Preserving the 'Man of the Forest'

Tom Brown

28 Nov 2013

Orangutan Conservation

I have been back in the UK for a few weeks now and it has given me the opportunity to fully reflect on my experiences. 11-17 November was Orangutan Caring Week 2013 so I wanted to touch on my own experiences with the 2Man of the Forest2. Since I can remember animals have always played a part in the places that I travel. I am very fortunate to have a career that allows me to go to places where wildlife experiences are part of my role. My main excitement for this trip was to see the orangutans. Last year I had the opportunity to see gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild so I was eager to tick off these playful creatures to my growing list of primates and monkeys.

Orang-utans are found in Indonesia and Malaysia and are found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. There are 2 types, the Bornean Orang-utan or the Sumatran Orang-utan. The origin of the name comes from the Malay language which means ‘person of the forest’; ‘orang’ meaning people and ‘hutan’ meaning forest. It is believed that 100 years ago that there were over 250,000 orang-utans found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Continued deforestation has seen orang-utan population’s drop from between 30-50% over the past decade and it is estimated that there are only 7,500 left in Sumatra and 55,000 in Borneo. The biggest issue facing these super human like beings is that approximately 80% of their rainforest habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years. Moreover, although they are protected species in both Borneo and Sumatra, they are still hunted for their meat or captured for the pet trade. 

For this very reason, there are some extremely noble projects working hard to protect and conserve the future of this enchanting species. I was extremely lucky to be able to visit 2 of these projects on my travels and learn a little more about the work that they are doing. When in Sarawak, just outside of Kuching I had the privilege of going to Semangoh Wildlfe Centre. Set up in 1975 to care for and rehabilitate wild animals that had been found injured in the forest, orphaned or been illegally kept as pets it has been a real success story. Although officially, a wildlife centre that caters for all animals, it has become famous for its Orang-utan Rehabilitation Programme. It has been so successful that the surrounding forest has reached its carrying capacity. They currently cater for about 17 orang-utans and they have 2 viewing platforms where you can see these amazing critters in action. The aim is to rehabilitate them to the point that they can survive in the wild by themselves. When they arrive they are unable to fend for themselves, and are fed on a daily basis. There are 2 feeding times, once in the morning and another in the afternoon where the orang-utans often return in search of a free meal. Some continue to return for the rest of their lives whereas others learn to cope by themselves and this is the ultimate goal of the programme. 

I went to visit Semangoh on 2 separate occasions. I had been speaking to my guide Rives, and also to some hoteliers in Kuching and they had told me about a local celebrity at the wildlife centre – the alpha male, and oldest orang-utan at the centre, ‘Richie’. I was determined to see Richie, but was also told that he hadn’t been seen there in a while. On the first day, there was a mother and her baby, a few juveniles, but no sign of Richie so I went back the day after. As soon as we had arrived Rives had spoken to one of the local rangers and he said that Richie was there. First I went to the viewing platform. Once again, there was a mother and baby and 2 juveniles feasting on the bananas, coconuts and general fruit buffet that had been left for them. My trigger finger was at the ready and I managed to get lots of fantastic shots of them; their facial expressions are so human like and by this time I wasn’t sure if we were watching them or they were watching us.  They make for excellent models, far more photogenic than my good self. But still no sign of Richie! I waited for half an hour an hour and he didn’t show up. Gutted, I thought that I should start to head back. Whilst walking the path on the way back, one of the rangers stopped me and the folks behind me. He tells me I can’t go any further as Richie is in the car park and that they need to usher him on as it would not be safe. We waited patiently, as another mother and child pairing seemed to take an interest in us from above.

Suddenly, Rives points to another platform and there he is in all his glory, commanding the feeding platform and demolishing bunches of bananas like they were penny sweets. A massive specimen, with fully evolved face flaps that must have weighed about 90kgs! I certainly wouldn’t want to mess with him!

There he is in all his glory, commanding the feeding platform and demolishing bunches of bananas like they were penny sweets.

