When it comes to wildlife, few countries can match the diversity and uniqueness of the creatures found in Indonesia. It’s a reflection of the archipelago nation’s geography and the wide variety of ecosystems and habitats – a perfect incubator for an amazing array of wildlife, including many rare and endemic bird and faunal species.
The so-called Wallace Line, a faunal boundary that separates the ecozone of Asia and the Wallacea transitional zone, runs through the Lombok Strait between Bali and Lombok, and to the east of Sulawesi. West of the line, the fauna has a distinctly Asian flavour. Think mammals like the Sumatran elephant, Sumatran Rhinoceros, tigers and primates, including the orangutan, gibbon, slow loris and tapir.
The Wallacea transitional zone to the east of the line, is dominated by marsupials and birds similar to those in Australasia. It’s here that you find the Komodo Dragon, agile wallaby, bandicoot, tarsier, cuscus, sugar gliders, crocodiles and a stunning array of avifauna such as the cassowary, Birds of Paradise, hornbills and rare Maleo fowl… just to name a few.
Indonesia’s wildlife has been further influenced by the limited movement of flora and fauna between islands, which has led to a high rate of unique localized and endemic species. Creatures you won’t find anywhere else in the world.
Put simply, Indonesia is a veritable cornucopia of rare and exotic creatures. A mother lode for wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers. Memorable encounters with orangutan, cute wide-eyed tarsiers, man-eating Komodo Dragons, whale sharks and exotic Birds of Paradise are entirely possible if you know where to look.
We’ve done the hard work for you and put together Indonesia’s Top 10 Wildlife Destinations.
1. Tanjung Puting National Park, Central Kalimantan (Borneo)
Tanjung Puting National Park is arguably Kalimantan’s best known attraction and deservedly so. Even after years of travelling through SE Asia, it still ranks as my familiy’s favourite adventure.
Tanjung Puting, or Camp Leakey to be specific, was where orangutan conservation started when Canadian researcher Dr Biruté Galdikas set up the world’s first Orangutan Conservation & Research Centre there in 1971. Galdikas was one of the so-called Trimates, three women that renowned paleoarchaeologist Louis Leakey sent to study primates in their natural environment. You may not recognize her name but you’ll probably have heard of the other two; Dian Fossey who went to Rwanda to study the mountain gorillas and later found fame in “Gorillas in the Mist,” a movie about her life. The third Trimate was Jane Goodall who studied chimpanzees in Tanzania.
As well as her studies of wild orangutans, Galdikas established rehabilitation and release programs for captive, injured and orphaned orangutans, education programs and campaigned relentlessly for their protection. In 1982 after years of pressure from Galdikas, Tanjung Puting was finally declared a national park. Between 1982 – 95, Galdikas’s rehabilitation program successfully returned nearly 200 orangutans to the wild, and Tanjung Puting now boasts the largest wild orangutan population in the world. It’s one of the few places where tourists can see wild and rehabilitated orangutans in their natural environment.
Whilst the orangutan are the star attraction, the peat swamp forests of Tanjung Puting host an enormous variety of flora and fauna including proboscis monkeys, long-tailed macaques, gibbon, boar, clouded leopard, civets, Malaysian sun bear, three species of deer and wild cattle known as banteng. Crocodiles, water monitors, turtles and some highly-endangered species of frog and fish thrive in the swampy waterways. Hornbill, colourful stork-billed kingfisher and several varieties of sun bird are among 230 species of birds inhabiting the park; some like the white egret and other endangered waterbirds taking advantage of seasonal rookeries known as “bird lakes.”
Tanjung Puting can only be accessed by boat, a la African Queen style, from the nearby port town of Kumai. The vast majority of visitors charter a two-story houseboat called a klotok and spend the standard 3 days and 2 nights eating, sleeping and cruising up the Sekonyer and Blackwater Rivers, hopping on and off at the three park station spread along the river. The klotok experience is an integral part of the Tanjung Puting adventure, and makes this top notch wildlife experience all the more memorable.
Tanjung Puting is located in Central Kalimantan, not far from the small city of Pangkalan Bun. Click here for more information.
