In fourth grade, I wrote a book report on orangutans and have been fascinated by them ever since. It has been an absolute lifelong dream to be able to visit them in the wild in their native rainforest homeland of Borneo. Last week, I was finally able to make the trip to Borneo on a solo journey into the jungle. I chose to visit the Orangutans in the Sabah region of Malaysian Borneo. I flew into Sandakan airport, direct from Kuala Lumpur, and stayed at the Sepilok Nature Resort, a beautiful little resort where I had my very own hut in the jungle for $50 per night.
Here is a quick tour of the resort.
Palm Oil Plantations & The Destruction of Native Orangutan Rainforests
Sadly, much of the rainforest has been destroyed in Borneo by palm-oil plantations. Palm oil is used in virtually everything, from frozen pizza to chocolate bars, laundry detergent, cosmetics, and heating fuel – often referred to as ‘vegetable oils & fats’ on consumer labels. It is the most widely produced vegetable oil in the world, has the highest yield of any oil crop and is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and refine. Since oil palms need a rainforest climate to grow and a lot of land, palm oil forests are now the leading cause of rainforest deforestation. 98% of Malaysia’s rainforest is projected to be destroyed by 2022, which is clearing out the habitat of an enormous variety of animal and plant species including orangutans, proboscis monkeys, and others. As a result, a number of sanctuaries and rehabilitation centers are popping up throughout Borneo, and, while illegal, people are also taking them in as pets as was the case with this black-furred Gibbon my Remote Year participants and I came across outside of Kuala Lumpur.
Orangutans are an endangered species as a result of this mass deforestation, with an estimated 45-69,000 remaining in Borneo (7,500 in Sumatra). They are the only great ape that lives on the Asian continent, found in Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Their name means ‘man of the forest’ as they share 96.4% of our genes and are highly intelligent creatures. Ape species include humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, organutans, and gibbons. Apes don’t have tails, while monkey species do. In addition, they tend to be larger, have larger brains, and live longer lives. Perhaps their similarity to humans is what I find so fascinating. They spend the majority of their time on the rainforest canopy, eating fruit for 2-3 hours of the day, building nests, and traveling. They are largely quiet, solitary creatures and are raised exclusively by their mothers until they are between the age of 7-10. If a mother orangutan dies, the baby orangutan is likely to die as well.
Orangutan Sanctuaries and Rehabilitation Centers
The Sepilok Nature Resort is located a five minute walk from the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary and Rehabilitation Center, which rescues orphaned orangutans and rehabilitates them to go back into the wild. I visited the sanctuary twice – once during their morning feeding time and once during their evening feeding time. Here they are approaching the platform.
The feeding consists of placing what the sanctuary calls a bunch of bland food (bananas and other fruits) on a feeding platform that the orangutans approach via a series of ropes tied to the trees. Visitors to the center can view the feeding from a dedicated area. The food is kept purposefully bland to encourage the orangutans to find their own food in the forest.
Here are a few of the orangutans who came to get their share of bananas. I love the one who took three banana clusters for himself – one bunch held in each foot and one in his hands. They are extremely animated creatures, and I could have watched them for hours!
Here is another orangutan that covered himself with tree branches and leaves when it started to rain just before the morning feeding. Just like us, they hate getting wet!
Here he is in action.
Silver Leafed & Proboscis Monkeys
I also had the chance to visit the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, which is ironically owned by a local palm-plantation owner. Proboscis monkeys are only found on Borneo and are named for their long bulbous noses.
They generally live in groups composed of one male, several females and their offspring or all-male groups. They can be quite vocal as well, emitting honks to signal danger, reassure each other or express anger.
Like orangutans, they too are endangered. The sanctuary did not disappoint, though we were able to get surprisingly close to the monkeys. Here are a few gentle fellows I came across in my walk around the viewing area. Unlike the orangutan sanctuary, the Proboscis monkeys were on the viewing platform itself. They stared intently in your eyes, and gave such profound sad looks it made me want to cry for them.
On my way out from the sanctuary, this gentle creature was sitting on the railing of the boardwalk on my way out. It was just the two of us, and he was an arms length away. Absolutely stunning up close.
Here, a mamma Proboscis is holding her child. You can just sense the love and protection between the two. It made me want to hug my own mother, Lena!
Silver-leafed monkeys, or silver lutungs, were also everywhere in the sanctuary. They are considered a threatened species and tend to travel in large groups with one male and many adult females communally caring for infants. They rarely leave the trees, though they seemed to be covering the feeding platform at the Proboscis sanctuary.
Here they are eating.
Bornean Sun Bear Visit
One unexpected sanctuary I visited was the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Center, located right next to the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. The sun bear is the smallest of all bears and can be found in tropical forests in Southeast Asia. They are classified as vulnerable – also due to the deforestation. They love honey and have a voracious appetite for honeycombs, bees, termites and ants. The sun bear center was probably the most well run center I visited, with incredibly helpful guides. Here are a few shots of the bears resting.
Here is one climbing up a tree.
Jungle Tour on the Kinabatagan River
On Day 2 of my trip to Borneo, I was picked up at the Orangutan Sanctuary and driven 3 hours away to the Kinabatagan River. Several of the TV documentaries you will have seen about Borneo will feature some slightly sweaty celebrity cruising along this beautiful river. I went with Mr Aji Tours, where the tour was operated by Mr. Aji himself, a native of the island. During our tour, we spotted both Orangutans and Proboscis Monkeys, a river python, macaques, blue dragonflies, and kingfisher birds. Sadly, we did not spot the mysterious pygmy elephant, but it was a tour to remember nevertheless.
Here is the python river snake swimming along.
Though all too short, I loved every minute of my adventure to Borneo and highly recommend visiting if you are in this region of the world.
5 Things You Can Do To Help Your Fellow Orangutan Survive
1. Join a cause. There are many organizations that help to protect orangutans and their habitats. Foster an orphan orangutan at Orangutan Foundation International.
2. Buy FSC-certified products. Look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – certified label on wood and paper products. This ensures the product you purchase comes from sustainable forestry.
3. Limit or Avoid Products that contain palm oil. Palm oil plantations are a major source of deforestation, causing orangutans to lose their homes. Avoiding products with palm oil can help protect orangutans, other wildlife, and the rainforest.
5. Spread the Word. With your newfound knowledge, spread awareness of the issues facing orangutans and the rainforest. The orangutans need you.