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How Bird Watching in Sabah Became The Top Destination In Malaysia

Sabah Birding Top Destination

While everyone is writing about ecotourism, beaches, mountains, cultures and food of Sabah, it is little known that the sport of bird watching has become one of the most successful sub-genres of wildlife tourism in all of Malaysia. 

First of all, what is bird watching? Who does it anyway? And you will be surprised at how much tourism and revenue this hobby has brought into Sabah. Yes, this is not something where you come for a four day and three-night excursion to Sabah. 

In this article, I would like to share information on how avitourism or bird watching in Sabah became one of the favourable and top destinations in Malaysia over the years. It is something that many did not see potential in until some tourism numbers and facts were shared in recent years.

Sabah Bird Watching
Bird watching in Sabah by tourist

Bird Watching In Sabah, Malaysia Borneo

Sabah sits in the north part of Borneo, which is shared by Kalimantan, Brunei and sister state Sarawak. Since the 1990s, there have been some passionate bird watchers from Sabah, who saw a lot of potentials in this area, and hence put their effort in bringing this sport and hobby to the next level. 

Before you continue to read on, I am a casual bird watcher and photographer, who has introduced to this nature-loving hobby by Cede Prudente in 2008, which makes it a good decade of birding for me. 

Over the years, I have visited numerous destinations all over Sabah, Sarawak and Malaysia to document and write about this. And to my surprise, I have found out that it is only in Sabah, where bird watching is doing the best among any other state in Malaysia. 

The main reason for this is that the people who are involved in this circle have put in 100% dedication to bird watching.

This resulted in many local tour guides, who ventured into being a bird guide, by studying the Sabah birds and attending the many training and events that are organized by various bodies.

Sabah Borneo Rainforest Birding
Birding in the Sabah rainforest is an exciting adventure

The bird guides are the most important factor to avitourism, and over in Sabah, I can vouch and say that all of the bird guides there speak good command of English.

This is a very important factor for international bird watchers that want to travel around for their hobby.

And for those Chinese or Japanese bird watchers heading to Sabah, there are even Mandarin and Japanese speaking bird guides here. This goes to show how important birding in Sabah has become.

Resorts and hotels also play an important part in bird tourism, where a number of them in Sabah actually print out a bird checklist for their resort area.

One of them is the Tabin Wildlife Resort, which gives guests a wildlife checklist booklet, including birds, mammals, insects and frogs.

Sabah Birdwatching
Bird watchers at the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sandakan, Sabah

Why is Bird Watching important for Sabah? 

Bird watchers or birders make up some of the high yield tourist, who spend three times more than the average common tourist.

While most tourist would spend three to seven days in Sabah for sightseeing, bird watchers would spend a minimum of ten days to two weeks to fully see as many birds as they can when in Sabah. 

To give you an idea of bird watchers from around the world, I will list down an estimate of how many bird watchers there are from each region of the world.

From there, you can imagine tapping just 1 per cent of those numbers from each country, and it would be a huge number for Sabah.

It was also documented that Americans contributed over USD 80 Billion to the US economy for bird watching in one year. 

  • America - There is an estimate 46 million bird watchers as of June 2018, with around 18 million that travel overseas for bird trips. 
  • United Kingdom - Estimate of 6 million bird watchers, 2 million are very active and travel.
  • Netherlands - Estimate of 140,000 bird watchers.
  • Japan - Estimate 35,000 bird watchers from BirdLife Japan.
  • China - 21,000 bird watchers from a 2010 census, with 24 birding societies all over China.
  • Hong Kong - Around 2000 members from just the Hong Kong Birdwatching Society.

Where are the Places that Bird Watchers travel? 

Most bird watchers would stay in their own country to do this hobby, but since social media came around, many have started to explore the world in search of birds, namely the endemic species and below are a percentage of where birders go to find them;

  • 32% of birders head to South America
  • 28% of birders head to Asia
  • 24% of birders head to Africa

Birding at Kinabatangan River
Birders cruising along the Kinabatangan River is Sabah

Is Sabah a Safe Bird Watching Destination? 

