Planet of the orangutans

Borneo-Indonesia Dec12-Jan13 041

Young orangutan, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah
Photo: James Robb

I should say at the outset: we never got to see any orangutans in the wild in Borneo.  Maliau Basin and the Rainforest Lodge at Danum Valley were beyond our budget, and the only cheaper alternative was closed for renovations. I reluctantly came to the conclusion that such an encounter would in any event be somewhat illusory, since the ‘wilds’ in which it is still possible to see orangutans are so small and restricted, and of necessity so carefully managed, that for a tourist it would not be a lot different from seeing them in some kind of zoo or reserve anyway.

We did have a strange and interesting encounter with the orangutans at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, however. Sepilok, just out of Sandakan in Sabah, is a very well-organised centre, on the edge of a large rainforest reserve, where orphaned orangutans  are gradually reintroduced to the wild. Often these are animals found abandoned during logging operations, or taken from people who have been illegally keeping them as pets. The idea is that they are taught the skills they need to survive by older animals, with minimal intervention by human beings. Until they are able to fend for themselves, however, they must be fed, and when food is placed on their feeding platforms it provides tourists with an easy opportunity to see them at relatively close range, from a nearby walkway.

Young orangutan, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah Photo: James Robb

Young orangutan, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah
Photo: James Robb

We saw several groups of two or three young orangutans in this way. There were about thirty tourists watching from the walkway. Before long it started to pour with rain. The rain got so heavy, I started to get worried that my new camera would get wet. I decided to make a dash back to the reception building and return without the camera. I did this, and by the time I returned all the other tourists had also been driven away by the heavy rain. But then the rain eased a little, and the orangutans were still on the feeding platforms, so we stayed and watched them a little longer, alone.

By the time we were ready to leave, so also were the orangutans. In fact, four of them decided to leave by the same route as ourselves, and came right up to the walkway. There is no fence between the walkway and the animals, and so they climbed up onto it. We tried to walk away, but they followed us. One of them was interested in the contents of my pocket.

The Sepilok Centre gives very clear instructions that tourists are not to have any physical contact with the orangutans, for good reason: not only does such contact slow down the process of their rehabilitation to the wild, but also there is the possibility that the animals might catch human infections. The Centre is particularly adamant that tourists should not carry any food with them when observing the animals, because that is the most frequent cause of unwanted contact of this kind. Once the animals sense there is food to be had, they don’t take no for an answer – and while they are not generally aggressive, there have been cases of them biting people when the food is refused.

Young orangutan, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah Photo: James Robb

Young orangutan, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah
Photo: James Robb

I support these rules, and was careful to make sure there was no food in my pockets. However, I did have a pocket knife on my keyring, and the bulge it made is what the young orangutan saw. It reached up and put its fingers into my pocket, trying to get the pocketknife. I was doing my best to avoid touching the animal, and if the contents of my pocket had been anything other than a knife, I would have let the orangutan have it. But I couldn’t let it have the knife. I imagined the headlines the next day: “Orangutan runs amok with knife at Sepilok, six orangutans injured. Given knife by stupid tourist.” I held my hand tightly over the pocket.

By this time there were four orangutans, and the situation was escalating. “We have to get out of here – just start slowly walking away”, I told my son. As soon as he started to do this, one of the other young orangutans put its long arm around his thigh and clung on to his leg as he walked. He had to stop for fear of injuring it.

I was worried that the one trying to get my knife was going to get aggressive, although it showed no sign of it, and just stared at me silently with an enigmatic, slightly plaintive smile. I thought I might get bitten when it moved its mouth down towards the pocket and my hand. Instead, it just sucked on the water that was streaming down my clothing.

I think the taste of the water must have convinced the orangutan that whatever was in my pocket was not food, because it lost interest after that, and we were able to walk away.

Young orangutan, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah Photo: James Robb

Young orangutan, Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah
Photo: James Robb

We were so charmed by the orangutans that we decided to stay for the afternoon feeding as well. In the hours in between, one young orangutan came out of the forest and wandered around the grounds of the Centre, feeding on a clump of bamboo that grows there. That is where I took these photos.

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