Last month, I had the privilege of a personal encounter with one of the world’s most extraordinary and charismatic creatures. Deep in the primary rainforest of Malaysian Borneo, I came face to face with a “man of the forest” – as the name orang-utan means in the local language.
Last year, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge also saw these amazing animals in the Malaysian part of Borneo. My encounter was in a wilder, lesser-known area, in the state of Sarawak, at the Matang Wildlife Centre. Animals uprooted by deforestation or poaching are rehabilitated at the sanctuary, then returned to the wild in the surrounding Kubah National Park.
It was there that I helped a group of volunteers prepare hessian sacks stuffed with tapioca, jam, nuts and sunflower seeds, which are given to the orang-utans as part of an “enrichment” plan. Wearing a surgical mask and gloves (orang-utans are susceptible to human disease and it is vital they have no physical contact with visitors), I handed Aman, a 25-year-old male orang-utan, one of the sacks. I watched, mesmerised, as he carefully shucked each sunflower seed in his mouth, extracting the contents with his tongue and removing the shell from his mouth.
Aman was blind, but regained his sight after a pioneering operation on his cataracts. He is too old to be returned to the wild, but the younger orphans can be taught how to survive on their own.
This includes daytime and overnight lessons in the rainforest, and I joined four young orang-utans and six rangers during a lesson one afternoon. We hiked through dense green foliage to get to the “classroom”, to the accompaniment of a spectacular natural orchestra of the tropical rainforest, which buzzed, hummed, chirruped, barked and roared.
It was rather like being with a group of toddlers as they rolled around on the path. The orang-utans had tantrums and lay down, refusing to move. Except for the ginger hair and the wrinkled face, it could have been my son out there in the jungle. Without parents, these youngsters rely on rangers to teach them how to forage and even how to climb. One, which had been terrified of heights, overcame its vertigo after watching its foster carer climb a tree.
Soon the youngsters had tired and it was time to return to the centre. It was moving to see these young primates riding piggyback or holding their human carers’ hands as they wandered back, clutching fruit and sticks they had collected during the afternoon.
Labels: Borneo, Kubah National Park, Matang Wildlife Centre, Orang Utan, Tropical Rainforests