Monday, 27 September 2010

Can orangutans tell the time?

My final destination on this trip was Kota Kinabalu, Borneo. Despite its tropical island location, it is really just another city and for that reason didn’t hold much appeal for me. So, in my search for something a little different (and some much needed time on my own) I boarded a bus to Sepilok, located approximately six hours east of Kota Kinabalu. It was an interesting and beautiful journey through winding jungle-covered mountains and narrow gullies – it was made all the more colorful by the stunning digestive pyrotechnics on display right throughout the bus. I was lucky enough to be seated in the immediate vicinity of no less than four travel-sick passengers (one behind, one in front and two beside) and at times found it difficult to keep my own breakfast down due to the loud retching and heaving emanating from the seats around me. Looking on the bright side (and armed with decent set of earplugs and an impaired sense of smell), for MYR$40 I got transport and entertainment.

Sepilok itself is a tiny place, and has very little to offer in the way of shopping, restaurants, nightlife or culture. In fact, at first glance it has very little to offer apart from a remote jungle location and a large roundabout. Whoopee! – I hear you say. Screw Paris and New York, let’s go where the action is! But really - what draws visitors to this tiny one-horse town? It is in fact the Sepilok orangutan sanctuary. Established in 1964, the sanctuary runs a world-renowned orangutan rehabilitation program which attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Set up on 43 square kilometers of land on the edge of Kabili Sepilok forest reserve, the sanctuary caters for orphaned and confiscated orangutans together with dozens of other wildlife species. Each orangutan takes over ten years to be fully rehabilitated – this may sound like a long time in human terms but in fact is only a relatively small chunk of an orangutan’s 60-year life expectancy. The baby orangutans are nursed and nurtured much like any human baby – fun times, jungle gym games and other activities designed to help them develop the necessary upper body strength required to function in the wild. They then move on to ‘infant school’ where they learn to interact and establish bonds with other young orangutans. Once they ‘graduate’ (usually around five years old) they move on to ‘outward bound school’ where they are introduced to life as a forest-dwelling orangutan and human contact is significantly reduced and restricted. Once they find their feet they are left to their own devices, rarely returning to the sanctuary for a free meal and a bit of company. The sanctuary has an incredible setup in the jungle and it was truly a rare pleasure to see the orangutans roaming freely in their own territory.

The public are allowed in to witness the twice-daily feeding at 10am and 3pm – how the orangutans know exactly when lunch time is baffles me, but at every feed without fail, there they were, ready to go. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they’ve got stolen Casio digital watches hidden under all that fur – they are rather partial to ‘borrowing’ the odd item from tourists.

The area is also inhabited by a huge number of other species, most notably the macaque monkey. Cute but feisty, the macaques in these parts are a dime a dozen and by all appearances (and in stark contrast to the low reproduction rate of the orangutans) breed like rabbits. Upon entering the sanctuary early this morning I came face to face with a large, mature short-tailed male macaque which terrified me no end. I was alone and heading toward the feeding area when he climbed up on the narrow walkway railing and headed straight towards me. He eventually stopped right opposite me and sat and stared. I took a couple of pictures and realized that I could do one of two things: run like hell, or talk calmly and quietly to him as I walked away. The former option would almost certainly result in a chase and possibly even a few bites and scratches – the latter carried the same risk but was infinitely preferable so I decided on that. He wasn’t terribly interested in me, and after cocking his head at me as I spoke softly to him (“I’m going to go this way, it’s ok, please don’t bite me as I’m too young to die of rabies and I don’t want to look like Sharon from Kath and Kim”) he looked fairly non-plussed and wandered off into the jungle. All I can say is that I’m glad he was alone – on the return journey we (being a group of around 30 people) encountered a ‘gang’ of macaques blocking our exit from the sanctuary. Attempts to get past them were met with teeth baring, snarling and lunges in our general direction which had us retreating at roughly the speed of sound. We ended up having to wait for the ranger to come along and scare them off so we could get through. Life’s tough in the jungle!

In short, my visit to Sepilok and the sanctuary was a truly magical and unforgettable experience. In the absence of words to do it justice (and the presence of some rather strong local beer) I will instead leave the pictures to do the talking. Enjoy!

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