This is one of the main concerns of international bird watchers when they travel, and to date, Sabah has been one of the safest destinations to do bird watching.

Most of the locations are in national parks, conservations and forest reserves, making it extremely safe for any bird watching tour.

Sabah Important Birding Areas
A list of Important Birding Areas (IBA) in Sabah

Where are the most popular Bird Watching Destinations in Sabah? 

Sabah has many different types of terrains and destinations for bird watching, and the most sought after locations are where you can find the most endemics.

From the east to west coast of Sabah, you can easily spend around two weeks moving from location to location, spending three to four days in each site. 

Among the highly popular locations, they each are isolated, have their own dedicated resort and also their own dedicated bird guides.

This makes it easy and convenient for any bird watcher visiting Sabah. The locations are in no order below;
  • Kinabalu Park - West coast
  • Kinabalu Wetland Ramsar Site - West coast
  • Crocker Range - West coast
  • Maliau Basin Conservation Area - Center
  • Danum Valley - Center to East coast
  • Tabin Wildlife Reserve - East coast
  • Kinabatangan River - East coast
  • Rainforest Discovery Center, Sandakan - East coast
  • Tawau Hills Park - East coast

Borneo Birds List
Birds of Borneo poster. (Click to see full size)

How Many Bird Species In Sabah? 

The golden question, and to be exact, there are 688 species birds found in Sabah at the point of this writing.

To make it even more interesting, out of that number, 54 species are endemic to Borneo Island, and 33 species are endemic only to Sabah.

However, most of the endemic birds are spread throughout Sabah, and requires some traveling to get to them.

When you book a birding tour, they often offer single or multiple destinations, depending on how much time you plan to spend here.

Sabah Bird Watching Equipment
Some of the digiscoping equipment that bird watchers use

Why is Bird Watching in Malaysia Slow?

I tend to be asked this question by a number of foreign bird watchers when they are in Malaysia, and the main question is that why is it so hard to get some good bird guides in Peninsular Malaysia?

Well, for years, I have spoken to many in this field, and sometimes the answers I get are quite shocking. 

In Peninsular, there are only a handful of reputable bird guides, and they are always fully booked. Well, after writing so many articles on bird watching in Malaysia, I often get contacted by interested bird watchers from around the world, who plan to visit Malaysia to do bird watching.

They occasionally contact me to ask me about recommended birding guides for the places they want to visit. Some websites do offer bird watching services, but again, personal recommendations tend to be what people want.

At the end of the day, I would recommend most of my inquiries to head over to Sabah, as I know for a fact that there are many bird guides there, unlike over here. 

From my experience in the last few years, I have found that the local tourism boards are the most important marketing tool for bird watching.

And Tourism Malaysia is the national tourism board, who is supposed to promote and market this on their road trips or when they attend events. 

However, over in Sabah, the Sabah Tourism Board was fast in seizing the opportunity since 2008, by attending some of the international bird watching expos and events around the world. Because of this smart move, it brought up birding in Sabah to an international level.

Bird Photographer Cede Prudente
Former Prime Minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi with Cede Prudente at the Borneo Bird Festival in Sabah

So, how did Sabah Tourism do it? 

Very simple, they did not think about themselves, and they brought a number of reputable bird watchers or specialized tour companies that dealt in bird watching to the bird fairs and expos around the world.

I strongly believe that you need professionals to share the information, versus sending the tourism board staff for specialized events like this. 

With that kind of positive and sharing mentality of the tourism board, the information about birds in Sabah was shared from people who knew the industry. This made it easier for the would-be bird tourist that wanted to visit North Borneo or Sabah to do bird watching. 

In the early years from 2009 to 2015, several reputable bird watchers and guides from Sabah have been invited and hosted by the tourism board to attend some of the famous international bird fairs like the British Bird Fair, Dutch Bird Fair, Taiwan Bird Fair, Japan Bird Fair and many others.