2. Komodo National Park, Lesser Sunda Islands
The UNESCO World Heritage listed Komodo National Park, definitely ranks as one of Indonesia’s must see destinations. Sitting immediately to the west of Flores and the east of Sumbawa, the park incorporates the three main islands of Komodo, Rinca and Padar and a handful of smaller surrounding islands.
There’s no doubt coming face to face with the prehistoric Komodo Dragon will send a tingle up the spine. The heightened sense of awareness that you’re in man-eater territory starts the moment you set foot on Komodo Island, one of only two places in the world where these giant lizards are found. The other is nearby Rinca Island.
Whilst it’s best known for its famous namesake, the Komodo Dragon, the national park and nearby islands have a bucket load of other treasures on offer. Stunning island scenery, fabulous beaches, a rich marine environment and safe, sheltered waters that are the perfect recipe for an idyllic island getaway.
Best of all, Komodo NP is super easy to get to, via the well-developed tourist destinations of Flores or Lombok. Click here for more information and a comprehensive guide to Komodo NP and the Lesser Sunda Islands.
3. Cenderawasih Bay, West Papua
Cenderawasih Bay is the north facing bay that separates Bird’s Head Peninsular from central Papua. It’s a massive body of water which contains a large number of islands and a rich marine environment regarded as one of the most biodiverse in the world, prompting the creation of Teluk Cenderawasih National Park in the western part of the bay.
In excess of 200 species of fish and 150 species of coral have been documented in the bay but it is best known for the spotted whale sharks that frequent the bay. Elsewhere in the world, whale shark encounters usually occur on seasonal migratory routes but in Cenderawasih, the whale sharks are there all year round, a phenomenon that marine biologists don’t yet understand.
The Cenderawasih whale sharks regularly congregate around floating fishing platforms called bagan, hoping to mop up any baitfish that spill from the nets as they’re hauled to the surface. This unique interaction between the bagan fishermen and the whale sharks is not only fascinating to watch, it also just about guarantees an up-close encounter in the water with not one, but several whale sharks.
It’s easy to see why divers and wildlife enthusiasts make the effort to travel to this remote part of Indonesia. By far the most common way to travel to Cenderawasih Bay is on a liveaboard boat, but with the growing buzz about the whale sharks, independent travellers are starting to trickle through. And as locals start to catch on to this potential income source, access is bound to get easier.
In the meantime, with the comprehensive information we’ve put together here, and a bit of determination, you too can have an unforgettable encounter with the whale sharks of Cenderawasih Bay.
4. Sukamade Beach, Meru Betiri National Park, East Java
If you’re looking for an off-road adventure where you can have an up close encounter with some of Indonesia’s incredible wildlife be sure to add Sukamade Beach to your travel list. Located on East Java’s southern coastline this beautiful long beach is known as a turtle conservation area and forms part of 50,000 hectare Meru Betiri National Park. It offers a rare opportunity to observe different species of sea turtles nesting and hatching.
All turtle based activities at Sukamade are under the supervision of a guide who will not only ensure the turtles don’t get distressed from overzealous tourists, but knows the best places to find the turtles. Watching these ancient creatures hauling themselves up the beach, laboriously scraping out a nest in the sand and laying hundreds of eggs, is an incredibly moving experience.
To protect the eggs from predators and poachers, once the turtles go back out to sea rangers collect the eggs and take them to a hatchery facility where they are incubated until they’re ready to hatch. Most days, there is at least one batch of eggs ready to hatch so after catching a few hours sleep, you can head down to the hatchery to help the rangers release the babies back into their natural habitat. Another truly moving moment.
While the turtles are the highlight of Sukamade, there are some nice short treks to be had along the beach to Teluk Hijau, a beautiful beach abutted with high cliffs, or the adjoining jungle where other wildlife such as monkeys, deer, banteng and a variety of birds can be seen.
Deeper into the national park, rumours of footprints and faeces belonging to the Javan Tiger have ignited debate about the ongoing survival of this officially extinct species, but don’t hold your breath hoping to see one.
Whilst the turtles come ashore all year round, the best time to visit is during a full moon and in the dry season when the access road is passable. Click here for details on accommodation, transport and more.
5. Tangkoko National Park, North Sulawesi
The Tangkoko National Park is located right on the northern tip of Sulawesi, sprawling over the three peaks of Mt Tangkoko, Mt Dua Saudara and Mt Batuangus and a good chunk of coastline to their east.
