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Overview of Kinabatangan River

The Kinabatangan River is the largest and longest river in the Malaysian state of Sabah. It has a main channel length of about 560 km, a catchment area of about 16,800 sq km and covers almost 23 per cent of the total land of Sabah. Mean annual rainfall in the catchment is between 2,500 mm and 3,000 mm. The Kinabatangan floodplain is the largest remaining forested floodplain in Sabah and the lower stretches of the Kinabatangan River contain some of the few surviving freshwater swamp rainforests and oxbow lakes in South-East Asia. These evergreen swamp rainforests are of global significance for biodiversity conservation.

There are various views on the origin of the name Kinabatangan. Among these are the views of the western orientalist who believed that the name Kinabatangan referred to the "Chinese River". In Hakka dialect it means "now we possess this land". According to the local people, Kinabatangan in their language refers to the bird nest scrapper, a long wooden pole used for harvesting bird nest which is plentiful in the caves in the east coast.

Kinabatangan River Basin

Socio-economic Importance
The river, used for transport, trade and communication, has been the lifeblood of local people for centuries. Forest products such as edible birds' nests and bees' wax, elephant ivory and hornbill casqued were once traded. Nowadays there are about 20 palm oil mills in the Kinabatangan basin, which process the produce from rapidly expanding oil palm plantations. The oil is used in the production of margarine, soap, livestock feed, lubricants and many other industrial and household products. Large-scale commercial logging and small-scale farming began along the Kinabatangan in the early 1950s. This provided the people of Sabah with income and employment. Several forest reserves were created in the 1970s, but these were quickly reallocated for agricultural use.

The Lower Kinabatangan, with its unique biodiversity, it is also increasingly recognized as a destination for ecotourism and local people are becoming involved in this activity.

Orang Sungai (River People)
The Orang Sungai is group of indigenous people native to the state of Sabah. Groups of communities live along the Kinabatangan River and depend on the river ecosystem for fish, prawns and forest products including rattan, beewax, camphor and edible birds' nests. Their name originated during the colonial rule by the British, who collectively named all communities living along the Kinabatangan as the River People. Over the years they have progressively intermarried with other indigenous races and migrant groups such as the early Chinese immigrants, Bugis from Indonesia, and Suluks and Cagayans from the Philippines. They now live largely in scattered settlements along the Kinabatangan from the upper to the lower reaches. Kampung Sukau is a community of approximately 1200 people made up of 150 families who are all of the Muslim faith. It is accessible by unsealed road, branching from the main Sandakan-Lahad Datu or, alternatively, by boat along the eastern coastline of Sabah. Basic infrastructures exist in the form of small government clinic, a primary school. Electricity is available in the village but the supply is not consistent. There is still not clean running water and villager rely on rainwater and river water from the Kinabatangan.

Biodiversity Values
Some 50 mammal species (including ten primates) and approximately 200 bird species have been recorded in the area. Among these are several distinctive animals that are internationally renowned, such as Asian elephant Elephus maximus, orangutans Pongo pygmaeus, Sumatra rhinoceros Dicerorhinus sumatrensis and proboscis monkey Nasalis larvatus. The forests of the lower Kinabatangan contain the largest concentration of orangutans in Sabah and are therefore one of the most important populations in the world. Eight of Malaysian's threatened bird species are found in the area, including Storm's stork Ciconia stormi and a number of hornbills (family bucerotidae).