Skip to main content
Cornell University
more options

Field Sites

Tawau Hills Park

Tawau Hills Park, located about 24 km from the town of Tawau in southern Sabah, consists of 280 square kilometers of rainforest and is home to a fascinating and beautiful natural environment.

Magdalena Chalet, Tawau Hills Park
The tree-climber's view from 160 feet up in the forest canopy

Massive and ancient trees are a dominant feature of the park; 60% of the park's rainforest has never been logged. Tawau Hills is home to the tallest tropical tree in the world, which stands 88.33 meters high, but it barely stands out from the other slightly shorter giants that break up the canopy on the ridge bordering our main study area. Fruiting vines and trees are scattered throughout the forest, attracting primates and fruit-eating birds.

Another prominent feature of the park is its system of rivers and streams, which include a sulfurous hot spring and a scenic waterfall. The water is clean and clear, and the park is a popular swimming spot for local tourists. Deeper within the park, tall, steep ridges lead up to the slopes of Mount Lucia, Mount Magdalena, and Mount Maria, small mountains that were once volcanoes.

Tawau Hills is home to hundreds of species of plants and animals. During the 4.5 weeks we stayed in the park, we observed more than 170 species of birds. Most of our surveying took place within a kilometer of the park headquarters; many other bird species may be found deeper in the forest. In addition to the broadbill, pitta, and babbler species we were focusing our fieldwork on, we also saw pheasants like argus and firebacks, seven species of hornbills, paradise flycatchers, trogons, drongos, sunbirds, leafbirds, bulbuls, flowerpeckers, piculets, barbets, and many other beautiful birds.


The most abundant animal of the park sometimes seemed to be the voracious land leech, which was a constant presence to contend with, especially after it rained. Other interesting invertebrates included colorful butterflies, moths and beetles, intimidating centipedes and scorpions, giant stick bugs, all sorts of ants, and large pill millipedes that curl into balls when touched. Cicadas filled the air with constant noise from dawn until dusk.

During night walks we found impressively large insects and dozens of geckos and frogs, including parachute treefrogs, which use their massive webbed feet to glide as they jump. During the day, skinks and other lizards sunned themselves on the paths, and in the pond in front of our rented house, we frequently saw several giant Water Monitor Lizards.

A large pill millipede, or 'Rolly-Poly'

Although the plantations outside of the park are said to be home to king cobras, we didn't have any confirmed sightings - although we did see very large unidentified snakes on a few occasions. Other snake sightings included a flying snake, a baby python, and colorful water snakes in the pond.

Water Monitor Lizard

Many of the park's mammals were the hardest animals to spot, with the exception of the bold long-tailed macaques that lived around the headquarters. Red leaf monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and gibbons were fairly common (we could always hear gibbons calling even if we couldn't see them). We saw squirrels as tiny as mice and as large as small cats, tree shrews, a yellow-footed marten, and a family of otters that briefly visited the pond. On one lucky walk in the pre-dawn, we came across a slow loris, and there are probably many secretive wild cats in the forest. A menacing shriek heard at night on Mount Lucia suggests that the mountains may be home to Bornean Clouded Leopards. It has been suggested that the iconic Orangutan may live deep in the park as well.

Content by Teresa Pegan.

Site designed by Daniel Gu © 2012 & produced by Sophie Orzechowski