The park is best known as one of the last refuges for the tiny, big-eyed Spectral tarsier, the smallest primate in the world and its population of endangered Celebres crested macaques, usually seen in large family groups in the early morning or late afternoon when they are active in the tropical forest adjacent to the coast.
Finding the nocturnal tarsiers requires a bit more effort and a bit of luck, but with a torch, a good guide and a willingness to trek through the jungle at night, you’ve every chance of seeing one. At the very least, there’s a very good chance you’ll hear their vocal duets and choruses ringing through the air around dusk and just before sunrise.
Whilst these guys are the stars of the show, they’re just the start of Tangkoko’s faunal attractions. At least 127 mammals, 233 bird and 104 reptile and amphibian species have been documented in the park. Don your hiking boots and get out on some of the trails networking the park and you’re bound to be rewarded. Macaques, bear cuscus, hornbills, northern and pale dwarf squirrels are regularly sighted, and if you’re lucky, you may catch a glimpse of the ground nesting and extremely rare Maleo fowl. Click here for more information and a comprehensive guide to Tagnkoko National Park.
6. Kerinci Seblat National Park, West Sumatra
Spanning nearly 14,000km2 from the foothills east of Padang up and over the central Barisan mountain range in western Sumatra, the UNESCO World Heritage listed Kerinci Seblat National Park is renowned for its high degree of flora and fauna biodiversity.
Kerinci is recognised under the Global Tiger Initiative as one of the 12 most important protected areas in the world for tiger conservation. Camera traps and other surveys have indicated Sumatran Tigers are active in 83% of the park. The Sunda clouded leopard, marbled cat, leopard cat and the Asian golden cat also reside in the park.
Other highly endangered species found inside the park include the Sumatran dhole, Sumatran elephant, Malayan tapir, Malay sun bear and the Sumatran muntjac deer. Sadly, poaching has wiped out the park’s once healthy population of Sumatran Rhinoceros, and truthfully, the chance of actually seeing one of the parks rare mammal species is remote.
Nonetheless, Kerinci Seblat NP is still a wildlife spotting hotspot. At least seven species of primate are regularly seen in the jungle and there are more than 370 bird species, including hornbills and 17 of Sumatra’s 20 endemic birds such as the Sumatran ground-cuckoo, Schneider’s Pitta and Salvadore’s pheasant, which were all once thought extinct.
The best way to catch a glimpse of some of Kerinci Seblat’s wild inhabitants, is to get out on some of the parks hiking trails. Wildlife enthusiasts should also get out along the Bukit – Tapan Road which cuts right through the middle of the park from east to west, either early morning or late afternoon. The 30km stretch west of Sungai Penuh is a known hotspot for wildlife including mitered leaf monkeys, short-tailed macaques, siamang gibbons, slow lorises, binturong (bearcat), deer and a wide array of birds. The rangers at the national park office can even help you arrange a night safari; with a spotlight or strong torch you should be able to spot some nocturnal species such as civets, flying squirrels, cuscus and others. Little wonder Kerinic Seblat NP makes our Top 10 Wildlife Experiences. Click here for more information.
7. Orangutans of Gunung Leuser National Park, Sumatra
Few travellers will come to Sumatra and not make the trip to Gunung Leuser National Park. Located in the north east of Sumatra, the park protects a wide range of ecosystems and is regarded as the largest wilderness area in SE Asia.
Whilst Gunung Leuser is fabulously scenic and a haven for trekkers, it’s the parks wildlife that most people come to see, particularly its most famous resident, the Sumatran Orangutan. Dutchman Herman Rijksen established a monitoring station and rehabilitation centre at Ketambe, in the upper Alas River valley with the aim of rehabilitating orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans. A similar centre was later established at Bukit Lawang alongside the Bohorok River, just inside what is now the park’s eastern boundary.
In the years since, both centres have rehabilitated and released hundreds of orangutan back into the jungle. Whilst the Ketambe centre is closed to the public, Bukit Lawang has thrown open its doors and gained fame as “the” place to see the semi-wild orangutans who return to the centre for supplementary food.
