Our accommodation is in Sepilok, an area on the far eastern side of the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo (which is divided into three countries: Malaysia, Indonesia and the tiny country of Brunei). It is good value, but on the more basic side of things, the outdoor bathroom attached to our room has a ‘not quite’ cold shower to ensure you are awake in the morning!
This area is a popular tourist destination mainly because of the wildlife, and in particular primates as it is one of the few places on the planet that has 10 species of them. In fact the main reason that we included a trip to Malaysia in our plans was to see Orangutans, and today is all about these rare magnificent animals.
The name is Malay for ‘man of the jungle’ or jungle man (Orang is the Malay world for man), and Borneo is one of only two places on the planet that you can see them in the wild. We spend the day at the Speilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (http://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/sepilok-rehabilitation-centre), home of a wonderful programme that rescues young orphaned animals and raises them in a way that facilitates their release in to the wild as adults.
Orangutans are probably the closest relation to humans in the animal kingdom. Their young remain dependant upon their parents for 7-10 years (so the rehabilitation process takes a long time), a fully grown male can stand 1.4m tall and weight 100kg, and humans share 98% of their DNA. Probably more if you are a ginger.
Once the Orangutans reach a certain stage of maturity they are released into the jungle around the centre, but are still in need of support. This is done by providing food twice a day on wooden platforms in the trees, and its these ‘feeding times’ that are the major attraction for tourists, and we have time to see both feeding sessions in the day. What is interesting is that the food given is deliberately bland to encourage the animals to source their own food and become totally self-sufficient.
The excitement in the crowd builds as the trees and ropes attached to the platforms start to move, and then the suddenly you see a large ginger ape swinging and scrambling through trees and along ropes to get to the pile of fruit that has been deposited by the keeper. Its an awesome and unforgettable sight.
Arms and legs, hands and feet, are seemingly interchangeable as they move, and are clearly comfortable hanging upside down from any combination of limbs from branches and ropes. As you look up and see a little bundle of ginger fur directly above you, you are not exactly sure what they are holding on with, but are sure to follow the advice of the guide which was “don’t look up with your mouth open”. Their acrobatic ability and flair for showbiz is demonstrated in the afternoon by one of the larger males tightrope walking from one platform to another, which drew a few ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ from the crowd.
There is a clear pecking order to who gets to eat first, with the larger males sitting down for breakfast whilst the smaller ones skirt impatiently round the edge of the platforms waiting their turn. The intelligence of them is demonstrated by a pair of the smaller orang-utans working together to get some food early, one distracted the large male whilst the other swipe a bunch of bananas that they then shared between them.
In case orangutans are not enough to satisfy your wildlife cravings, there is the bonus literally popping across the road to the Borneo Sun Bear centre (savethesunbear.org). Similar to the orang-utan centre you have a series of boardwalks that take you to a viewing platform, where whilst there is no feeding times, we get to see up to 6 of the delightful little bears. They are about the size of a big dog (the smallest bear in the world), have sharp claws used to scale trees, and get their name from the patch of yellow fur on their chest. The are very cute and seem quite accustomed to posing for photographs.
For the first time on the trip we (*cough* Niki *cough*) manage to fill all the memory cards in a single day so we finish the day with a relaxed evening back at the accommodation of food, drinks and 24gb of photograph sorting….
These wonderful creatures are under threat. If you want to help, click on the following link, say ‘awww’ at the picture, feel inspired, and donate.