During the three years I worked at the Louisville Zoo during high school, I found a way most days to pop in and see the orangutans. I swear that these hairy “men of the forest”* seemed to recognize me and other frequent visitors. You could tell from their eyes that they were smart. And you could tell from their behavior that they loved to play. sometimes I’d come in with the task of washing the visitor side of the window into their enclosures, removing the handprints and noseprints of all the people who couldn’t resist getting close to the orangutans. As I’d work, the orangutans would watch, and when they were feeling naughty, they’d look right at the part I’d just cleaned and then grab some banana and smoosh it right onto the window on their side, the side I couldn’t get to. It made me laugh, and I swear that this would just encourage them to do it more. What magnificent, human-like creatures I’d think.
So when I found out that we could go see orangutans in the wild on the Malaysian island of Borneo, I put it immediately on our itinerary. Plus seeing orangutans would mean that we’d see all four species of great apes in the wild on this trip: humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.
The exact number of orangutans left in the wild is not exactly known but estimated to be around 20,000. They are highly threatened as logging takes away more and more of their habitat. On Borneo, one of only two places they’re found naturally (Sumatra is the other), orangutans are being forced into smaller and more isolated tracts of forest. They’re also being injured, killed, or orphaned in accidents related to logging. And too often, the orangutans with nowhere else to go, find themselves on farms and plantations searching for food and risking being killed by angry farmers or taken home as pets.
Fighting to save the orangutans—rescuing them from cages, teaching orphans how to survive in the wild, and rehabilitating injured orangutans—is the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve. Here orangutans are given the care they need by trained and passionate staff, before they are weaned from human care and returned to the wild, the reserve encompassing a huge tract of forest ideal for the orangutans. Not enclosed in any way, the orangutans released here are free to stay in the area or move further and further into the remaining wild.
To help the orangutans adjust to the wild and become independent, the center has set up a set of five feeding platforms. The first platform is not far from the center where the orphaned, injured, or displaced orangutans have spent months or even years learning or relearning skills. The fifth is far from the center, in the midst of wild and unvisited forest (except by center staff). The other three fall in between. Twice a day milk and bananas are brought to the platforms to act as supplements to the orangutans diet. The idea is that newly released orangutans will begin by visiting the first platform, and then gradually they will move farther and farther away until they don’t visit the platforms at all.
For some orangutans, this is exactly how it works. Others, once released into the wild, immediately adapt and never visit a platform at all. And still others spend most of their time away from the platforms but occassionally venture back for a snack or to show off a baby. One measure of success is that many of the rehabilitated orangutans have, in the wild, given birth to babies that are completely adapted to life without any human assistance.
But what does this have to do with us seeing orangutans? Well, while we could just take our chances and hope to come across one while wandering around Borneo (possible but difficult since orangutans are actually solitary animals most of the time so you have to have a keen eye), we could also visit the center around feeding time and see if any orangutans come for a visit to platform 1 (the only platform accessible to the public).
Not wanting to miss seeing them, we made the trip to the center and headed out to the platform for the 10 am feeding. Gracing us with their presence were four orangutans, each of whoom took a long swig of milk, grabbed a banana, and then swung about on the ropes. Two went quickly back into the forest while two others hung around and performed acrobatic feats.
When the feeders left the platform, a large family of short-tailed macaques snuck out of the forest and raided the area for leftovers.
With our admission ticket to the reserve good for the entire day, we decided to stay around for the 3 pm feeding. In between we checked out the exhibition center and a film on orangutans, and also followed one of the nature trails in the hopes of catching sight of one high in the trees (didn’t happen). A bit before 3 pm, we returned to the viewing area, where we found something like 7 orangutans hanging around in the surrounding trees and venturing out to the platform. They were much more playful than the ones from the morning feeding, swinging about and wrestling.
It would have been a great feeding. But just as the men with the milk and the bananas came out, the sky opened, and orangutans apparently don’t like getting drenched anymore than we do. While us viewers stood and just endured it, many of the orangutans scattered off. A few did hang out to get the goodies. If we’d been able to get the camera out without dooming it forever, we could have got a few good shots: an orangutan putting his banana peels on his head as if they’d protect his head from rain, another opening his mouth and lifting his head like he was trying to drink the rain, another picking up the entire bucket of milk and pouring it into his mouth.
They were as smart and funny as I remembered, and the entire time we watched them, even as the rain soaked us right through to our underwear and left our shoes full of puddles, I had a great big smile on my face. And while I was thrilled to be able to have this encounter, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sad that such a place as Sepilok has to exist, that we’re not good enough and smart enough to protect such a magnificent species on our own. For being the more evolved species, we sure do a lot of stupid things.
*The word Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Malay.