Seeing the Man of the Forest

Today I learned that orangutans are ticklish.

One of the major attractions of Borneo is the fact the fact thatyou can see Orangutans.  I am sure that you can see them in the wild here in Malaysia but they are endangered and I at least wouldn’t know where to look.  That seemed like too much effort though so my group and I went to the a wildlife “interpretation center”. 

The Nature Interpretation Centre was based at Shangri-La's Rasa Ria Resort, which was about an hour away fromthe hotel that we were staying at. The nature reserve, encompassed 64 acres, was established in 1996 in collaboration with the Sabah Wildlife Department, aimed chiefly at nature conservation and orang-utan rehabilitation, with emphasis on investigation, study and education.   

            The total number of Bornean orangutans is estimated to be less than 14% of what it was in the recent past (from around 10,000 years ago until the middle of the twentieth century) and this sharp decline has occurred mostly over the past few decades due to human activities and development.

When the rescued Orang-Utans first arrive at the centre, they are often in a hurt or sick. First they are put into cages while they're treated for their ailments and nursed back to health. The rangers then teach them how to forage for fruit, climb trees and generally fend for themselves. When they are mid-way through the rehabilitation process they are released into the surrounding forest reserve. The animals then spend most of their time in the forest but often return to one of the centers five feeding platforms for a “free” meal. Eventually the hope is that the Orang-Utan will become fully rehabilitated, after this it is caught and returned to the wild - usually deep in the forest or to one of the National Parks or Wildlife Sanctuaries.

The feeding platform is where after being forced to watch about an hour of documentaries about orangutans and the rehabilitation process of the center.  That would be why you were just inundated with all of the facts that I remembered.  Hey, I remember, you suffer!  

Anyhow,, getting to the feeding platform wasn't as easy as you might think. It was about a fifteen minute walk on a steep dirt path through a small section of jungle. I was wearing flip flops and, I have to say, I wasn't all that pleased with my choice. Mostly because there were bugs and a whole lot

of mud to slog through. We finally got to the feeding platforms which were basically like big wooden decks with no house attached. There were about thirty of us in the group and we crowded in to wait for the orangutans to come. We only had to wait a few moments. There were four babies that showed up. All of them were two and three years old. Orangutans take a very long time to grow up so these were still babies. We weren't allowed to talk at all or to touch them. They were (as I said) being rehabilitated to the wild. We were also told to watch out for them coming into the crowd as they like to steal cameras and sunglasses and once that happens you never see those items again. Oragnutans live in the trees. I knew this before I saw them but it is different to know this in theory and quite another to see a baby orangutans climb from the floor of the forest into a tree a hundred feet above your head then reach out casually and swing himself into the next tree. One orangutan climbed a thin young tree and used it as a swing for about ten minutes forcing it to sway back and forth. They, like little children, are very active and seemed to want to play. 

I was very surprised at how attached they seemed to be to the ranger who was feeding them and who, I assume, helps to take care of them. They wanted him to hold them and play with them. They stole his hat and let him tickle them. Why do I find the fact that orangutans are ticklish so astonishing? Perhaps it has to do with a residual part of my thought process which always expects animals to have completely different thoughts, emotions and behavior than humans. 

There was something oddly powerful in the whole experience. We stayed for an about an hour until the orangutans got bored and moved back into the jungle and my camera’s batteries died. I would have been more annoyed with that but I think perhaps that was the best thing that could have happened because it really made me focus on the experience and not just the documentation of the experience. As much as I like to pretend otherwise they are not the same thing. As I watched 

it occurred to me that I was truly part of something special. These are very endangered animals and seeing them in at least a semi wild setting made me sad that in the future the only place to find these animals might be in zoos and hopeful that perhaps we can change paths and make enough of a difference to ensure that for at least the foreseeable future there will always be a “man of the forest” in Borneo…