Labuk Bay


“Click, click, click” goes my camera, and I look through the lens to focus on that huge proboscis monkey, that is sitting so proud and sturdy on a tree-trunk. Click! Those photos are going to be beautiful. Then all of a sudden, “boom, boom, boom” it goes, the floor beneath me begins to shake, people begin to scream. It all happens so fast. When I turn around to look behind me, he is sitting right there: one of those giant monkeys. He is sitting at the edge of the verandah and is staring at us, expectant and urging at once. All of us have a camera hanging around our necks, but none of us dares to make a move… The award-winning photo escapes us! As if grounded we stand there motionless, waiting for him to make his next move.

And then – sigh… – he jumps down and our adventure has come to an end. My four-year-old son has begun to cry. proboscis monkeyFor a moment he had stood face to face with the monkey, when it had jumped on the table right next to him and had sideways looked him in the eye, before jumping to the next table with a loud thump. But his fear turned out to be unfounded…: “Mama, mama, I thought the monkey was going to turn over my chocolate milk!”, he sobs. Oh no, your chocolate milk is still standing.
For once and for all we had a close encounter with the proboscis monkey, the monkey that was so high on our ‘hope-to-see-list’ while travelling through Sabah. The feeding session is just about to begin and we are ready for it!


That morning a taxi had brought us in just an hour from Sepilok to “Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary”. First we drove some kilometres on the highway towards Kota Kinabalu, then took a 15 kilometre long, bumpy unpaved road to the coast. All this time we were driving through vast palm oil proboscis monkeysplantations and were wondering if there was indeed something left of Sabah’s famous nature…
Having arrived in the spacious, wooden observation enter, we sat down on one of the benches on the verandah. At once we saw them, the proboscis monkeys. Tens of them were hanging in the trees, played with one another, jumping from tree to tree or just looking about the place. They were waiting for the food - fruit and water - that is given to them twice a day. Mister Wong had been telling us all about the center and had taken us for a small walk over the boardwalk through the mangroves. The boardwalk is 0,8 kilometre long and where I expected, at the end of the walk, to see the Sulu Sea, it turned out to be quite a distance away still. It was low tide, the ground very muddy. Between the roots of the mangrove little slimy fish and tiny blue crabs were crawling in the mud. The mangrove forest of Labuk Bay is just 5 kilometre wide. Beyond that, the palm oil plantations with their immense vastness have even reached the coast. The center has to survive without receiving any subsidies from the state. That is why the entry fee is quite high, 60 Ringgit per person, about 12 Euro.


Mister Wong reassures us, the male monkey just wanted to let us know he is hungry. No problem, there is the food! At 11.30 AM the first feeding session starts, in the afternoon the second. And while the animals get their food on several wooden platforms, we as spectators can watch and take great shots of those monkeys! in the mangroves
Labuk Bay is a beautiful place. The visitor gets a free drink and can watch a video about the proboscis monkey, that has been filmed in the center. Also there are six rooms for rent. In the sanctuary you can find three groups of proboscis monkeys: two families with each their own leader, the strongest among the males; plus a group of young males: the bachelor group. As soon as one of the males feels himself big and strong enough, he will seek to take over the leadership of one of the families. The male with his long drooping nose, his fat belly and his long, straight red penis, is a comical and photogenic animal. In Malaysia they call him “Monyet Belanda”, which means Dutch monkey! With a giggle we are told that this is because of its orange colour, but we - being Dutch - assume that they are withholding the truth for us… That huge nose? That fat belly?


proboscisThe proboscis monkey is endemic to Borneo and usually lives in the mangroves on the coast or the forests along the rivers, in groups of about forty monkeys. Due to large-scale deforestation their natural habitat has largely disappeared and now there are only some 2000 proboscis monkeys remaining in Sabah. Huge palm oil plantations have replaced the mangroves and tropical forest: an endless and monotonous landscape. Fortunately at least one planter had an eye for the miserable circumstances in which the monkeys found themselves to be and dedicated a (tiny) part of his plantation to the protection of the habitat of these unique animals. By that time, as most of their habitat had disappeared, the animals had a hard time finding food. That is why the feeding sessions began, to increase their chances of survival. Ever since, some forty monkeys come to the center daily in search of food. At the same time research can be done as to how the animals are doing and how many babies are being born in the sanctuary. To keep being able to sustain the growing number of monkeys, it is of great importance that new trees are planted, f.e. with the help of schoolchildren in the vicinity. macaqueLabuk Bay is the only place in Sabah where you can see the proboscis monkey from up close, and still we did not get the “zoo-feeling”. On the contrary, the monkeys stayed at an appropriate distance (except that one male…) and are still soundly shy of people. And after the feeding session they slowly return one by one into the woods


© 2005, Monique van Gaal
The Dutch version of this story has been published in Azië Magazine no. 107 Aug/Sep 2005.