Friday, April 29, 2016

Eye to eye with an orang-utan in the jungle

I never thought I’d eyeball a genuine free-range orang-utan, but then I’d never been to Borneo.

“Don’t get too close, and watch out for your camera.” Sage advice from the ranger with the big stick. “Most are friendly but a few get a bit angry so we have to say keep clear of all of them.”

Welcome to Sandakan, best known to Aussies for the death march of Allied prisoners after the fall of Singapore.

Nowadays the thick, steaming jungle no doubt looks much more benign — vipers, giant stinging centipedes and mozzies aside.

But Sandakan in Sabah state now has a much more humane profile as Malaysia’s and possibly the world’s foremost orang-utan rehabilitation centre in the 4300ha Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve.

The centre at Sepilok teaches rescued, injured and orphaned animals and their offspring to forage and cope with freedom.

Tourists might like it otherwise but a successful feeding time is when all the animals have their fill of fruit and berries from the jungle and none turn up, though usually at least one is coaxed from the tall timber.

The human-supplied food is always the same and boring to encourage the animals to look after themselves but they still seem to crave interaction.

So close encounters materialise at random when a large, red and hairy great ape suddenly appears on the tourist boardwalk or in a tree next to it.

It’s hard not to be moved — and not just in beating a hasty retreat while dealing with an unusually severe case of camera shake.

Up close an orang-utan’s character comes to the fore and even one obviously naughty (and branded as such) teenager seemed more wilfully cheeky than dangerous as he uprooted a sign then charged squealing tourists only to climb the pergola offering them respite from the hot tropical sun. He was also smiling.

Rescued sun bears are also residents in enclosures so big they might as well be free to range and, unlike their neighbours, the bears always turn up for their fruit and veg.

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