At the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre
Seeing orang-utans in Borneo always sounded very exotic to me, and so, Matt agrees to travel with me to see them. I had read about the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre and all the great work it is doing. We crossed northern Borneo and tied in a trip to Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp while we were in the area.
The Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre sits on the edge of a large protected area of rainforest. Wild orang-utans live in the canopy of the trees and are the largest tree-dwelling mammals in the world. There is really no need for them to come down to the ground as they eat, sleep and live high above the forest floor. They build two nests a day that take approximately 20 minutes to construct. They use the nests to rest and as a toilet, hence the need to move on and build new ones. As foragers it makes sense to keep moving each day and the nests they leave behind attract insects, which in turn attract birds. A beautiful cycle continues each day in this strata of the forest which most people are oblivious to. The term orang-utan is Malay for "man of the forest" and their resemblance to humans is uncanny. They share 94% of our same genetic material and their expressions and movements, especially in the hands, is incredible. However, their wandering ways means their interactions with the plantation owners in Borneo usually end very badly. Much of the rainforest in Borneo has been converted to the palm oil monoculture cash crop. This type of farming, with row after never-ending feathery palm trees does not support the myriad creatures that normally live in the rainforest (elephants, orang-tuans, many species of monkeys, snakes, large lizards, insects, large and small spiders, birds, bearded pigs, incredible trees and plants, etc.). And clashes with the animals and the farmers usually results in the shooting of the beast. Orphaned or injured orang-utans are brought to Sepilok and raised with the intention of being released into the wild areas surrounding the centre.
The babies are cared for in much the same way as human babies - warm clothes, baby bottles and lots of snuggling by their caretakers. As they mature, human contact is lessened and the lessons of climbing and swinging are taught. Feeding platforms in the forest attract the animals twice a day to supplement what they can't find on their own. Feeding platform A is very close to the centre's entrance and visitor information area. Visitors like us can walk a short distance on a boardwalk to watch the caretakers deliver the two daily deliveries of bananas and milk to the awaiting orang-utans. If they choose to come to the feeding platform, they can, if they would rather stay out in the forest, that is their choice. Luckily for us, several showed up. If the forest trees are fruiting, orang-tans will gladly stay out in the forest and sometimes tourists have no one to look at.
We see young ones swinging across the ropes to the platform, a mom and baby (ah! so cute!) and a large dominant male who scared all the others off the platform, including the two human caretakers! As the orang-utans mature and learn to look after themselves, they are moved deeper into the forest and attracted to more distant feeding platforms far from the watchful eyes and clicking cameras of tourists. It can take up to ten years for an orang-tan to be ready to live completely on its own. With an average life span of 35 years and the chance to have only a couple of babies, the first years are critical. The centre has had some real successes including a baby who was rehabilitated and grew up to have its own baby. A large dominant male, which has 4 times the strength of an average human male, was raised at the centre and relocated to a distant park with the hope of him never encountering another human. It is hoped he will breed with wild females and introduce new genetic material to the wild population.
As with every animal conservation story, the plight of the animals is harrowing and the future is dim. But this centre is trying to assist and the orang-utans are really the spokespeople for the ecosystem they thrive in. Rainforest is needed to support them and conservation is the key. The government here set aside the land while the centre and its financial supporters take care of the rehabilitation. With no forest to send the orang-utans to once rehabilitated, what would be the point?
I struggle with the idea of humans standing near the feeding platform watching the orang-utans. It feels like a zoo and I am frustrated with our inability to shut up and just watch. But, I also believe strongly in experiential education and unless most people see first hand, they won't understand. Seeing these creatures up close gives me goose bumps and I believe every one who sees them will understand the need for rainforest preservation. And hopefully most of them will open their wallets in support of the centre's work.
As the last of the bananas are peeled open and the milk is lapped up, the orang-utans, one by one, climb silently away into the trees of the forest all around us. This is not a zoo - I can feel their freedom, and see it growing green and tall all around me.
For more about the orangutans and the rehabilitation centre, you can look at www.orangutan-appeal.org.ukIn the Rainforest at Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp
Thick greasy mud sucks and slurps at our feet and splashes over our toes with tiny brown freckles. The vivid green forest creaks with forest creatures. Frogs and cicadas and crickets fill our ears with their clicking, creaking songs. I walk slowly along the narrow dirt path, my feet sliding beneath me as I try to balance the weight of our backpack. Heavy drops of water land on my neck and arms. I avoid the overhanging branches. I know there are leeches here.
We have just finished a two hour overland trip from Sepilok to the Sungai Kinabatangan river. A half hour boat ride has dropped us here, in the middle of the swampy wet rainforest at Uncle Tan's Wildlife Camp.
