
Solitary and elusive, they are difficult to study, but researchers estimate that there might about 3,000 individuals on the island crammed into their fast-declining forest territories.
Their other threat is illegal hunting for their pelt.
9. Slow loris
Big eyes, slow deliberate movements and massive cute factor that was amplified in a viral video make the slow loris a highly sought exotic pet.
But being nocturnal, venomous and with eyes that hurt when in contact with bright lights, this primate was not made for domesticated life with humans. They search for food at night from trees.
These sensitive animals face extremely high mortality rates when trafficked, due to starvation, dehydration and infections from dental health injuries, as their venomous teeth are clipped.
Uncertain how many are left in the wild, they are still classified as vulnerable and endangered.
The black furry bear cat native to Asia is not related to bears or cats, but closer in relation to civets.
Not a commonly known animal, it is about the same size as a small dog, but with a long shaggy coat and bushy tail.
The omnivorous forest dwelling binturong can be spotted in the wild, but also at local markets where they are traded for meat or as illegal pets.
It is classified as vulnerable though the lack of research has made it hard to estimate their numbers.
Most of these animals can be seen and appreciated at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, a Sabah government initiative to keep rescued animals, study, and educate the public about Borneo’s endemic wildlife.