Hence today, you will see many birders or bird watchers coming from those countries, and many of them return again, possibly with other birding friends.

Birding at Kinabatangan
Bird photographers and watchers on a boat

What is the Type of Bird Watchers out there? 

It is often said that the serious bird watchers or photographers will spend at least one to three weeks on a birding trip, and usually done solo, as a couple or even with a small group.

The objective would be that birding is the main focus, where anything else is secondary for this particular group. 

Below is a breakdown of what serious bird watchers are, and what they want when they travel;

  • Time at Destination - One to three weeks. 
  • Accommodation - Must be hotel, resort or lodge.
  • Influence - Must be shared by other birders about a location, logistics and so on.
  • Bird Tour Company - Must be well versed and specialized in birding tours for a long time.
  • Bird Guide - Must come recommended, or well knowledged, and speaks English.
  • Local Bird Guide Books - Operators and guides must have this, or even have it for sale to customers.
  • Expenditure - Most bird watchers will spend considerable amounts of money on their passion and hobby, and about 60% still prefer to pay more for comfort and good food.
  • Birder Age Group - Birders come at any age, from young adults to retirees, and also male and females.
  • Returning Birders - High chance of returning customers, if the service and experience are good.

Birding at Kinabalu National Park
Birders and Bird Watchers at the Kinabalu National Park in Sabah

What can be Improved for Bird Watching in Malaysia? 

Perhaps if the main tourism board starts thinking differently, then bird watching in Malaysia would gain more worldwide attention.

By different, this means allocating or increasing part of their budget to send the right people, those in the birding industry, and the correct media who writes and promotes avitourism for Malaysia. 

As I have been writing about bird watching in Malaysia for years, I once inquired about sending some media that is well versed in bird watching to the bird fairs, but only to be told that there was no such thing, and there was no budget for this. 

My main objective was to attend the bird fair and document how Malaysia faired among the international countries.

This way, I could understand from what angle we are approaching these bird fairs, versus just having a nice booth, photos and pamphlets of birds to give out.

Birders from Sabah
The Sabah birders at the Borneo Bird Festival

Personally, I think that a brand new approach needs to be done in order to promote bird watching in Malaysia, and hopefully, done the right way, it could increase the visibility of Malaysia to potential countries that have a lot of bird watchers. 

With a total of 785 bird species found all over Malaysia, it is on par with many other popular bird-watching destinations around the world.

All we need is to tap into this unique market, and by doing so, we can see a new avenue of tourism for Malaysia and possibly increase the tourist spending dollars too.

For the record, I have also done an article about the top birding places in Malaysia if you are interested to know more about avitourism in this part of the world.

Kinabalu Park Golden-naped Barbet
A Golden-naped Barbet, one of the prize endemic birds of Kinabalu Park


At the end of the day, without the support of the specialized tourism sectors and tourism boards, I have resorted to writing about bird watching on my own, and working with a very small handful of bird tour operators in Malaysia. 

One of them is no other than the Borneo Bird Club, who is also the organizer of Malaysia's largest bird fair called the Borneo Bird Festival, which was in its 10th year in 2018. They are truly one of the best-organized bird festivals in Malaysia, which does not lean towards the political side of things. 

Their objective is purely to share information, organize contests, educating the children, provide talks about birds and conservation and make bird watching a family fun event.

I believe they have succeeded in doing so, but sadly, the funding to execute such an event could be better, and also supported by more private sectors.

Birder David Hogan Jr
The writer, who is also a scuba diver that does fish watching

Every year, I would attend the bird festival in Sabah, speak to local birders, document events that go on, understand the bird watching industry there, and also get to know more about what is happening in Sabah. 

I believe that over the years, Sabah has led the way in bird watching for Malaysia, and it is only due to time that the other Malaysian states or the entire country look seriously into avitourism as one of the upcoming and potential subcategories of wildlife tourism to increase tourism numbers and of course tourism dollars.

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