All this was just a precursor to the main event. I have always had a soft spot for orangutans ever since watching Clint Eastowood strolling down the street with Clyde. Borneo is just one of the two islands – the other being Sumatra in Indonesia – where orangutans are found naturally in the wild. The rehabilitation centre at Sepilok was founded in 1964 by art historian and conservationist Barbara Harrisson to rehabilitate the endangered apes – it is also the main reason we came to Sabah.
According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), there were around 230,000 orangutans a century ago. Numbers have dwindled so that the species is considered endangered, with some 104,700 Bornean orangutans remaining, in addition to 7,500 Sumatran orangutan, which is critically endangered. In November 2017, a third species the Tapanuli orangutan was announced, and this is the most endangered of all the great apes with only 800 recorded.
Sepilok supports some 60 to 80 orangutans – as well as sun bears and one elephant – in 43 sq km of protected land on the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve with the aim of returning them to the wild. Although, the centre is open from 8.45am to 4pm, most people coincide their visit for either the 10am or 3.30pm feeding time. We opt for the latter.
This is my third visit to the centre, which has greatly expanded since my initial trip – either that or my memory has dwindled. I recommend taking in the excellent video near the ticket office before joining the throng heading for the outdoor nursery where you can sit and watch the young orphan orangutans being trained in jungle survival techniques, such as climbing, from viewing galleries.
In the wild baby orangutan are reared and trained by their mothers for six years – fathers are most definitely estranged in the orangutan world. Sepilok replaces this with a buddy system pairing a young ape with an older one to foster the skills they will need to survive in Borneo’s rainforest.
One of these skills is knowing when to fight and when to flight. As we approached the feeding platform a macaque is sat munching on bananas. Now, anyone who has encountered this ferocious monkey in the wild will know that fight is not the correct choice. I encountered one in a guest house in Phnom Penh once and swiftly sizing up the situation with a clarity I seldom exhibit, I exited with a fleetness of foot that would have left Usain Bolt in the blocks.
A male orangutan approaches stealthily weighing up the promise of the banana against the risk of the macaque’s snarling teeth. Eventually, he realises the platform is big enough for both primates and picks up a bunch of bananas, his eyes’ never leaving the macaque, who carries on munching imperviously.
Later on a female orangutan holding her little baby appears in the trees, but refuses to engage with the now emboldened male one – it is not uncommon for male orangutans to force themselves upon females, according to Roy – clearly there had been a bit of previous.
Borneo is still a natural paradise full of interesting creatures – some friendly and some less so – I reflect, as I watch some deer munching in the undergrowth in the setting sun from my balcony at Forest Edge, Sepilok, while mosquitoes take it in turn to draw my blood. But it is one peculiar orange primate that is the islands main draw. Let’s hope it remains that way.