It’s hard to believe that we were in Borneo five months ago. I am still processing the amazing and challenging adventures we had there. Now as we depart for India (tomorrow!) I wanted to post the last chapter in our Orangutan Adventure from the fall. It was an extraordinary trip in so many ways.
It was fitting that we ended our Bornean journey where all the excitement began two years ago, with the orangutans in Sepilok. But this visit was going to be very different because we were returning not as a family on holiday, but as conservationists.
At the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre there are about 25 young orangutans cared for by kind, hardworking staff. Their primary mission is to nurture orphaned orangutans, teach them the skills needed to lead a healthy life in the wild and then release them back to their natural habitat when they are old enough.
This is not a zoo with captive population of animals, it is more like a hospital and nursery school on the edge of a forest. The center is located within 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve in Sabah, Borneo. It’s a safe haven of sorts for these endangered creatures.
There are twice daily feedings on a platform at 10:00 and 3:00 and even though orangutans don’t wear wrist watches they definitely know when it’s feeding time! We planned our day at Sepilok around the feedings. Max would bring the video and external mic, while Emma and I had our digital cameras.
You never know who will come to the feedings so we were prepared for anything. On our first leg of Borneo journey (before we headed up river) we saw the morning feeding and only the big male (Miskam) came to the platform. His dominant presence kept the other orangutans (especially the young ones) away. I was pretty worried that only one orang came. I thought that it meant that there were less orangs around than two years ago and I could tell that Emma was anxious about it.
On the morning of our Orangutan Day, we were rested and well fed and feeling optimistic. We chatted with Emily (the Orangutan-Appeal UK liaison) in the lobby and heard about our plans for the afternoon. Then after we checked our bags in a locker (you can’t have anything out on the platform because the macaque monkeys will steal anything not nailed down) we headed out on the boardwalk.
The heat and stillness throbbed with cicadas. How can a bug as big as my thumb be so loud and piercing? The incessant sound builds higher and faster as the air temperature increases. We got out to the platform about a half an hour before feeding. There were just a handful of tourists waiting before us. The spot Emma wanted right in front was still in the shade but I could see the sun moving closer. It felt like an endless wait—the sun crept onwards, Max poked the ants marching on the railing, the cicadas sang higher. Finally in the distance we heard the thonk thonk thonk of a something drumming a plastic barrel—the sound signal for the feeding. Then as if on cue, a rope line across the canopy bounced and jiggled. Something was coming towards us.
She swung arm over arm ( the scientific word for it is brachiating we learned later from Dr. Nigel) with her baby securely clinging to her long red hair. She went to the back platform first and began to play with her baby. When Emma saw that there was a baby she gasped with excitement and joy! A baby! A fuzzy, bald, red headed little boy orangutan shyly peeked out. Then our excitement boiled over as a second mother arrived and her baby! Two mamas feeding on the platform and we were taking it all in. It was hard to stay in my body and present as I clicked away shooting in apoplectic joy. We shot for over 20 minutes—Max on video and me on digital film.
Following the shoot at the am feeding we had a break for lunch and then the center organized a great afternoon program for us. Emily did an interview with us and took us out to the platform afternoon feeding, and answered questions about the rehabilitation center. She had very animated stories to share about some of the orangutans. She also told us why she loves them so much. For Emma describing her love of orangutans is hard to express, but Emily’s passion for the primates rolled out of her with well rehearsed lines ‘they are so intelligent and you can see them thinking.”
After time with Emily on the feeding platform we met Sylvia, a 40 something Malaysian woman (!) who is the director of the center. (I was impressed that a woman holds this position—I’ve learned not to project my American assumptions about equality) She’s an amazing woman who’s been a part of the center for years. She gave us a brief tour of the facilities and was really genuinely happy to meet with us. We took photos outside of the gates of the center where the littlest orangutans receive their rehabilitation training. As we unrolled the gigantic check (thanks Josh for making this last minute in Singapore for our photos!) we all laughed. In that moment I felt a shift—we really were part of the project, not tourists. We were bringing them this donation—dollars from our community to theirs. It wasn’t just Emma there to contribute to the work, it was actually all of the people who supported the orangutans standing with us in spirit.
Seeing the staff at work with the orangutans was an emotional rush. The little ones were backlit– the afternoon sun lighting their red hair in a fiery halo around their heads. The rounded tummies, too-long arms and bald but hairy bodies so awkward and precious at the same time; fell in love with them all over again. I kept saying to Max—I can’t believe it that we are here. We are so lucky to see them. I can’t believe it.
After our photos, we were escorted to the café for a cold drink and even more time–a chance to interview Dr. Nigel, the staff veterinarian. Emma was really excited to have a chance to talk. She hoped to use the video later to create materials for use in school presentations and on her website. Dr. Nigel is a volunteer vet from England. He gave us good overview about orangutans shared experiences working with these animals. He explained what the orangutans had taught him “to be more sensitive” to his patients. He says he’s more compassionate to animals now. The range of emotions that orangutans show—anger, jealousy, sorrow, fear, disgust, and joy, has taught Dr. Nigel to respect all his animal patients in a new way.
Perhaps that is one of the compelling reasons for saving the orangutans. There is little difference biologically between us, and many similarities. The destruction of their habitat and severe drop in their population is tragic. We are seeing human beings at their worst.
Part of me wants to protect Emma from the orangutan’s struggle against the inevitable forces of development and big business. I don’t want her to get hurt. But sometimes we need to take a stand even if the cause is lost. This work is worth doing. I am so proud of her and her shiny youth that allows her to see a glimmer of hope where I cannot. Because in standing up for the orangutans and speaking for them, she is really speaking for all of us.