Having achieved my goal I was happy to leave but just as we were leaving the mother and child that were so intrigued by us earlier decide to come back for a closer look. Walking along the car park, side by side, the only thing missing was them holding hands. It made for great photo, and it made my day!

Although I could probably consider myself extremely lucky for the orang-utan experiences that I had, I was to encounter many more orangutans on my travels. In Sabah, I also visited Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. Like Semangoh, Sepilok was set up to rehabilitate orphaned or illegal pet orangutans. It was set up in 1964, and is a world renowned orangutan sanctuary that has been doing incredible conservation work for nearly 40 years. Similarly, there are feeding times in the morning and in the afternoon which tend to attract large crowds of tourists. I went for an afternoon feeding session and we arrived slightly earlier as Ben, my guide told me that there is an excellent video presentation on the work that is done there. After watching the video – and a few ‘ahhhhhs’ from the ladies in the audience when showing the new and tiny orphaned orangutans being fed milk from a bottle at the research and rehabilitation centre – we headed over to the viewing platform in front of the research station. I set up my video camera on the feeding platform and was on the ready with my camera. The rangers came along and left bananas on the platform. The first visitors were some naughty long-tailed macaques that felt they also deserved some free food. Fighting amongst themselves for bananas they were quite entertaining, but not as entertaining at the orangutans. Before long some orangutans were on their way. Ropes hang from trees leading into the feeding station and these natural acrobats shimmy their way along at lightning speed on their way to the treasure. They get their fill, and then they are happily on their way. All of the orangutans that came along were juveniles. On speaking with Ben, he told me that they do such and amazing job of rehabilitating the orangutans that older adults rarely come back to feed. I managed to get some cool videos and some more fantastic photos so I was really happy.

So I had seen lots of orang-utans but my itch hadn’t been fully scratched. I needed to see them in the wild or else I wouldn’t be satisfied. 

Luckily we had built in lots of opportunities for me to do so I was pretty confident that I would see them. Ben did keep telling me that there would be no guarantees. He said that the Kinabatangan River would be the best place to see them and he was right. A couple of days after Sepilok we made our way to Abai Lodge. From here we would travel upriver to another lodge in Bilit called Myne Resort. Over the 2 days cruising up and down the river, I think we managed to spot about 10 orang-utans in total. If I didn’t have Ben with me, and his eagle eyes then I doubt I would ever have spotted any. At the rehabilitation centres you get a bit spoilt as they are up close and personal, in the wild you have to look amongst the trees, they may be in the distance, hiding behind branches, and are generally a little shyer! But this their natural habitat, and this is them doing what they do, so it gives you a much more fulfilling feeling. I’m glad that my camera had a good zoom and I had a pair of binoculars as with the naked eye it is not quite as easy! My recommendation is to go well prepared and a good camera and binoculars are essential!

With my wild orangutan itch finally scratched I knew that now I could go home content with my work. I didn’t mind if I didn’t see any more as by now I had seen plenty. Ben said that I still had a chance to see them at Tabin Wildlife Reserve and Borneo Rainforest Lodge but I considered myself very lucky so any more would just be a bonus. As it turns out, on my way to Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley, my driver – another who seemed to have been to the same eagle eye school as Ben – slowed the 4x4 vehicle that we were in, and then reversed and pointed out a mother and baby and a juvenile female in tow. How he managed to spot these orangutans whilst driving at 40 mph down a dirt track road is beyond me, but I was very grateful for it! They were right above us, orangutans in the wild a mere 10 metres above us in the canopy. The strange thing here was that there were 2 females together. Unlike Gorillas and chimps, orangutans are solitary and aren’t found in groups. Ben said that the female following the mother and child must have recently left her mother and might have been following this family try to learn from the mother, but he couldn’t tell for sure. Anyway, it was a great ending to my orangutan experiences.

These are very special animals and I would highly recommend spending some time with them. 

If you would like the opportunity for similar experiences then please get in touch. I’d be happy to talk some more about the wonderful “Man of the forest”!

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