Tracking Wild Elephants Along the Kinabatangan River

(Story Originally Appeared in Playboy)

Adapting my best Martin Sheen look, we journey up river into the heart of darkness. (That being the Kinabatangan River in Borneo.) But instead of trying to locate the last outpost of a renegade Colonel Kurtz (portrayed by an overweight Marlon Brando), we are looking for elephants—lots of them.


I’m in the midst of a 10-day trek in the jungle wilds with Terra Incoginta Ecotours.  I can’t even get cell phone coverage—that’s how removed from civilization I am. No cell reception is a minor nuisance in your standard civilization setting. In the middle of the jungle, it’s downright harrowing.

For the past three days, our crew of valiant adventurers have set a float in a small motorboat dingy along the Kinabatangan River scouring the banks of the jungle in search of elephants: the Borneo Pygmy Elephant to be exact.

The Kinabatangan is the type of Malaysian river where you might encounter Christopher Walken playing a game of Russian roulette while monkeys swing from trees and let out bloodcurdling screams.

Colorful kingfishers dot the air and venomous snakes hang from trees like it were London in the swinging `60’s. The 20-foot crocodiles that hover just below the water’s surface eat the monkeys. Along the river, the food chain is in full effect: everywhere you look, something is eating something else.

“Can I feed it a marshmallow from my mouth?” I request upon our third crocodile sighting; hoping to see the food chain in effect. My request is denied.

Question:  Does an elephant shit in the woods? Answer: Yes and occasionally on the banks of rivers as well.

Three days of scouting and still not a single elephant sighting; it’s like we’re looking for the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown—the elephants are nowhere to be found. There are only 1,000 pygmy elephants left in Sabah due to logging, palm oil plantations, and human settlements. So far we’ve only seen signs of elephants. A guide Mincho spots fresh tracks along the shore.  “Smells like they’ve been here 2 days a go,” he says with an uncanny 6th sense.  Smashed fisherman’s prawn traps hang from tees in order to illustrate the stomping ability of these mighty pygmy pachyderm.

To pass the time we dip our feet into the river where the Long Tongue Fish (fish that eat dead skin off your feet) deliver comforting pedicures—just like in the fanciest of spas. To help facilitate the process, I put bread between my toes.

“I’m almost positive that was a crocodile and that’s why I screamed like a little girl,” I tell the group after the incident. (Meanwhile a herd of elephants are probably passing behind us as we play with bread between our toes.)

Each day that we journey up river, I’ve made a conscious decision to neglect personal hygiene. Like a character from Lord of the Flies, I’m close topainting my face with berries and carrying a machete in my mouth mumbling “The horror! The horror!” until an elephant sighting has been confirmed.

Our boat veers off the main river and motors down the Menangul River with it’s low handing trees and brush dipping into the muddy water.

The sky begins to get dark and overcast. Up river, Mincho spots more signs of elephants—fresh tracks. From the jungle, the distant sound of trumpeting. Mincho determines the elephant is in the vicinity–20 minutes away in the midst of the thick jungle.  We wait. Then wait some more. Then further wait. The rain increases. More waiting. This is beginning to get miserable. I’m ready to write off wild elephant sighting.

Team A decides to stay.  Team B (my squad) makes an executive decision to head back up the Menangul River in the pouring jungle rain. Drenched to the bone I pull out my emergency rain poncho. (Still in original packaging.)  20 minutes of solid rain riding in a wooden dingy. Good times. Once we get to the mouth of the river, Mincho gets a text: it’s raining elephants back where we left Team A—the herd has arrived!

Executive decision #2: we immediately turn the dingy around 360 and floor it—20 minutes back up the Menangul River in torrents of pelting rain. It makes the mission more dramatic—we have to work for our elephant sightings. Our guide pushes it to the limits.  The dingy bottoms several times.

Our group is huddled under coverings as the storm tosses us about.  Worst-case scenario: we capsize and get eaten by the 20-foot crocodiles and long tonguefish give us beautiful looking feet. All I can say is these better be some damn good pygmy elephants.

Holy crap! Three pygmy elephants are in the water right in front ofus. Rendezvousing with Team A, they’re drenched and ecstatic. As the rain pours, we’re nearly falling over each other to snap photos. The three elephants are incredible.  The rain adds to the dramatic sight.

A member of our party jumps on shore to get a good camera angle.

“Look out!” our leader warns.  “Get back in the boat!”

Large, dark images meander towards us through the thick leaves and branches as the rain continues to fall. The three elephants were merely a warm up act. One right after the other a herd of wild elephants hike towards the river. Large elephants. baby elephants. Elephants with tusks. Elephants with wise eyes staring at us. For pygmy elephants these majestic creatures are pretty darn large.

I’m laughing like a little kid. Elephants: like the kind you’d only see at zoos. Except this isn’t a zoo—they’re simply going about their lives in the jungle like it were the most ordinary thing in the world. 50—count `em 50! A herd of 50 wild elephants crossing the Menangul River directly in front of our boat. Let me say that again: 50 flippin’ wild elephants crossing a river in front of our boat!

I’m a fairly jaded person, but I have to say that this is one of the most truly amazing sights I’ve ever seen. It’s the Discovery Channel played for realseys.

And this is what it looked like from the elephants’ point of view.

The elephants linger in the grassy field across the river and grazing while making that loud chomp-chomp sound. A mother shelters her four week old baby from the rain and feeds it grass—the herd is in no hurry to move on. Three days without elephants and now there’s enough elephants to make my head explode.

Mincho looks towards the elder elephant with long tusks.

The senior elephant stares us down. Suddenly, he nods his head towards us and gives his sing of approval at our presence. Funny, it’s stopped raining.