The Redheaded Primates of the Lower Kinabatangan

By Guest author Leyla Giray Alyanak.

I had a single goal on my visit to the Lower Kinabatangan River: to see a proboscis monkey (pronounced pro-boe-sis, not pro-bos-kiss).

Leyla in search of the elusive proboscis monkeys in the Lower Kinabatangan

Leyla in search of the elusive proboscis monkeys in the Lower Kinabatangan

The first time I saw a photograph of these large, silly-looking beasts, I fell in love with them. With a nose like a… well, flaccid penis, there’s really no other word for it, and long, hairy arms and legs, this primate was awkward, gangly, ugly even.

So I was elated at the thought of finally seeing them in the flesh.

All the way from Europe to Kuala Lumpur, then to the island of Borneo and finally to the small town of Sandakan, I kept picturing these red-headed monkeys in my mind, wondering whether I’d feel any kind of kinship because of our mutual hair color.

Eventually I arrived at the lower Kinabatangan River, Malaysia’s second longest. For several days I would boat up and down my stretch of river, exploring the wildlife of Southeast Asia’s most naturally diverse region. I’d be tripping all over dozens of proboscis monkeys.

Not quite.

On my first of many sorties through the mangroves edging the river, I marveled at the long-tailed macaques, who stared curiously at us without getting too near, and without running off.

Long tail macaque

Long tail macaque

They were plentiful, just like the pigtailed macaque whose wiry short tail gives it its name. Far more curious than their longer-tailed cousins, these little black-topped monkeys were fearless, jumping from log to log and almost into the boat. Any closer and they’d be on my lap.

We cut the motor, drifting silently among the branches and savoring the near-serenity of chattering monkeys, a breeze against the leaves, the lapping of soft waves… I was as far as I could be from everything I knew. Soon a proboscis monkey would slide brightly into view.

A branch snapped and my head jerked up in time to see a reddish blur swing between two trees. At last! But no. Instead, a distant (and endangered) orangutan, and then another, both shy, a blur of fur and arms, visible only because of their size, big eyes mimicking ours so perfectly. I would eventually visit the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary – which I hadn’t initially planned on doing – as a direct result of this encounter.

In this region of unparalleled wildlife I would see a mangrove snake (very close up, right next to my foot in fact), a dola bird (quite rare),  oriental pied hornbills, all manner of insects, even a monitor lizard. But no proboscis monkey.

It was the last boat trip of my last day and I had almost given up. This redhead would leave without meeting her colorsake.

“There, over there!” I whipped around so quickly I almost overturned the boat. The other passengers gripped the side as I jumped up and almost took us all overboard.

Elusive proboscis monkey

Elusive proboscis monkey

High in a tree, he sat, his back to us; it was quite obviously a ‘he’ and there was nothing flaccid about the evidence. He munched and he spat, blithely ignoring me, however far I’d come to meet him. His friends, cousins and mates populated distant trees, their faces reflecting various stages of disdain, disinterest, timidity. As one would balefully look up, another would cast his eyes downward.

Until slowly, almost painfully, certainly shyly, Himself began to turn around. His face first became a profile, then a three-quarters shot, and finally, in splendid full frame, he looked down. Straight at me. I know he did.

He almost waved.

Proboscis monkeys

Proboscis monkeys

All right. He didn’t almost wave. But he took one long soulful look, as though he knew I’d traveled half the world to see him. Once assured he had accomplished his mission (to be sighted) and I had accomplished mine (to sight him), he was free to go.

Within minutes the tree branches were bare, a reddish hint of shadow all that remained of his regal – and most erect – self.

I had seen my proboscis monkey. And for all I know he might even have seen me.


Leyla Giray Alyanak is a former foreign correspondent with a passion for travel and improving people’s lives in developing countries. At 43 she made a major decision to reinvent herself and travel the world solo for six months. She was gone more than three years. Leyla now works for an international development agency in Geneva and she blogs at Women on the Road.



  1. Muza-chan November 25, 2013 at 9:57 am - Reply

    So cute…

  2. Jeff November 26, 2013 at 10:47 am - Reply

    At last you made it. He is sooo cute.

    • Laurel December 9, 2013 at 10:02 am - Reply

      @Jeff – Well Leyla did, I’ve yet to go, but would love to.

      • Leyla Giray January 1, 2014 at 8:03 pm - Reply

        I did – and it is worth every last bit of time and effort to go there. What I saw was a paltry part of what there was to see. Stay a few more days and you’ll be reeling.

  3. Mary @ Green Global Travel November 29, 2013 at 2:17 am - Reply

    Wat a brilliant moment that must have been – and in such a stunningly beautiful place!

    • Leyla Giray January 1, 2014 at 8:02 pm - Reply

      It was, Mary, and I’m so glad I was able to see them – it really was special. I shall return!

  4. The GypsyNesters November 29, 2013 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    Wow! So glad you got to see him! I dream of going to a monkey-rich area – your post has me chomping at the bit! – Veronica

    • Laurel December 9, 2013 at 9:56 am - Reply

      @Veronica – I’m so happy for Leyla as well, although it inspired a serious case of wanderlust to go see them for myself.

    • Leyla Giray January 1, 2014 at 8:09 pm - Reply

      Glad to hear that, Veronica – the problem is the day rushes by before you even know it. I could have sat and watched them for hours. Well, extra hours. I’d love to spend more time in that region and highly recommend it.

  5. Abby December 14, 2013 at 5:31 pm - Reply

    Yes, in Borneo, too. I spent a month there but never made it to Sandakan — but saw plenty of these spectacular monkeys lol. Leyla, you are hilarious!

    • Leyla Giray January 1, 2014 at 8:06 pm - Reply

      Thanks Abby – we aim to giggle! And Sandakan is worth seeing for other reasons, especially historical ones. I plan on returning to Sabah but this time I’ll push further South.

  6. Kathryn Burrington December 19, 2013 at 6:32 pm - Reply

    What a beautifully described encounter. Having recently spent a little time photographing baboons in West Africa it has rather reignited my interest in wildlife spotting. Hopefully 2014 will have a few more encounters in store for me!

    • Laurel December 21, 2013 at 12:12 pm - Reply

      @Kathryn – Agreed, love Leyla’s writing. I could spend hours photographing primates of any kind :). Hope that’s in store for you in 2014.

      • Leyla Giray January 1, 2014 at 8:05 pm - Reply

        Thank you both – it’s hard not to be inspired when surrounded by these amazing animals.

  7. Jennifer January 3, 2014 at 11:15 pm - Reply

    Great post, Leyla! I laughed out loud as you described what their noses look like. After reading all about your trip to Borneo, I am just dying to go!

    • Leyla Giray January 3, 2014 at 11:16 pm - Reply

      I know – I couldn’t think of any other way to describe them! I do plan on returning… I absolutely fell in love with Sabah and next time I want to go further into the hinterland.

    • Laurel January 4, 2014 at 10:07 pm - Reply

      @Jennifer – I did too 🙂 and not only is Leyla’s description funny, it’s also accurate :).

  8. Andy January 3, 2014 at 11:59 pm - Reply

    Glad you got to see them Leyla, they are amazing aren’t they? Great photos too. I saw them quite a bit in Bako National Park in Sarawak – another great spot to see them – but didn’t manage to get a good shot.

    • Leyla Giray January 5, 2014 at 7:59 am - Reply

      We wouldn’t have got the shots without a telephoto – but they were hard to get. We were so fortunate in spotting this troop in the distance! Your adventure sounds wonderful, although I’m happy our own encounters with snakes and lizards took place at a distance…

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