By Professor Robyn Quin
Sabah, north Borneo, offers visitors diving, snorkeling, white water rafting, jungle trekking, mountain climbing, and wildlife viewing. Travelers keen to see the wildlife of the jungles should visit the east coast, around Sandakan. Here the dense jungle is populated by orangutans, proboscis monkeys, macaques, mangrove snakes, monitor lizards and langurs.
While many of the ten species of primates in the region can be observed by going on jungle walks or river excursions, the orangutan is elusive. It is a solitary animal and much harder to spot than troop monkeys such as the macaques and lemurs. A visit to the Rehabilitation Centre offers a sure way to see the orangutans up close, while at the same time supporting conservation efforts.
Twenty minutes by road from Sandakan is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. The Centre rehabilitates orangutans of all ages. Some are just small babies orphaned when their mothers are killed by hunters. Others are adults, forced from their jungle homes when the vegetation is destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations. The baby orangs are kept in a nursery and hand fed. Those too young to hold their own bottles are taken home at night by the staff. These orphaned youngsters must learn to climb, swing, and build nests along with other life skills normally imparted by the mothers.
Rehabilitation can take up to 10 years. In the wild, the young orangutans remain with their mothers for about eight years, which explains why the restoration process can be such a long one. When considered ready the orangutans are released into the jungle at Sepilok. It is a staged process marked by progressive movement further into the jungle, a transition governed by the location of feeding platforms. There are three feeding platforms on which fruit and vegetables are spread twice a day. Only the first stage feeding platform is accessible to visitors; the others lie deep in the jungle. As the orangutans become more acclimatized to jungle life and better able to fend for themselves, they are moved to the location of the next platform further into the jungle interior.
Feeding takes place at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily and entry is 30 ringgit (approximately US$9.50). Lockers are provided free of charge because it is forbidden to take sunscreen, backpacks, or insect repellent into the jungle. An elevated walkway leads visitors a few hundred meters into the jungle to a feeding platform. At the appointed time a khaki-clad keeper will climb onto the platform and spread out his bucket of fruit and vegetables.
The arrival of the orangutans is signaled by the snapping of branches and the mad swaying of the tree tops. They swing down from the jungle canopy via vines and branches onto the platform and help themselves to the fruit provided. Some are carrying young, the babies clinging firmly to their mothers’ hairy backs. Some sit and eat their fill on the platform while others carry off bunches of bananas in their feet to enjoy in solitary pleasure in the branches of the nearest trees. The primates generally feed for about fifteen minutes before they swing off into the tree tops.
The tourists tend to drift away as soon as the orangutans take off. The canny visitor should wait and will be rewarded with the sight of a troop of macaques coming to enjoy the leftovers. There is obviously a jungle pecking order at work and the monkeys will not approach the feeding platform until all the orangutans have left.
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