Ecotourism in Sabah, Malaysia

November 8, 2011, 8:17 am
Content Cover Image

Orangutan at Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary. Source: Mark McGinley

This article was researched and written by a student at Texas Tech University participating in the Encyclopedia of Earth's (EoE) Student Science Communication Project. The project encourages students in undergraduate and graduate programs to write about timely scientific issues under close faculty guidance. All articles have been reviewed by internal EoE editors, and by independent experts on each topic.

caption Map of state of Sabah, Malaysia; major national parks and ecological preserves are marked.

Sabah provides a wealth of opportunity for those seeking outdoor adventure or exploration; in the words of Dr. Ong Puay LIue of the University Kebangsaan, Malaysia: “Malaysia, and especially Sabah, have much to offer to people who appreciate nature, culture, adventure, history. Sabah is a microcosm of what there is on Earth – you want mountains, there are mountains. Valleys, islands, forest, wildlife, flora, traditional cultures and mode of living – you have all these in Sabah.”4  This reality has not gone unnoticed by the state, which has pursued aggressive tourist marketing campaigns that place particular emphasis on ecotourism and environmentally responsible travel packages.4  The state is also working to promote photo-tourism, particularly among bird watchers from Western European nations and the USA. The island of Borneo has more than 600 native bird species, with 52 being exclusive to Sabah.5

Parks and preserves

The state of Sabah is home to seven protected parks: Kinabalu Park, Tunku Abdul Rahman Park, Turtle Islands Park, Pulau Tiga Park, Tawau Hills Park, Crocker Range Park, and Tun Sakaran Marine Park. Together, these seven parks contain nearly every major habitat and climate witnessed in Sabah.3  The most famous of these parks is Kinabalu National Park, which is the state’s oldest, having been created in 1964, and covering over 70,000 ha. Kinabalu Park also holds the distinction of being Malaysia’s first declared World Heritage Site since it was recognized in 2000.1

Coastal and marine attractions

Sipadan Island, once characterized by Jacques Cousteau as an “untouched piece of art,” is a marine park and bird sanctuary, as well as Sabah’s most prominent diving destination. Tropical fish species, turtles, and coral formations are all encountered near the island.1

Pulau Tiga island, one of three islands in Pulau Tiga Park, is noted for being the location of the Survivor TV show in 1999; neighboring Pulau Kalampunian Damit island is inhabited by “hundreds of amphibious sea snakes.”1

Turtle Islands Park off the eastern coast of Sabah is a marine conservatory, established to protect the green and hawksbill turtles that use the sandy beaches as a site to lay their eggs.1

Natural wonders and key attractions

Kinabalu Natoinal Park is home to the world’s youngest non-volcanic mountain, Mount Kinabalu, at an imposing 4085 meters in height it is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. First summitted in 1851, the mountain’s dense forests are home to a plethora of animal and plant species; since the creation of the park in 1964, the state has worked to conserve this site’s vibrant biodiversity. Climbing, hiking, bird watching, and hot springs remain popular attractions in the park.3

The Tabin Wildlife Reserve in eastern Sabah is an expansive rainforest destination featuring many of the state’s most rare and dramatic plant and animal species, including the Sumatran rhinoceros, Borneo Pygmy Elephant and Crested Serpent Eagles.1

The Sabah Agriculture Park in Tenom offers many agrotourism attractions to visitors; the site provides both educational and recreational opportunities to its guests. Among the well-respected elements of the park is a world-class bee research center, a renowned collection of indigenous orchids, giant water lilies, and the park’s native fruit orchard which allows visitors to explore the region’s unique fruits.1

Conservation and regulation

The seven state parks of Sabah are managed by the Sabah Parks Authority which professes the practice of passive conservation, or a nature preserve approach (the approach of leaving these regions in their natural condition without significant human interference or intervention). However, in certain cases an active conservation management approach is taken; this occurs when an organism is exceptionally vulnerable or rare, such as with the giant Rafflesia flower. The Sabah Parks Authority operates two nursery-gardens for such proactive plant conservation.3  The Sabah Wildlife Department also works to protect the wildlife and habitat in over a dozen reserves and sanctuaries for birds and wildlife across the state. In these protected areas, located predominately along the coastline of Sabah, the collection of plants or animals is strictly prohibited; while minimal-impact camping and excursions are allowed, activities that risk polluting the water or damaging the environment, including campfires, are prohibited.2

Among the sanctuaries and preserves managed by the Wildlife Department is the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary within the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, the world’s largest orangutan sanctuary. Here orphaned or rescued primates are rehabilitated, and many are eventually released back into the wild. The sanctuary is a major wildlife tourism destination, most popular during the feeding hours beween 10:00 am and 2:00 pm.

Environmental considerations and concerns

Many of the state’s marine environments, particularly its shallow coastal waters, are threatened by a host of man-made disturbances, including the development of recreational tourism infrastructure along the coastline.4
Sabah recently rejected the suggestion of relocating indigenous orangutans from their natural forest habitat in the Eastern Malaysian state to Peninsular Malaysia; the plan, suggested by members of the nation’s tourism department, called for the relocation of the primates to create an eco-tourist destination in Peninsular Malaysia. Officials in Sabah say that such a move would be traumatic to the animals, and welcomed those who wished to see orangutans in the wild to visit Sabah.4

Visitor statistics

Sabah plays host to over two million tourists per year; many of these are drawn here by Sabah’s vibrant and diverse ecological tourist destinations.4  China, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan provide the largest number or tourists to Sabah.5

References and further reading

1 Tourism Publications Corporation - Malaysia

2 Sabah Wildlife Department

3 Sabah Parks

4 Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture & Environment

5 Sabah Tourism Board   



Schlegel, L. (2011). Ecotourism in Sabah, Malaysia. Retrieved from


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