Travel Features > Book Review

Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo

Book Review by Wayne Tarman

Book Cover

When you first see a photograph of a proboscis monkey a number of questions immediately spring to mind. What on earth is that weird animal? Why has it got such a big nose? Why the beer gut? Are they rare? Where are they found? What are the chances of seeing one? These questions and more are all answered in this excellent book that manages to be highly informative without getting bogged down in the scientific jargon so loved by academics. Although the book is full of facts, data and information, it is written with the layman in mind. Its educational but also a fun and fascinating read that provides a comprehensive natural history of one of the most bizarre looking creatures on earth.

The proboscis monkey is only found in Borneo, and even then it has a limited distribution -populations are only found in coastal swamp forests and in forests located next to rivers. The male is one of the largest monkeys in the world and famed for its huge nose and pot belly. The book essentially serves as an introduction to the proboscis monkey. It focuses on their behaviour but also touches on conservation problems and future prospects for survival.

The two authors have been heavily involved in the documentation and conservation of proboscis monkeys. Elizabeth Bennett, a British zoologist, conducted the first ever detailed study of the ecology of proboscis monkeys whilst Francis Gombek has over 10 years experience of wildlife management and conservation working for the National Parks & Wildlife Section of the Sarawak Forest Department. Their wealth of experience is brought together in this colourful book.

The book is neatly divided into user friendly chapters which deal with subject matters of obvious interest. The first few chapters "First Impressions", "What are Proboscis Monkeys" and "Where are Proboscis Moneys Found" set the scene, providing essential background information before the book moves on to describe the ecology of the proboscis monkey in greater depth, discussing social life, big noses and large stomachs, diets, travel habits and natural predators. A chapter entitled "A Day in the Life of a Proboscis Monkey" describes how their daily life revolves around the distribution of food available in the forest and mangroves.

So, why do they have big noses? As the book explains there have been a whole host of theories to explain the existence of those monster hooters but in the end it all boils down to sexual selection. "Females might quite simply prefer to mate with males with big noses". Female peacocks may prefer to mate with males with great colourful tails but down in the mangroves the girls opt for huge pendulous noses.

The final two chapters "Proboscis Monkeys in Captivity" and "Proboscis Monkeys and the Future" leave the reader with no doubt that the proboscis monkey is under threat. As captive breeding programmes are fraught with problems the only way of ensuring the survival of an animal is to preserve its habitat. However, the book outlines the depressing fact that loss of the habitat has significantly reduced the number of proboscis monkeys left in the wild. With logging, human encroachment and hunting all taking their toll on the proboscis monkey population. The book calls for vigorous anti-hunting measures and the setting up of larger conservation zones to protect viable breeding populations. The conservation section ends on a more positive note saying that plans are underway to extend existing natural reserves and sanction new areas. It also warns that if these plans are not implemented a bleak future lies ahead.

The final chapter of the book provides details of accessible places in Borneo where the reader stands a good chance of seeing proboscis monkeys. Sarawak's Bako National Park is listed, as are places in Sabah, Brunei and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). There are also useful hints of how you can increase your chances of a memorable wildlife encounter.

The book's editorial content is matched by the quality of photo images that accompany the text. Most of the photographs were taken by Cede Prudente. The book claims its contains "the widest array of photos of the animal ever published". I believe it. As I've argued elsewhere, it is not easy to obtain good photos of proboscis monkeys. In that respect the number, and sheer range of subject matter, is most impressive. What's more the magnificent photographs ensure that this is a book that you return to and show to your friends.

To conclude, Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo is a thoroughly enjoyable read and a must for anyone with an interest in Sarawak's wildlife, or someone planning a trip to view these odd looking monkeys of Borneo.

Proboscis Monkeys of Borneo. Elizabeth L. Bennett & Francis Gombek; Natural history Publications (Borneo) Sdn Bhd, Kota Kinabalu, 1993. ISBN 983-312-001-4. Widely available in Kuching and priced around RM 40-45.

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