We reach the camp: a line of huts enclosed with wire mesh (to keep out the monkeys) and connected by a long boardwalk. Our room consists of three thick foam double mattresses, each with its own mosquito net. We share with a young German couple. There are a few basic rules to living here, we decide: keep the door locked at all times (monkeys raid rooms and will steal anything), keep our pack zipped (keeping out scorpions and other creepy crawlies), and -- most importantly -- shake out clothing and shoes before putting them on. Yes, as you may have guessed, our accommodation is somewhat rustic.
One of the young guides who live at the camp brief us on our schedule: a 9PM boat trip for wildlife spotting and another boat trip at 6:30AM the following day. Then a 10AM forest walk followed by free time in which we can explore the forest on our own. At 5PM, we take another boat trip along the river and at 9PM we head out into the forest to look for night creatures. The following day, we will leave the camp by 10AM.
We settle in for dinner after coating ourselves in insect repellent. There is nothing quite like smearing bug lotion over your already sweaty skin to make you feel really clean! The food is plentiful, if plain: rice, curried vegetables, chopped up meat (that we figured was probably chicken or pork), and stringy steamed greens. It is food to sustain you, not to savour. We eat in the open dining area with about 25 other guests. Before long, a huge bearded pig waddles into the camp from the jungle, an appearance that would coincide with each of our meals at the camp. A while later, a metre-long monitor lizard slithers into the muddy area around the camp. As it gets dark, large bats swoop overhead, gobbling the clouds of mosquitoes and other insects that gather in the lights. Some seem to pass just a couple of feet overhead as they dark around us. Its better than watching a movie!
When we don our lifejackets that night for our boat ride, we're reminded to shake them out well: scorpions like to hide in the pockets and other folds. Believe me, we didn't forget that lesson! The boat moves quickly through the dark, swerving around the logs and other debris floating in the thick brown water. In the front, our guide scans trees and the riverbank with a powerful flashlight. Suddenly, the boat veers toward the bank and he points up: a red, yellow, and blue Kingfisher sits perched on a vine just metres over our heads. It is perfectly still. It looks plastic until its eyes blink. Why doesn't it fly away as the cameras flash beneath it? It is completely blind in the night, we learn. Apparently, all birds are, so will only fly away if its absolutely necessary. Then, they will guide themselves to a new roost by touch only, grabbing hold of the first branch they happen to touch.
We continue along the river. Before long, the boat swerves again toward the bank. Our guide has spotted a large owl. A while later, he shows us some proboscis monkeys, so named because of their very large pink noses. The largest sits and watches us drifting past. He seems to be as curious about us as we are of him.
It is incredible how our young guide is able to spot creatures in the dark. We only spot them as the boat gets close and he points them out to us. How is he able to see them from far away with just a flashlight? Before the night is done, we have seen two owls, a group of proboscis monkeys, some long-tailed macaques, and a baby crocodile. We are in bed by 10:30, having skipped any attempt at bathing. The only available water is murky and brown, pumped in from the river. In time, however, the muddy water will be cleaner than I am and I will attempt a cursory wash.
Despite the humidity, heat, and loud jungle noises, we fall asleep quickly. Soon, we hear the 6AM wake-up call. It is time to don our gumboots (mine are wet and muddy inside, so I wear barefeet), our slightly damp and muddy clothes, and return to the boat.
Rain starts to fall before we reach the boat jetty. Within 15 minutes of chugging downriver, the sky opens into a downpour. Some of us have raincoats. Laura and I do not. I am soaked to the skin in a few minutes. I can feel my boots slowly filling with water. It is cold and the raindrops sting our faces. Still, the boat moves on. In our hour on the water, we spot the strange and colourful hornbills (birds with what looks like a beak atop their beak), an eagle, egrets, and more monkeys. Not a lot for our wet expedition, but not too bad nevertheless. We return soaking wet. I pour about three inches of water out of my boots and wring out our clothes. I decide to keep wearing my wet garments to dry them with my body heat. Its the only way they will dry in this humidity!
Our midmorning morning trek through the forest offers more interesting creatures and less rain. We wade and slop through thick mud, thankful for our gumboots. Our guide spots large spiders, including the most poisonous spider in the forest with incredibly long legs. Thankfully, its unable to penetrate human skin, so it is harmless to us! He also finds a brown scorpion several inches long, picking it up by its curled tail and letting it walk along his arm. Apparently they will not sting unless you touch the top of their bodies. A sting will, however, make a person quite ill; our guide tells us of getting stung by a large scorpion and having a fever and bad headache all that night. We also see orang-utan nests high in the treetops. Mostly, though, the walk shows us interesting insects: the scorpion, spiders, a huge orange millipede, and several different types of frogs (including the fingernail-sized variety only found on the island of Borneo). It is while everyone is looking at the frog that I feel an itchy sensation on my stomach. Reaching down, I feel a long, slimy something. I open my shirt: a two inch long leech has fastened itself to my stomach. Ugh. I take out my lighter and try to burn it off, instead lighting my belly hair in a frizzling burst. I hear someone observe that something's burning. Yes, I think, that would be me. Finally I manage to remove the wriggling black and orange leech (I discover later that its a tiger leech) and throw it away (much to our guide's chagrin ... I guess he wanted to show everyone!).
