Home to thousands of natural species (with still more being discovered), Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei are a dream come true for budding David Attenboroughs. The festival of tropical flora and fauna is so abundant that this region is considered to be one of the world's 'mega-diversity' hotspots. Although vast areas of old growth forest have been cleared, a few magnificent stands remain, mostly protected within reserves and parks. You don't need to venture deep into the jungle to see wildlife, either. Botanical gardens, zoos and wildlife sanctuaries are features of each country.
Large parts of Peninsular Malaysia (132,090 sq km) are covered by dense jungle, particularly its mountainous, thinly populated northern half, although it's dominated by palm oil and rubber plantations. On the western side of the peninsula there is a long, fertile plain running down to the sea, while on the eastern side the mountains descend more steeply and the coast is fringed with sandy beaches. Jungle features heavily in Malaysian Borneo, along with many large river systems, particularly in Sarawak. Mt Kinabalu (4095m) in Sabah is Malaysia’s highest mountain.
Singapore, consisting of the main, low-lying Singapore island and 63 much smaller islands within its territorial waters, is a mere 137km north of the equator. The central area is an igneous outcrop, containing most of Singapore’s remaining forest and open areas. The western part of the island is a sedimentary area of low-lying hills and valleys, while the southeast is mostly flat and sandy. The undeveloped northern coast and the offshore islands are home to some mangrove forest.
The sultanate of Brunei covers just 5765 sq km (the Brunei government-owned cattle farm in Australia is larger than this!). The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, overlooks the estuary of the mangrove-fringed Sungai Brunei (Brunei River), which opens onto Brunei Bay and the separate, eastern part of the country, Temburong, a sparsely populated area of largely unspoilt rainforest. Approximately 75% of Brunei retains its original forest cover.
In the region’s rivers, lakes and and oceans, you’ll find a mind-boggling variety of corals, fish and aquatic life. The seas around islands and atolls, including Sipidan, the Perhentians, Tioman and specks off the northeast coast of Sabah, offer some of the finest diving in the world.
Amid thriving coral – sea fans can grow to 3km – and a wealth of sponges, divers often encounter shimmering schools of jacks, bumphead parrotfish and barracudas, and find themselves making the acquaintance of green turtles, dolphins, manta rays and several species of shark.
Know your Turtle
Of the world’s seven species of turtle, four are native to Malaysia. The hawksbill and the green turtle both have nesting areas within Sabah’s Turtle Islands National Park. Both these species, along with the olive ridley and giant leatherback, also swim in the waters off Peninsula Malaysia’s east coast. Here there are beaches which are established turtle rookeries where you may chance upon expectant mother turtles dragging themselves above the high-tide line to bury their eggs.
Top Dive Sites
- Sipidan Legendary for its deep wall dives, Sipidan is a favoured hangout of turtles, sharks and open-ocean fish.
- Layang Layang A deep-ocean island famed for its pristine coral and 2000m drop-off.
- Pulau Perhentian Coral reefs surround both islands and some you can even wade out to.
- Pulau Redang Corals, green and hawksbill turtles and a rainbow of tropical fish.
- Pulau Tioman One of the few places where you stand a good chance of seeing pods of dolphins.
The region’s lush natural habitats, from steamy rainforests to tidal mangroves, teem with mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects, many of them found nowhere else on earth. Although vast areas of old growth forest have been cleared, a few magnificent stands remain, mostly protected within reserves and parks.
Birds & Bats
Well over a 1000 species of birds can be spotted in this part of the world. The most easily recognisable species in Malaysia are the various types of hornbill, of which the rhinoceros hornbill is the most flashy. Other birds that easily catch the eye include the brightly coloured kingfishers, pitas and trogons as well as the spectacularly named racket-tailed drongo.
The region has more than 100 species of bat, most of which are tiny, insectivorous species that live in caves and under eaves and bark. Fruit bats (flying foxes) are only distantly related to insectivorous bats; unlike them they have well-developed eyes and do not navigate by echolocation.
Apes & Monkeys
Orangutans, Asia’s only great apes, are at the top of many visitors’ lists. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) estimates that between 45,000 and 69,000 live in the dwindling forests of Borneo, a population that has declined by 50% in the last 50 years. Captive orangutans can be viewed at Sabah’s Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Sarawak, and Singapore Zoo.
