Saturday, November 23, 2013

Semenggoh Orangutan Sanctuary

One of the main reasons for visiting Borneo is that it is one of only two places in the world that is home to wild orangutans (the other being Sumatra in Indonesia). Borneo orangutans are endangered, and so the best bet to see them in the wild is at one of Borneo's orangutan sanctuaries. One of those sanctuaries, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, is just outside of Kuching, so we headed there at the first opportunity.

First we were taught an important lesson about public transport on Borneo. Perhaps we were a little too casual as a result of our experiences of the reliable transport system on peninsular Malaysia, but we arrived at the bus-station 10 minutes before the bus was scheduled to depart, onto to find that it had already left. With no other option that would get us to the sanctuary in time for the afternoon feeding, and no spare days before flying out to the Sabah side of Borneo, we paid up the hefty price for a taxi to the sanctuary and made a mental note to get to the bus-stop well in advance of the bus back into Kuching.

We arrived at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and walked up towards the sanctuary. The sanctuary takes in orangutans that have been injured, orphaned or kept as pets, and rehabilitates them to be released into the wild. After being released into the wild a number of the orangutans continue to return to the sanctuary on a regular basis to be fed. Consequently the chances of seeing orangutans at feeding time were pretty high, albeit far from guaranteed.

We didn't have to wait long, because as we walked through the car park towards the feeding station a young orangutan was heading the same way along a rope over our heads. Whilst we had spent plenty of time observing orangutans at Singapore Zoo only a few days before, it was still pretty thrilling to see one in the wild.

After taking up our position on the viewing platform alongside the other tourists one of the park rangers gave us all a safety talk. Apparently the “big male” was on his way to the feeding station. He informed us that the “big male” was extremely dangerous, was known to become aggressive (especially if food wasn't already placed out for him when he arrived) and cannot be controlled.  The strong advice was that if we saw the ranger run, then we should run as well.  He repeated this warning several times in an extremely serious tone. Given how relaxed attitudes to safety are throughout Asia in comparison to the attitudes in Europe and America (after all, we had already tracked rhinos through the Nepalese jungle without any real indication that it was a risky activity) this was about as serious a warning as we were likely to receive.

Shortly after the safety talk a large orangutan swung through the trees towards us, and proceeded past the viewing platform and made his way to the feeding station. Upon first seeing him we both turned to one another to say something along the lines of “blimey, he is big isn't he!”.

What we didn't realise was that he was actually the beta male. The alpha male, who we later learned is named Ritchie (or “Big Daddy Ritchie” as we like to call him) crashed through the trees a few moments later. He was MASSIVE! The moment when he landed on the ground and knuckle walked directly towards us was a moment I will never forget. He didn't hang around either – that big ol' boy can move. For a split second it looked like we might have to take heed of the safety warning and run for it, but thankfully he quickly changed direction towards the feeding station.

Big Daddy Ritchie made his way to the feeding station where he proceeded to plough through bunches of bananas and coconuts like they were M&Ms.



The nervous manner in which the sanctuary employee threw additional bananas and coconuts up to the feeding platform without getting too close made it clear that Ritchie was a real threat. Apparently he has been known to attack people and smash windows if he isn't provided with sufficient food as soon as he arrives.

While the Ritchie held court on his throne other orangutans waited for their turn. While some patiently waited high up in the trees, others (including the beta male who we had initially confused for “the big male”) made it clear that they wanted to eat, but would not risk getting too close. There were probably 7 or 8 other orangutans who came and went while we were there. Periodically Ritchie would give a loud grunt in the direction of another orangutan who he deemed was getting too close, and that was sufficient to make them back away. I guess that's how Ritchie got so big!

When Ritchie was finally finished eating he left the feeding station as quickly and gracefully as he had arrived. There was then a free-for all for the small amount of food that Ritchie had generously left for them. There was definitely a different atmosphere between the remaining orangutans once the alpha male had left; as well as eating they began to interact much more and became much more playful.  It was like being at work when the boss has left for the day.

The whole experience was absolutely fantastic. We had hoped to see two or three orangutans, so to see many more including such a huge male was much more than we had anticipated. Not only were each of the orangutans fantastic creatures in their own right but to see the way in which they interacted, and a clear hierarchy functioning, was fascinating. On top of that, Ritchie was possibly the single most impressive wild animal we have seen on this trip; to put that comment in context we have seen multiple wild elephants and rhinos on this trip, as well as a wild tiger.

After the food had all gone, the remaining orangutans gradually dispersed back into the jungle. We had to make our way quickly back down to the entrance to the nature reserve in order to get the bus back to Kuching. It was only as we made our way down that what we had just seen started to sink in.

Reality kicked in pretty hard, however, when we arrived back at the entrance to the park 20 minutes before the bus was due to leave only to find out that, once again, the bus had left early. Luckily we managed to hail a taxi as it passed along the main road, and we shared the cost with another tourist who had also missed the bus. Even though the two taxi trips had made the day significantly more expensive than it should have been, I would gladly have paid much, much more to see Big Daddy Ritchie & co.

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