After lunch, Laura and I take a walk by ourselves in the forest. I search for spiders and other insects with limited success. We think we might hear treetop rustling of orang-utans, but discover regular macaques instead. I am able to get some good photos of the forest and swampy riverbank however.
Our best trips, however, are yet to come. That afternoon, we board our boats for another trip along the river. Our guide shows us more proboscis monkeys and as we watch a huge troop of maybe 100 long tailed macaques pass by on their way to their sleeping tree. Most unique, however, is the spotting of a red leaf monkey. It stands at the riverside looking like a child wearing a red monkey suit. Strangely, it watches us calmly as our boat approaches, unperturbed by our presence. Eventually it walks slowly into the forest to return to the trees. We learn later that our spotting is very rare, and it is rarer still to see one at the riverside. Normally, they stay high in the trees and are only seen from a great distance. We were very lucky.
That night, we gather after dinner for our night walk through the forest. We coat ourselves once more in insect repellent, expecting even larger clouds of mosquitoes than normal. We wade through mud and along narrow trails in a long line. Before long, we see a colourful kingfisher roosting at eye level. As before, it doesn't move even when we are just a few metres away. Sadly, it eventually does fly away into the trees. I worry it will end up in a less desirable roost and be vulnerable to predators in the night.
We discover several frogs and one other bird on our walk through the darkness. A highlight, however, is a huge black scorpion that our guide finds in a crevice between two treetrunks. It is as shiny as black glass and about 6 inches long. Our guide picks it up and lets it crawl over his hands and arms, instructing us on how to handle it without getting stung. Then he asks if anyone wants to try holding it. Most of us say a definitive no. One man, however, says yes. It crawls over his hands for a few moments before he asks the guide to take it away. I'm not sure if he's brave or crazy. Just minutes later, our guide points excitedly at a nearby tree. There, high on a treetrunk, sits a huge brown and beige tarantula. It is the recently discovered Borneo blue tarantula (so named because of the blue colour on its underside). It is quite beautiful in a hairy, creepy sort of way. In a few moments it disappears into a hole in a treetrunk.
Our night walk is, for me, the best experience of our visit to the forest. The variety of creatures is part of my enjoyment, but it is also the experience of walking through the mud in the dark with the night sounds of the forest around us.
Laura heads to bed while I stay in the dining area and chat with a Norwegian couple until 1AM. Then I too head to bed.
It is raining when we leave camp the next morning. The boat driver doesn't have a tarp to cover our bags, nor will he let us put lifejackets over or under them to keep them dry. Instead, we hold an umbrella over the bags as the rain falls in sheets, drenching us all. I am thankful for our waterproof pack cover, but the other guests get soaking bags despite the umbrella. We get barely a goodbye when we leave and are left with a sense that they have our money so why bother making us feel happy?
As we make the 2 hr trip back to Sepilok, I reflect on our experience. We saw a variety of wildlife and that is what we came for. However the camp clearly doesn't have a manager as such, and there is no real effort to make guests feel welcome. It is as if they want to make it as rustic and uncomfortable as possible. We were charged extra for drinking water and they hadn't bothered to equip their boats with a tarp to carry guest's clothing and bags. While it was a unique experience, I wouldn't recommend it to others. It's not the filthy toilets, brown washing water, mosquitoes, or mud that makes me feel that way: its the attitude of the staff. They simply don't seem to care.
A quick lunch and a shower at the Uncle Tan's headquarters in Sepilok and we are on a bus back to Kota Kinabalu. We return through endless stretches of palm plantations where once there was rainforest. Palm oil has taken over from the rainforest here, leaving only a few patches of true jungle for the wildlife. Of the 300 km back to Kota Kinabalu, at least three quarters is lined with massive palm plantations. Sadly, it seems the rainforest that we envision when we think of Borneo is mostly gone. Lines of palm trees remain in plantations where elephants and orang-utans are shot by workers. Even the forest where Uncle Tan's is located has been logged: what appeared to be pristine rainforest to us is actually only 60 years of growth.
We arrive in Kota Kinabalu at 8PM, seven hours after leaving Sepilok. We settle into our room, get our filthy laundry washed, and finally have a proper shower. I realize my body is covered with bites. Some are from mosquitoes, others look like bed bugs. The large welts on my butt are likely from a spider. All this despite wearing a thick layer of DEET for three days!!
We will spend only a day in Kota Kinabalu before heading south to Brunei ... the sultan is waiting!
For a description of Uncle Tan's camp, you can look at www.uncletan.com