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Borneo Bird Festival 2019 Trip Report

Trip Report Borneo Bird Festival 2019

Another year of a successful Borneo Bird Festival and for 2019, the event saw an increase in the number of people attending to slightly over 4,000 visitors in just two days.

Known as the most promising nature and birding festival in Malaysia, the Borneo Bird Festival has come a long way from its inaugural event back in 2007.

And since attending the event every year, I have come up with a trip report which includes personal observations and general information. 

Trip Report for the Borneo Bird Festival 2019

For those who may not know, the bird festival is the largest nature and birding event held in Sabah and also in entire Malaysia.

The festival is also the brainchild of Cede Prudente, who worked with the Sabah Tourism Board in bringing this event to the city of Sandakan.

Opening Borneo Bird Festival 2019
The official launching of the Borneo Bird Festival 2019 at the RDC in Sandakan, Sabah

Organized by the Sandakan Borneo Bird Club, the event gets physical support from local Sabahan birders and naturalists who in turn, act as marshalls and guides.

For this year's event, it was held at the Rainforest Discovery Center in Sepilok from the 26 to 27 of October and over a beautiful weekend.

Every year, the organizers will do their very best to include a wide selection of fun, games, contests, activities and of course food and drink vendors. 

This year saw some of the regular food vendors take place in the event area, and also for the first time, four food trucks in the car park area. 

Before you continue, you should also know that to date, there has been a record of 688 resident and migratory birds in all of Borneo and out of that, 60 birds are endemic on the third largest island in the world. 

Where is the Borneo Bird Festival held? 

RDC Sepilok
The entrance to the Rainforest Discovery Center

Over the last decade, the Borneo Bird Festival's home ground is at the Rainforest Discovery Center or RDC, which is located in Sepilok, Sandakan.

Due to the public interest and creating a state-wide awareness for bird watching and conservation, the even was taken to various destinations around Sabah.

The festival has been held at iconic locations like;

  1. Kinabalu National Park
  2. Crocker Range
  3. Kota Kinabalu City

However, after much consideration among the tourism board, council and the organizers, it was noted that the festival best takes place at its home ground at the RDC in Sepilok, Sandakan.

This way, it would be easier for those planning to visit the even and they can pre-book their transport and accommodation arrangements way ahead of time.

Who Attends the Borneo Bird Festival? 

Sabah Pesta Burung Borneo
The crowd at the recent festival at the RDC

Over the years, there have been tens of thousands of visitors to the event bringing an overall total to more than 100,000 people visiting the festival in the last decade. 

Locals make up most of the attendees while there is an estimate of 20% of international visitors that visit the festival yearly.

As for the local participants and curious visitors that attend, it is usually those who have some form of interest in nature, flora, and fauna.

One of the many booths at the event

The Borneo Bird Festival has also been actively engaging students in primary and lower secondary schools to participate in various programs created for them. 

As Cede once told me, education and knowledge begin with children, and the best way is to get the children involved in nature programs like this. 

Main Events At The Borneo Bird Festival

With a multitude of events that take place during the festival, there is, of course, the main highlights which are the bird race, bird photo race, and the year-long bird photography contest. 

  • Bird Race  - A team event open to everyone and limited to three persons per team. 
  • Bird Photo Race - An open event to individuals. 
  • Bird Photography Contest - Open to everyone months before the event. 
Winners for the Bird Related Events

Below is a list of the winners for each of the birding categories in a photo format and who the sponsors are with the prizes they got;

Student Category Bird Race Winners
Sabah Bird Race team and students winners list

Bird Photography Race Winners List
Sabah Bird Race photography contest and race winners list

Other Events at the Festival

While the above are the main highlight for the event, there are many other smaller events or even fringe events that take place during the event. 

A decent portion of events is also targeted towards younger children, school children and also teenagers. These events are created to coincide with all things birds and nature.

A participant at the colouring contest

Some of the other events and contest include;

  • Colouring contest
  • Bird Mimic Contest
  • Artistic Make Up Competition
  • Beyblade Competition
  • Drawing competition
  • Tattoo Art for Kids
  • Tree Climbing
  • K-Pop Random Play Dance
  • Caricature Artists
  • Cake Decorating Competition

Talks on Conservation and Bird Watching at the Festival

Henry Goh from BirdLife giving a talk during the event

One of the interesting segments that attract many people are the various talks conducted throughout the event.

Every year, various NGOs, birding professionals, conservationists, camera brands, and other related genres are invited to give short talks.

This task is something challenging as the objective is to provide a wider understanding of wildlife and conservation among the visitors.

Treetop Walk Sabah
The majestic canopy walkway at the RDC

But by making it too academic, the organizers have found that not many people would turn up for the talk sessions, hence they explored a mixture of hobbist and also related brands to balance the talks.

This year's talks included various people from; 

  • Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
  • Borneo Refugia Adventure
  • Alexander John, Birdlife International
  • 1Stop Borneo Wildlife
  • Nature Society of Singapore
  • Wild Tour Vietnam
  • Dongshi Forest District Taiwan
  • Raptor Research Group Taiwan

For more information on the event, please visit Borneo Bird Festival as they have the program and other vital information available. 

A Successful Event Despite Certain Promises

The assistant tourism minister for Sabah tries out a pair of binoculars

With the 11th year of running the festival, the president of the event had stressed out to the ministry and other non-governmental bodies about assisting in additional funding for this. 

