If you have been following my blog, you will know that I have a thing for wildlife (as well as indigenous and tribal people) and I will go to the ends of the world to see them. I have been to Rwanda for the mountain gorillas, Manitoba for the polar bears, Madagascar for the lemurs, and Costa Rica for the sloths, etc. I have always wanted to go to Borneo to see the orangutans in their natural habitat. Orangutans are currently only found in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. Borneo is the third largest island in the world, divided between Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia and is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world around 140 million years old. The Borneo rainforests are one of the few remaining natural habitats for the critically endangered Bornean orangutan but unfortunately this natural habitat has been reduced significantly due to heavy logging as well as conversion of rainforest into palm oil plantations. Because orangutans are arboreal and spend most of their time up in the trees, the disappearing of trees due to deforestation has greatly affected them. It is believed that extinction is imminent in the next 10 years for the Sumatran orangutan and then soon after for the Borneo orangutan.
After some research, it appears that the best place to see orangutans in Borneo is in Sabah and specifically from the jumping off point of Sandakan in northeast Borneo. There are daily flights from Kuala Lumpur as well as Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan. I stayed a couple of nights in Sandakan at the Four Points by Sheraton hotel there before moving to Sukau Rainforest Lodge on the banks of the Kinabatangan River inside the rainforest. Sandakan was the former capital of British Borneo until 1946 and was a main trading and commercial center for North Borneo frequented by German, Dutch, and Indian traders as well as Chinese plantation owners. After WWII, the capital was moved to Jesselton, now known as Kota Kinabalu but Sandakan remained a trading port with a blossoming timber trade and palm oil production. North Borneo attained self government in 1963 and together with other former British colonies, Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak formed Malaysia. Now the government here in Sabah has stepped up efforts to protect much of the rainforests and wetlands and all the endangered wildlife whose survival lie in the balance.
In Malay and Indonesian, orang means “person” and hutan means “forest” put together orangutan translates to “person of the forest”. Orangutans are great apes and are very closely related to us sharing 97% of our DNA. Like us humans, they have opposable thumbs as well as big toes. They also have emotions, are extremely observant and inquisitive, and are considered one of the world’s most intelligent primates. They know how to use tools to poke into termite mounds and use branches to test how deep the water is before crossing streams. They can even make umbrellas from leaves as well as elaborate sleeping nests which they build new ones each night. It has been known that orangutans in captivity learn how to unlock doors and escape zoos just by observing their keepers doing so. Their arms when stretched out are longer than their bodies with an average span of over 2 meters and are super strong for them to swing from tree to tree. Their main diet is made of fruit and other vegetation and sometimes insects and bird eggs. Mature male orangutans develop large cheek pads on their faces and produce long calls to attract the females. Orangutans are the most solitary of the great apes where the males live alone and the females live with their offspring for six to seven years which is the longest dependency in the animal world. That is also probably why female orangutans only give birth once every 6 or 7 years which is also the longest time period of any animal. In the wild, orangutans can live up 30 to 40 years and even longer in captivity.
There are several orangutan reserves as well as rehabilitation centers and sanctuaries in Borneo. In Sarawak area, there is the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center near Kuching whose mission is to reintroduce orangutans into the wild. However, the most famous rehabilitation center is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center in Sabah about 40 minutes from Sandakan. This 43 km² sanctuary is the largest of its kind in the world where orphaned, injured, and illegally captured orangutans are rescued and taught to survive in the wild by pairing young ones with older ones. In the wild, young orangutans are dependent on their mothers for the first 6-7 years of their lives and it is during this time when they learn crucial survival skills. The sanctuary has wooden boardwalks and tall platforms where visitors can observe the orangutans. There are daily feedings at 10am and is the best chance to see them. During my visit, only a mother orangutan and her baby came for the feeding as well as a bunch of macaques. We were told that this is good because it means that the other orangutans are able to find food on their own in the forest. There is also a newly completed enclosed nursery area for the younger ones where you can sit and watch them play.
Next to Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center is the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center opened in 2014 dedicated to raise awareness and the rehabilitation of the world’s smallest bear. There are about 45 sun bears rescued from captivity living here. The goal is to try to rehabilitate these bears so that they can be released back into the wild. For those that cannot be reintroduced into the wild, this will hopefully be a comfortable long-term home for them. The population of these smallest bears where adults are only about 120-150cm tall are drastically declining due to poaching and habitat loss from deforestation. Sun bears are one of three bear species targeted for the bear bile trade in Southeast Asia where they are kept in bear farms for the sole purpose of having their bile harvested. Governments in Asia has stepped up efforts to make bear bile harvesting illegal but it is supposedly still quite widespread in Malaysia.
Another sanctuary near Sandakan is the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary which I will talk about in my next post. Stay tuned!
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