If Malay Borneans from all different parts of the island were asked to deliver a list of can’t-miss local celebrities, two items would certainly be mentionned by all of them: Mount Kinabalu and the Orang-Utan. And while quite some visitors – among them us – pass by the region’s highest peak, be it due to bad weather, lack of physical condition to endure the climb or the exaggerated fees (which add up to about 200€ for a 1,5 day hike) – one can dare to say that none plans to leave Borneo without getting a glimpse at its famous, sensible but ever more endangered great apes.
The easiest and most sustainable way to do so is by visiting one of the internationally funded rehabilitation centres. On the Malaysian side of the island, one of the largest and probably most famous centres is situated at Sepilok, about half an hour drive from Sandakan, Sabah’s second-largest city. From KK it’s a five to six hour bumpy bus ride over holey roads with a lot of curves… certainly not the greatest fun for delicate stomachs.
Sepilok village is a sleepy backwater and life there turns around the Orang Utans and their visitors, both foreigners & locals. As the boom of Borneo’s tourism industry seems having told the locals about European tastes, the area’s environment is not as wasted as elsewhere and several “rainforest retreats” clustered around the village cater our desire for (controlled) tropical wilderness.
Our French travel companions, Alexis and Letitia, had rejoined us in KK and together we ended up in a authentic longhouse-style dorm inmidst lush green treetops. Despite the mosquito invasion each evening the perfect hangout after the days in the hot and busy capital. Around us were several Western families on holidays with small children, most of them European expats working in KL, Singapur or Borneo’s palm oil industry (more on that later). Needless to say that all of them came to see the Oran-Utans.
A visit to the rehabilitation centre is structured by feeding times, when one (human) adoptive partent steps out on a wooden terrace to distribute greens and vegetables to its yet half-independent ape children. One of several surprisingly humanlike features, Orang-Utans take a relatively long time to mature – around 15 years until they fledge and start reproducing. Especially in early years baby Orang-Utans are totally dependent on parental care and affection, which is why – similar to baby elephants -loosing their mother is equivalent to death sentence, unless they are adopted by a human step-parent. Adopted baby apes built close emotional ties with their human care-takers and it takes them years to unleash, once they are released to the forest.
Etymologically, the name “orangutan” (also written orang-utan, orang utan, orangutang, and ourang-outang) is derived from the Malay and Indonesian words orang meaning “person” and hutan meaning “forest”, thus “person of the forest”. They spend practically all their time in trees, but contrary to what one might expect, none of their acrobatic abilities is innate, but they have to learn climbing a tree, swinging from one branch to another, balancing on branches… another factor making it practically impossible for an infant Orang-Utan to survive on his own.
The natural habitat of the red-haired apes reaches from whole Borneo to the North of Sumatra island in Indonesia. Their main natural predators are tigers in Sumatra and leopards, bears and crocodiles in Borneo. However, nowadays a far more serious threat emanates from deforestation, mainly due to largely uncontrolled expansion of the palm oil industry and habitat fragmentation by roads. The Sumatran species is critically endangered, with a total population that declined by 80% in 75 years. The Bornean Orang-Utan population declined by 50% in the past 60 years. Its range has become patchy throughout Borneo. The largest remaining population is found in the forest around the Sungai Sabangau but this environment is at risk.
Estimates by conservation organization predict that if their natural habitat was to coninue shrinking at the pace experienced during the past decades, before 2050 wild Orang Utans will become an extinct species.