People of the Forest


It was with excitement that I traipsed through the humidity along the boardwalk to see the orangutans at the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre in Northern Borneo. Immortalized in the Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book as “the king of the swingers” and having graced the silver screen on numerous occasions, orangutans are the most popular of primates. Clint Eastwood’s sidekick Clyde with his flamboyant comic antics in the movie Any Which Way You Can is perhaps the most famous of orangutan film stars. In Planet of the Apes, they were the lawmakers and their peaceable nature was manifest in the personality of their leader Dr Zauis.

Orangutans have long red hair and friendly faces. Orangutan means “people of the forest” in the Malay language. They share 96.4% of our genes and have many endearing “human” mannerisms, so it is not really that surprising they we have an affinity with these gentle apes.  It is the fact they seem so human that we consider them so lovable. My two year old daughter goes nowhere without her cuddly orangutan and it is this perceived cuddliness that is one of the greatest threats as they are popular pets, particularly in Taiwan and China. There is only tens of thousands of wild orangutans alive (estimates vary) and there is a danger they will become extinct in the next twenty years. They are a protected species but the illegal pet trade still puts their survival in peril, as does the logging of their rainforest home.

Orangutans are often portrayed as gregarious and social creatures and this is how we view them in the zoo, but they don’t behave like this in the wild. Wild orangutans are solitary creatures and quite antisocial. Only three orangutans turned up at the feeding station in the sanctuary the day I was there, but it is a bit rich to expect these solitary creatures to turn up on cue for ogling tourists. At the orangutan sanctuaries on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra young orphan orangutans are slowly reintroduced to the wild. Orangutan babies stay with their mothers for up to nine years and in this time they learn the skills to survive in the wild.

Older “buddy” orangutans are used to train the young orphans in survival skills they will need in the rainforest. Some of these orphans are victims of the illegal black market pet trade; others have been caught raiding crops by local farmers.

The orangutan is the most endearing of Borneo’s primates, but there is no doubt that the most ugly and weirdest looking is the so-called “Dutchman of Borneo”.

Nature’s veritable Pinocchio, the male proboscis monkey has a strange elongated nose. It seems to be an evolutionary anomaly, as the nose gets in the way when they are chomping on their food. Female proboscis monkeys may find the male’s nose attractive, but perhaps this is just because they have been looking at it all of their lives. The proboscis monkeys are an extremely endangered species with only about 8,000 left and they are only found on the island of Borneo. The best place to spot them is on one of the tributaries of the Kinabatangan River. Literally around the corner on the river is the Sukau Rainforest Lodge where you can stay.

Adult proboscis monkeys look like they have a middle-aged spread and have imbibed too many beers. Their potbelly stomachs are multichambered, like a cow, and filled with bacterial soup that is used to digest all of the leaves, fruits and seeds they eat. If they eat sweet stuff, they get chronic indigestion and it wouldn’t be a too pleasant environment if that happened.

In the evening, the proboscis monkeys congregate in harems in mangrove trees on riverbanks and this makes for one of the most spectacular shows in the Borneo rainforest. They jump violently from branch to branch and emit thunderous honks and roars. In an almost nonchalant display of acrobatics, they fling themselves headlong from overlying branches and across the river. Unfortunately, they often miss their target branches spectacularly and bellyflop into the water. With webbed fingers and toes they are good swimmers and they need to be as their greatest predator are the local crocs.

Other monkeys you might see include leaf monkeys and macaques, which are among the most versatile of monkey species. Macaques are widespread through various habitats in Asia and Africa, but in spite of this there are many subspecies of macaques verging on extinction. If you are really lucky you might also spot some Sumatran rhinos or perhaps an elephant.

Genetic testing is underway to see if these elephants are related to the Thai elephant or are perhaps an introduced species from India that was brought in to help build the North Borneo railway. Some exotic and colourful local birds you might spot include rhinocerous hornbills (treated with godlike reverence by some locals), crested firebacks and greater racquet tailed drongos.

The Malaysian government protects the orangutans and exotic wildlife of Borneo. Gone is the time when naturalists like Alfred Russell Wallace who traversed these parts used to shoot their specimens for posterity and to “prove” their existence to their benefactors. But the poachers remain and ply their trade in illegal wildlife smuggling.

The wildlife also has to contend with a contracting rainforest environment. Large areas of primary rainforest are being logged and being cleared for farming and mining. Up to 95% of Borneo was covered in primary rainforest at one time. It is now estimated that only half remains. Rainforest hardwoods are very popular in the west. The demand for hardwoods increases with our desire for attractive furniture for our homes and gardens.

The production of disposable wooden items such as chopsticks is eating its way through the remaining rainforests and has earned some vilification particularly for the Japanese who are the largest per capita consumers of wood products in the world. It may take a cultural revolution to stem the use of hardwoods, but not just in Japan as in the West, for example, hardwoods are often used in coffins, which in a way is a disposable use of wood. Because of the great diversity of species within a given area selective logging destroys many species that are not used. But even though the logging of primary rainforest is to some extent controlled, illegal logging and smuggling of wood products is rife in Borneo and other parts of the world where rainforest is conserved.

The success of the oil palm industry is one of the biggest threats to the survival of the Borneo rainforest and its primate inhabitants. Although orangutans will eat young oil palm shoots, it is the huge single species oil palm plantations that destroy the habitat vital to their existence.

Borneo’s wildlife is under threat. The plight of the orangutans is a symbol for the fight to save the rainforest, as even though they are the most marketable of primates they are serious danger of extinction just like their rainforest environment. At an alarming and accelerating rate, the green lungs of our planet are being restricted into nonexistence.

If you are interested in adopting an Orangutan (in abstentia of course) you can contact the Sepilok Orangutan Adoption Appeal UK, Charbury, Orestan Lane, Effingham, Surrey, England, KT24 5S, http://www.orangutan-appeal.org, email: info@orangutan-appeal.org.

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