The Wild Man of Borneo
by Lorry Heverly
As I trekked through the primeval rainforest in the sweltering Borneo heat, my eyes were glued to the treetops searching for shaking limps and noisy clatter, telltale signs of the approach of the wild man of the forest. I had traveled halfway around the world to see an orangutan in the wild or at least in the semi-wild, and my best chances for an encounter were at two sanctuaries in Borneo.
Now, how difficult can they be to spot? Males weigh in at around 200 pounds, towering above other primates, and with that henna red, perpetual bad-day hair, they blend in about as discretely as a scarlet ornament on a Christmas tree.
A Close Encounter
Suddenly, we spotted movement among the leaves and were riveted in our tracks. A mother ape, with a baby clinging to her stomach, gracefully swung through the branches in a treetop ballet, heading right toward us. She paused for a moment just above our heads to give us the once-over, hanging by a hairy four-foot arm wrapped around a limb. I was haunted by the human-like resemblance of her face and the gentle look in her eyes as she delicately removed a small twig tangled in the fur on her baby's head.
After a brief three-minute visit, Mom was ready to go. She hitched her baby into a comfortable position and scooted up to the canopy. "Cool, I never saw that before," my guide remarked. I thought about how in Malay, orangutan means "man of the forest," and how these great apes were once thought to be human. I couldn't agree more after studying the mother and baby.
I was at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, located a half-hour outside Kuching in Sarawak. The facility is not a tourist attraction, but rather a sanctuary for endangered species open to the public. Although the center works with recovering honey bears, hornbills, gibbons and other monkeys, it is best known for its orangutan rehabilitation program. Here, illegally captured and orphaned orangutans attend a jungle university where they learn to climb trees, build nests, forage for food--survival skills for returning to the wild.
At the most, only 20,000 orangutans exist in the world today--30 to 50 percent fewer than 10 years ago. Sumatra and Borneo are the only places on the planet where one can still see the great red apes in the wild. Unfortunately, logging, farming and most recently a series of forest fires have decimated their natural habitat. A worldwide market for orangutans as illegal pets has also contributed to the decline, as has the macabre practice of collecting their skulls, which sell for up to $70.
Conservation at Work
At Semenggoh, the orangutans who come to feed are semi-wild and midway through their rehabilitation process. They spend most of their time in the forest and during fruiting season few come to feed at all. Although it's not so good for visitors who've traveled great distances to see these magnificent creatures, it's a step on the way to full rehabilitation.
On the day of my visit, a score of visitors waited patiently with cameras and binoculars poised on the viewing platform. Soon, a pair of primates swung gracefully from tree to tree toward the crowd. Another giant red ball of fluff shimmied down the tree where everyone was gathered and boldly loped on all fours, parting the sea of humans as he approached. He stopped and looked around, then continued up a small hill where wardens with buckets of bananas awaited.
A Venerable Committee
One by one, eight magnificent apes, some with beards like wise old men, made an appearance. I was also glad to see my old acquaintances, the mother and baby.
Borneo's best-known orangutan sanctuary is the Speilok Rehabilitation Center in Sabah. Established in 1964, the orangutan feeding is Sandakan's largest tourist attraction, drawing everyone from tourists to princes and prime ministers. Although orangutan viewing opportunities are good, the facility can get crowded with tourists.
Borneo's wild places are home to other strange and elusive creatures. One of my favorites was Sarawak's state symbol, the Rhinoceros hornbill. The bird earned its name from the bizarre horn appendage that grows out of its head.
The Jimmy Durante of Apes
I also wanted to search out the proboscis monkey, an odd-looking primate with a huge red nose like a deflated balloon and a jolly potbelly. Colonial period Malay called it the "Dutchman Monkey" since it resembled European traders and colonists with their bellies, red noses and hairy features.
In Sandakan, a village with hilltop Buddhist temples, wooden houses and narrow walkways stretched along the Sulu Sea, I boarded a rickety wooden fishing boat. The barefoot captain pointed me to a forward plank, crusted in dried salt and leftover dredges of fish bait. In his opinion it was the best seat in the house for our mangrove forest adventure.
The tiny engine sputtered and belched thick clouds of black smoke as we entered the mangrove swamps. On this late afternoon jaunt, we were rewarded with great bird sightings. Brilliant blue kingfishers, snowy egrets, storks and herons lined the banks and led the way as we trolled the bank for canopy action.
A Proboscis Party
The captain cut the engines and the boat drifted into a small inlet. A group of proboscis thrashed through the treetops, acrobatically leaping from tree to tree. Two 20-pound monkeys held their ground, dining on a cluster of mangrove leaves. Although mangrove leaves are poisonous, the proboscis can eat them because of a unique stomach filled with potent digestive bacteria.
We moved downstream as the last of the family disappeared in the dense forest. Since the energetic proboscis is a "type A" primate, getting a good photo was difficult, but their amusing antics could have entertained me for hours.
The next group we encountered was less skittish. A large male made weird sounds resonating from that bulbous nose, and his harem of a half dozen females were a captivated audience. The troupe played and leapt frantically in carefree pursuit, often almost missing the next limb. I asked my guide what would happen if a monkey fell into the river. "The proboscis has webbed feet and swims for fun and those feet are good for walking on mangrove mud without sinking," he explained.
Found only on the island of Borneo, the proboscis monkey is also threatened with extinction. Today, only 1,000 remain in Sarawak and around 2,000 in Sabah, found mostly in coastal mangrove forests, as well as in the protected Bako National Park.
Someday, the only places to see orangutans and proboscis monkeys may be in captivity. I felt very lucky to have seen them as they were meant to live--wild, in the forests of Borneo. --Lorry Heverly
For information on visiting Borneo contact the Malaysian Tourism Board. Tel: 800-336-6842; Fax: (213) 689-1530; Website: www.tourismmalaysia.com
Wildlife and adventure excursions in Sarawak and Sabah, Borneo, can be arranged through Borneo Traverse Tours & Travel, Tel: 011-60-82-257784;