The male proboscis monkey is an improbable-looking creature with a pendulous nose and bulbous belly; females and youngsters are more daintily built, with quaint, upturned noses. A beautiful langur (leaf monkey) is the silvered leaf monkey, whose fur is frosted with grey tips. Macaques are the stocky, aggressive monkeys that solicit snacks from tourists at temples and nature reserves. If you are carrying food, watch out for daring raids and be wary of bites – remember these are wild animals and rabies is a potential hazard.
Tailless and shy gibbons live in the trees, where they feed on fruits such as figs. Their raucous hooting – one of the most distinctive sounds of the Malaysian jungle – helps them establish territories and find mates.
Species of leopard including the black panther and the rare clouded leopard are found in Malaysia, as well as smaller species of wild cats, including the bay cat, a specialised fish-eater, and the leopard cat, which is a bit larger than a domestic cat but with spotted fur.
The exact population of Malayan tigers is unknown but considered by WWF to be around 490, the vast majority of which are found in the jungles of Pahang, Perak, Terengganu and Kelantan.
Elephants, Rhinos & Tapirs
Around 2000 pygmy elephants live in northeastern Borneo, the largest population roaming the forests around Sungai Kinabatangan. It’s thought they’ve lived on the island for at least 18,000 years.
If you’re very lucky you may spot wild Asian elephants in Taman Negara. The animal is endangered with WWF reckoning the population across the region of being between 38,000 to 51,000.
Sadly, according a Danish study published in 2015, the Sumatran rhinoceroses, which previously had been found in isolated areas of Sabah and Endau-Rompin National Park on the peninsula, is now considered extinct in the wild in Malaysia. None have been sighted since 2007.
Similarly under threat from habitat loss is the Malayan tapir, a long-nosed creature with black and white body hair. They can also be found living in Taman Negara.
Record-breaking plants, geological gems and remarkable creatures big and small are among the multiple natural wonders within the mega diversity region of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.
A parasite that lacks roots, stems and leaves, this botanical wonder grows up to 1m in diameter. Rafflesias bloom for just three to five days before turning into a ring of black slime. Taman Negara, Cameron Highlands, Royal Belum State Park and the parks of Malaysian Borneo are the places to view these extraordinary specimens.
Found in Gunung Mulu National Park, the world’s largest cave passage open to the public is over 2km in length and 174m in height. It’s home to anything between two and three million bats belonging to more than 12 species who cling to the roof in a seething black mass as they gear up for the evening prowl.
Rajab Brooke's Birdwing
Malaysia’s national butterfly was discovered on Borneo in 1855 by the explorer and naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. He named this black and iridescent-green winged beauty after James Brooke, the White Rajah of Sarawak at the time. It can be found also on Peninsular Malaysia at below altitudes of 800m and often around hot-spring areas.
Rediscovered in the jungles of western Sarawak in 2011, after having been thought extinct for almost 90 years, the Sambas stream toad or Bornean rainbow toad, has long limbs and a pebbly back covered with bright red, green, yellow and purple warts. Also endemic of Borneo is the Microhyla nepenthicola, the world’s tiniest frog no bigger than the size of a pea.
Dense tropical jungle is not the only type of natural habitat you’ll encounter in the Malaysia. Head to the mountains and coastal regions to see different types of flora and fauna.
These remarkable coastal trees have developed extraordinary ways to deal with an ever-changing mix of salt and fresh water. Uncounted marine organisms and nearly every commercially important seafood species find sanctuary and nursery sites among the mangrove’s muddy roots. They also fix loose coastal soil, protecting against erosion and tsunamis. You’ll see them on Pulau Langkawi, Bako National Park, Kuching Wetland National Park and Brunei’s Temburong District.
A huge granite dome that formed some nine million years ago, Malaysia’s highest mountain is botanical paradise. Over half of the species growing above 900m are unique to the area and include oaks, laurels, chestnuts and a dense rhododendron forest. Elsewhere in the park are many varieties of orchids and insect-eating pitcher plants.
These heath forests, whose name in Iban means ‘land that cannot grow rice,’ are composed of small, densely packed trees. They also support the world’s greatest variety of pitcher plants (nepenthes), which trap insects in chambers full of enzyme-rich fluid and then digest them. There are patches in Sarawak’s Bako National Park and Sabah’s Maliau Basin Conservation Area.