It was a hot, humid morning, and I was surrounded on all sides by seemingly impenetrable rain forest – jungle so thick that, in places, the tropical foliage obscured anything more than a few feet away. From the canopy above, birds chirped and a million insects buzzed, creating a cacophony that, in its own way, was as dense as the forest.
As I stood there, the black-and-white photos that I had seen the day before at the state museum played in the back of my mind – images of severed heads on wooden pikes or hanging from rough ropes, over signs explaining that, not so very long ago, headhunting was a common practice in this very place.
And then, behind me, a sound: Soft, padding, small hands and feet, the noise coming not from the moist ground but from above. I turned to see an orangutan, his mess of reddish fur contrasted against the greenery, swinging effortlessly along a line strung in the trees toward the raised platform in front of me. As he passed high over my right shoulder, he turned his head to take me in, his lively eyes flicking up and down my frame before proceeding to the meal that awaited him ahead.
I was on Borneo, one of the world’s largest and wildest islands. I was seeking adventure in Sabah, on Malaysia’s side of Borneo (the other is part of Indonesia), looking to get lost in a land that, in many places, remains largely untamed. But I was to find that, like the rest of Southeast Asia, even far-flung Sabah is clinging to its traditions as it hurtles inexorably into a modernized future.
My first stop was Sepilok, the world’s pre-eminent orangutan reserve. Part conservation area and part rehabilitation centre, it allows about 200 of these endangered apes to roam 43 square kilometres of protected territory. About 60 of the animals are in Sepilok’s rehab program. It can take as many as 10 years for the experts here to equip these animals – orphaned and rescued from plantations or private homes where they were kept as pets – with the skills necessary to survive in the wild.
During Sepilok’s daily morning feeding, orangutans emerged from the jungle and swung down to grab tubers left for them by guides, often carrying them back up the ropes to comically recline and munch away while taking in the sight of the people below.
Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Headhunters and orangutans: jungle fun in Borneo.