ORANGUTANS: CONNECTING WITH OUR DESCENDENTS
Wildlife Experience: The Orangutans
Date: 26 December 2016
Location: Malaysian Borneo
Mission : Witness and experience the rehabilitation programme to
increase the depleting numbers of the Bornean Orangutan
The precursor for my journey 7,021 miles from London to The Bornean rainforest was to see the Orangutans. The orange haired ‘Kings of the Forest’, as their name translates to in Malay. A species we can resonate with both physically in appearance and mentally.
Being an avid conservationist and advocate of sustainable travel, I was really quite saddened to hear that orangutans in the wild were declining at a rapid rate. The main reason is lack of education of the human race, deforestation and a general destruction of their natural habitat, the rainforests of Malaysian and Sumatran Borneo.
According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), there were more than 230,000 orangutans in total at the beginning of the century, including 104,700 being classed as endangered in Borneo and the Sumatran orangutan being critically endangered at approximately 7,500. The most endangered of all great apes is the Tapanuli species of Orangutan, with less than 800 individuals.
I have a keen interest in genetics and anthropology (you can take the girl out of science but you can’t take the science out of the girl!!) and the one fact that ardently sticks in my head about the Orangutan is that it shares 97% of our DNA, which makes us almost identical! It was time to witness our possible decedents in their habitat and learn of the incredible work being undertaken at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
After flying to the northern city of Kota Kinabalu, Sabah in Borneo (which in itself involved three flights!) and re-acclimatising to the tropical surroundings, I boarded a forty-five minute internal flight to Sandakan and then an onward short drive to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.
The centre was founded back in 1964 by Barbara Harrison, to rehabilitate orangutans who were orphaned and is based in a 43 Sq km protected game reserve on the outskirts of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve.
Today it is estimated that 60-80 orangutans are living free in the reserve and around 25 young orphaned orangutans are looked after in the nurseries at Sepilok. It is with thanks to the vets, volunteers and employees of the centre that the population of Orangutans has not depleted further.
Before being face to face with the animals, the staff at the centre educate you from their personal experiences as well as video footage of the heart breaking rescue operations they carry out to save Orangutans, who have been kept as pets for the exchange of money. More predominantly with babies. It is via educating the locals, who are encouraged to preserve the environment that the centre fights to rehabilitate the orangutans and eventually help them back into their environment. There is even a small museum to learn about the different species and compare how close the orangutan lineage is with ours!
Following this you are lead through a platform into the surrounding forest to watch the orangutans come to feed. Being in the rain forest, it is never guaranteed that there will be a sighting but it was my lucky day and a real once in a lifetime moment when I got to see not just one, but five adult orangutans and two babies. The thing is, yes I would’ve been disappointed if I came all this way with no guarantee of seeing an orangutan and didn’t get to see one. But on reflection, this truly shows that if they don’t show up for feeding then they are preparing and adapting to life in the wild. Something that I’m sure in hindsight would have given me solace.
FIVE FACTS I LEARNT ABOUT ORANGUTANS
In the wild, orangutan babies stay with their mother’s until the age of six to learn to climb and forage for food, the centre operate a ‘buddy’ system whereby they learn these basic life skills from an older ape.
In remote areas of Borneo, young orangutans are often kept in captivity as pets and once rescued the rehabilitation process at the centre can take up to 7 years
The feeding process is intentionally made to be monotonous in order to encourage the orangutans to go and forage for food themselves.
Sabah Wildlife board consider Sepilok to be an important tool for the education of deforestation and the consequences for wildlife, however they will not compromise the well-being of the orangutans and it is for this reason that they have the policy of not touching the orangutans.
The orangutans are eventually released into the surrounding reserve to fend for themselves, however they do come and grab the odd meal now and then. The staff know them all by name and it’s amazing to think that the whole rehabilitation process can take 10 years or more.
Orangutans are solitary creatures and are virtually vegetarian, munching on fruit but also leaves, flowers, small bark and occasionally small insects.
Standing metres from an orangutan in the wild is the most indescribable experience. It’s a mix of emotions including the realisation that these great apes look like us, have the same mannerisms, possess a high level of manual dexterity, have thoughts and feelings and an incredible force of intelligence and memory. We are alike. They are beautiful and it is disgraceful to think that the human race has tried to destroy one of it’s own by taking away their home.
One of my most poignant wildlife memories to date will always be looking into the eyes of an orangutan and feeling both emotions of guilt and delight. Guilty that it has had to come to the centre but then delighted that such a place exists where staff make it their mission to educate locals and try and replicate and preserve this great species. Their work allows our future generations to know of these orange hued shaggy descendants. I can truly say I am in awe of the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre’s work. For more information please visit The Orangutan Appeal.
One arduously rewarding Journey…
For a once in a lifetime wildlife adventure…
Sparked by one girl’s interest in great apes…
I dedicate this post to the 25 or so orangutans we lose daily due to deforestation
and the loss of their natural habitat.
Orangutans: connecting with our descendants is my entry in the
Trips 100/Audley Travel Blogger Challenge.
Win an African safari with Audley Travel by sharing your best wildlife photograph or video on your social media channels. To enter write #AudleySafari and @AudleyTravel on your Instagram or Twitter post or share directly on the Audley Travel Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/audleytravel/. To find out more or enter via the website, visit www.audleytravel.com/social. Entries must be posted between 20th August – 23rd September.