Apparently, year-on-year, many promises have been made by various sectors, and always, the agreed sponsorships would be trimmed down or cancelled on the eleventh hour. 

A lot of companies or NGOs also show keen interest but in the end, they do not materialize due to budget cuts and so on. 

While the event does need proper funding to proceed, a delay in the handling of the funds by sponsors always leaves the event to be only confirmed a couple of months before the date. 

This has affected many especially in terms of booking flights and hotel rooms as the closer it gets to the event date, things start to get expensive or sold out. 

One way to resolve this issue is for sponsors and other relevant bodies to confirm the event early in the year so that the organizers can lock down the dates and start marketing the event earlier.

My Humble Opinion On the Bird Festival

Sun shining through the rainforest canopy here

After continuously visiting the Borneo Bird Festival every year, I have seen this grow from a few hundred people to thousands of visitors. 

To be very honest, I have to give it to Cede and Carol Prudente for undertaking such an ambitious task in making this happen yearly.

While some may have reserved comments on this, I have personally seen how difficult it can be to manage and operate such an event on a nationwide scale. 

As the bird festival tends to attract international participants and also visitors, it is strange that the government, council or other related NGOs do not see this as a potential tourist attraction. 

Bird festivals in other countries have grown tremendously over the last five years, but over here in Sabah, it still looks like nothing has changed.

Mascot Borneo Bird Festival
Official mascots for the bird festival

This is purely due to the lack of funding from the council, tourism ministry and other related entities from around Sandakan or even Sabah. 

I mean, for the first few years, I can totally understand as people want to see success and growth in the event. But after five years, there should already be a solid track record. 

The bird festival could have grown to a world-class level, provided that the ministry, sponsors and other related bodies see the potential. 

And by achieving this, an allocation of extra funding would not run the state bankrupt, but it would allow the organizers to actually spend more in terms of marketing and advertising the event.

Digiscoping in Sabah
A father lets his son see through a digiscope

Proper funding would also see that the event dates be fixed, and for some strange reason, I prefer if the event had a locked date instead of always waiting for the minister's confirmation to attend and have dates moved to suit this old-style move. 

Yes, back in the old days, the ministry provided funding, hence you should launch the event on a date that the minister or assistant can attend. This kind of concept should be phased out. 

People want to attend an event for the experience and fun, not to see who the VIP giving a speech is. A very old style of event organization if you ask me. 

I mean, if the minister wants to come, fine and by all means, but people should not make this into a political event and just focus the event on the public sector.

Report Borneo Bird Festival 2019
During the prize-giving ceremony

All Talk But No Action

Every year, I have heard ministers, assistant ministers, councilmen, and councilwomen go on stage to give their speech at the bird festival. 

But what irks me is the fact that there is a lot of talks, but no follow through the next year. Or somehow, the budgets have been cut and so on. 

I hear them read out how birdwatching can be a top tourism earner, how many people visited here and there, how we can improve on this to bring in more visitors and so on. 

It has always been just talking, but the following year, the same revised speech is repeated again. Nothing changed in the last five or six years. So, what is the purpose of having the minister there? 

To be honest, it would be better if they just had a casual opening instead of empty promises that need to be reviewed again the following year. 

Bird watching in Sabah is currently the number one earner for entire Malaysia, but this is mostly thanks to the self-initiative of the bird guides and bird tour companies.  

If the tourism board or ministry would actually consider looking into this genre as a high-yield tourism earner, this would be a game-changer for the birding industry in Sabah.

The birding destinations are all developed and ready to receive visitors, but the lack of promotions on this has hampered further actions to make it a success.

Handicraft from Sabah
One of the interesting booths featuring Sabah handicrafts during the bird festival

When we talk about destinations, there are numerous places like Danum Valley, Tabin, Maliau Basin, Kinabalu Park, Tawau Hills, Kinabatangan, Damarakot and of course here in Sepilok-Kabali. 

All the destinations above are more than ready to handle birding and wildlife watching, and even a majority of the guides are well-trained for both genres. 

Right now the ministry does do some sort of promotions, but I have a feeling that the focus is on the tourism numbers and Chinese visitors versus the high-yield spenders. 

If the ministry can spend millions on other slow-to-develop tourism products, why can't they for once, allocate a large sum of funding to give wildlife and bird watching to actually develop a free and natural product instead of some other man-made products. 

If executed properly, this would bring Sabah to another level of tourism highlighting the wildlife and bird watching area to the world. After all, it could be a test module for just a couple of years. 

Personally, I see this as a potential investment for the ministry to embark on and trust me, I do not see a problem as the local destinations are all ready for this.

I do really hope that someone in the ministry will read this and consider focusing on bird watching and wildlife experiences as one of the main attractions to promote. 

2020 is Visit Malaysia Year and every time we execute this, the same old tourism products are being promoted. Why not introduce something special, and to a growing international market worldwide?

2019 Borneo Bird Festival Photo
A massive group photo at the end of the event


The event was indeed a success with a large number of people turning up for the Borneo Bird Festival in Sandakan, Sabah. 

It simply goes to show that there is a market for these kinds of specialized events, and it would gain world recognition if there were more funds allocated to market this event. 

It is not your regular localized event, but more of an educational and yet touristic-related event that highlights nature, wildlife and bird watching.

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