Man of the Forest

Day 452 – 26 May, 2016

I don’t know what I expected of Borneo exactly. It’s wild and untamed reputation elicited images of simple communities with basic amenities, not to mention that every guidebook or blog said Kota Kinabalu was not much to look at. When my plane touched down in KK, I saw not dilapidated shacks and dirt roads, but strip malls and a Hyatt Regency. Toys R Us, H&M, Starbucks, Pizza Hut, and KFC to name a few. Sabah, the northern state on the island of Borneo, is Malaysia after all, and Malaysia had already proven to be the most developed of the countries on my Asian tour, thus far.

For the first time in several months I was on a tight timeframe in Borneo so the following morning I jumped on a bus bound for Sepilok. Sepilok, a small jungle community, is home to an orangutan sanctuary and is also the launching point for many river safaris on the Kinabatangan River. Seeing orangutans up close in their natural habitat was something I had dreamed of for ages. Before I ever left home to travel, I had considered staying at this very facility for volunteering but it was quite expensive and I had to order my priorities. However, once I had visited this facility just for a couple of hours, I truly felt sad that I had to go so soon.

Orangutans, meaning “man of the forest” in the local language, are highly endangered due to habitat destruction and mostly conflicts with humans. Like other apes, their eyes convey honest human emotions – curiosity, joy, fear, sadness. Their mannerisms mimic their human caretakers. To be amongst orangutans, was one of the most memorable experiences of my entire journey so far. The Sepilok Sanctuary rescues orphaned orangutans and then teaches them how to survive in the wild. In nature, an orangutan youth would stay with its mother for about 7 years to learn everything it needs to know. In Sepilok, they stay in a nursery with human volunteers who do their best to fill the mother’s role.

Once they are old enough, they are encouraged to venture further out into the reserve. Routine feedings are at 10:00 and 3:00 at platforms around the sanctuary to motivate the adolescents to move further away from the nursery. Some of the more confident ones will eventually leave the area altogether and still others will spend their entire lives in the vicinity. The orangutans are free to roam all day every day, but when a caretaker emerges onto a small wooden platform and dumps a basket of fruit, mostly bananas, watermelon and papaya, you won’t hear or see anything special at first. Then, suddenly, silently, a large reddish golden shape appears in a tree or from under a bush. One climbed the same ladder that the caretaker used to reach the platform. Another one acrobatically swung from rope to rope until he finally reached the fruit. They sat with their backs facing the anxious, camera-wielding crowds and completely devoured the pile of treats, albeit in a very civilized manner, patiently peeling each banana. A rogue proboscis monkey stole a banana or two, but the orangutans had their fill and were willing to share this time.

The nursery was a full house with nine young orangutans who were being rehabilitated to a stage where they too could be released into the sanctuary. They swung from ropes and ladders. They did somersaults in the grass. They rough housed with each other as children will do. And they (mostly) obediently held the hands of the volunteers when it was time for them to go for a nap. It was a parade of young little apes learning the routine of life in the wild. When the feeding platform had been cleared and the nursery was closed, I walked down the “Bird Trail” a short distance just to see what might be there.  

Three visitors were stopped in their tracks. An orangutan had stationed herself on the walkway while she ate some nuts and berries. My jaw nearly dropped and I’m sure the others felt the same. What a powerful moment to be so close to such a gentle magnificent creature.

I enjoyed the morning so much that I went back two more times before I left Sepilok. I saw a mother and her baby swinging through the trees, practicing basic skills. I saw an adolescent “naughty” orangutan steal a large plastic paint bucket and use it as a hat. Another one stole a towel and used it to rub his head and face like he may have seen his caretaker do. There were at least four in close proximity to the wooden walkway, curiously watching us watch them. Few wildlife experiences can quite match a day at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Sanctuary. It was pure bliss.

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