Monday, February 25, 2013

In the cage of one of Borneo's big boys

JUST metres away, one of the largest male orang-utans in captivity is staring at me through the bars of his enclosure.

Aman appears to feign indifference but I've tumbled to his game.

When I look away, he pulls out his stick and tries to pick the lock of his cage, hands the size and colour of well-worn baseball mitts deftly manoeuvring his tool into place.

He's smart but, luckily for me, not quite smart enough to defeat a Lockwood.

And, really, I don't know what he's complaining about.

I'm the one in the cage, holding the scrubbing brush, covered in sweat from head to toe with the added ignominy of having to wear a surgical mask to make sure that I don't pass any of my human germs.

Meanwhile, he's sitting in his spacious, grassed enclosure, which I have just cleaned and strewn with papaya and bananas to lure him out, enjoying the mid-morning sun, and apparently considering a bit of break and enter.

Perhaps I should be more respectful. Aman is kind of a big deal in the orang-utan community.

In 2007, he became the first orang-utan to undergo cataract surgery, which became necessary after he ruined his eyes biting through an electrical cable.

Indeed, the big fella has been in the wars over the years - an attempt to eat some glue on one of his forays over the wall ended badly and his left index finger was bitten off by another orang-utan.

These days, he enjoys a life of comparative leisure however, surveying - with restored eyesight - his domain from atop a sturdily built climbing platform, from where he can look out over the Matang Wildlife Centre in southern Borneo.

Matang was to be my home for two weeks while I volunteered to clean up after orang-utans, sun bears, the slothful binturong and an array of smaller animals rescued from owners perhaps tired of their exotic pets, markets and defunct pet shops.

It was hot, sweaty work, in 30C-plus heat and 90 per cent humidity. Every day started with cleaning up animal dung; there was no respect - one of the orang-utans pretended to spit at me every time I walked past - and the afternoons involved sometimes back-breaking work.

And I'd paid for the honour!

I couldn't be happier.

Matang, about an hour west of Kuching in southern Borneo, was established in 1998 and is a rescue and rehabilitation centre for all protected wildlife within Sarawak.

Its main focus is orang-utans and the less well-known sun bear - a charismatic, cuddly little creature with a monumental thirst for honey - that has all but escaped the notice of wildlife researchers.

Since 2006, Matang has operated a volunteer program, allowing the public to stay for two to four weeks, helping with the care of the animals and the building and maintenance of the centre.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: In the cage of one of Borneo's big boys