Published: August 2002

Proboscis Monkeys

By Tim Laman
Photographs by Tim Laman
Endowed with one of nature's most outlandish noses, a proboscis monkey munches a tender leaf. These unique primates live only on Borneo—on land increasingly threatened by chain saw, fire, and farm.

The sinuous curves of Sarawak's Salak River wind through coastal mangrove and swamp forests, prime proboscis monkey habitat. Nearby at Bako National Park, I sat in a blind and witnessed a rare sight: a proboscis monkey at eye level, crossing a patch of beach. Caught in mid-stride, this adult male displays the long-limbed grace of a primate well suited to life in the trees. The imposing tail is not used for gripping but may aid in balance as a monkey leaps aloft. Specialized plant-eaters, proboscis monkeys appear permanently potbellied because of their huge chambered stomachs, which contain a bacterial soup that helps them digest seeds, leaves, and green fruits. They avoid sweet fruits, which could cause deadly bloating from rapid fermentation.

Proboscis monkeys need large tracts of forest to sustain their dwindling populations on Borneo. Recently declared endangered, fewer than 8,000 monkeys may remain, though surveys have been limited. Imperiled by settlement, agriculture, swamp drainage, mining, hunting, shrimp farming, and fire, these monkeys face odds longer than their noses.

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