Although the orangutan tend to hog the limelight, Gunung Leuser has many other notable mammals including the Sumatran elephant, Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros, leopard cat, sambar deer and the Sumatran serow, a species of goat-antelope. There are other primate species too, such as the Thomas Leaf monkey and the unusual looking Siamang, the largest of the gibbon family.
While your odds of spotting any of the more exotic mammals are slim, you can enhance your chances of seeing truly wild orangutan and the other primates by heading into the less visited northern section of the park around Ketambe or Kedah and do some trekking. Check out this link for more information.
8. Dolphin Spotting, Lovina, Bali
There’s a lot to like about Lovina, the sleepy seaside town on Bali’s north coast. It’s only a few hours drive from the island’s crowded south, but it feels like a different world. Sure, the hawkers hustle just as hard and some of the seaside establishments are a little rundown, but there’s none of the frenetic pace of southern Bali.
It’s this chilled out vibe that makes Lovina a favourite with the locals and those tourists looking for somewhere a little less mainstream. There’s plenty of attractions in the vicinity – waterfalls, hot springs, pretty coastal scenery and some great snorkelling, but the biggest drawcard are the dolphins that congregate in the bay just off the Lovina Beach at sunrise every morning.
Chugging out into the bay in a traditional outrigger boat as the sun casts its golden glow over the ocean and dozens of dolphins skip through the water around you, is without a doubt Bali’s best wildlife experience.
You don’t need to be staying in Lovina to enjoy the experience for yourself. All-inclusive dolphin tours with transfers to and from Lovina from just about anywhere on the island can be arranged through any tour agency in Bali.
But if you do decide to head north for a taste of the quieter side of Bali, once you arrive in town you’ll have no trouble organising a local fisherman to take you out to see the dolphins. Just be warned – once may not be enough so don’t blame us when you’re dragging your carcass out of bed before dawn for a second time.
9. Lore Lindu National Park, Central Sulawesi
Travellers invariably describe Lore Lindu National Park in Central Sulawesi as a highlight of their trip, and that’s not surprising given the natural and ancient archaeological treasures contained within its borders.
The park forms part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves, a testament to the amazingly diverse flora and fauna found among the tropical lowland, montane and sub-alpine habitats. Almost every mammal and bird species found on Sulawesi is represented in the park, including rare and endemic species such as the Tonkean macaque, the North Sulawesi babirusa, an odd creature that looks like a cross between a boar and a hippopotamus, the Mountain anoa, a dwarf buffalo, the super cute Pygmy tarsier and several species of cuscus.
Encountering the endemic gold snake may not be on everyone’s wish list but bird lovers will be thrilled to get a glimpse of the Maleo fowl, a bird that incubates a single egg in the warm sand near geothermal springs, or the Giant allo, the male of whom uses mud to barricade his nesting partner inside a hollow tree trunk, slipping her food through a tiny narrow opening until their chicks are hatched.
Weird and wonderful wildlife are not the only intriguing thing about Lore Lindu. Around 400 ancient stone megaliths are scattered in the rivers and rice fields of the Napu, Besoa and Bada valleys, and some of the scenery is superb. That makes a lot of reasons to visit Lore Lindu. Click here for more information.
10. Wasur National Park, West Papua
Dubbed the “Serengeti of Papua” due to its exceptional faunal and avifauna biodiversity, the Wasur National Park is hands down the best place for wildlife spotting in Papua, arguably anywhere in eastern Indonesia. Located hard up against the border with Papua New Guinea on the islands south coast, the park shares a boundary with Papua New Guinea’s Tonda Wildlife Management Area, creating a combined total protected area of approximately 10,000 km².
With some 358 bird species, including around 80 rare or endemic species such as the Fly River Grassbird, the New Guinea Harpy Eagle, several species of Birds of Paradise and tens of thousands of migratory waterbirds from as far afield as eastern Siberia, Wasur is regarded as one of the world’s leading bird watching locations. Other wildlife includes the agile wallaby, bandicoot, cuscus, sugar gliders, cassowary and freshwater and saltwater crocodiles.
Despite the far flung location, Wasur is surprisingly easy to visit, with regular flights to the gateway city of Merauke from other parts Indonesia and four villages within the park boundaries providing basic accommodation and guides. Click here for more details.