During the last century, orangutans have declined drastically and are now in danger of extinction. The main reason for this decline is habitat destruction, as huge areas of rainforest have been cleared by the timber industry and converted into oil palm plantations and farmland. Another reason is that poachers shoot female orangutans to get hold of their young, which are sold to zoos or others.
In Borneo, a number of rehabilitation centres for orangutans have been established. At these centres, orphaned young orangutans, which have been confiscated from poachers, are trained to live in the forest, after which they are released into safe areas, such as national parks.
Accompanied by staff members, we walk around the area, while they explain the purpose of the centre. Besides orangutans, other confiscated animals are also undergoing quarantine here, until they are ready to be released at a suitable location, among others a young sun bear (Helarctos malayanus), which loves to lick your fingers, a young clouded leopard (Neofelis nebulosa), southern pig-tailed macaques (Macaca nemestrina), southern slow lorises (Nycticebus coucang), a reticulated python (Python reticulatus), and paradise tree snakes (Chrysopelea paradisi), the latter belonging to a group of so-called ‘flying snakes’, which move through the trees incredibly fast, throwing themselves through the air, from one branch to the next.
Naturally, the most important animal here is the orangutan. Shortly after our arrival, we encounter Grace, a 28-year-old female, who lives in the forest around the centre. She is hanging by her arms on the fence, surrounding the centre, with five-year-old Julia, whom she adopted by breaking into one of the cages. Occasionally, they come to the centre to get bananas. Grace’s eight-year-old daughter Juliana keeps them company. She lost an arm, when she climbed an electric pole and got a shock. Her left arm became lame and had to be amputated. At this time, there are about ten confiscated orangutan orphans at the centre.
It is now late in the day, and we head for the house we are going to stay in, 4 km from the centre. Luckily, we are able to get a lift there. As it turns out, the house isn’t very well equipped, as there is no light and no kitchen utensils. A kind neighbour lends us a kerosene lamp as well as a cooking stove and kitchen utensils, allowing us to cook simple meals. As there are no beds and mattresses, we sleep on the floor in our sleeping bags.
The following morning, Vagn complains that a rooster started crowing in the middle of the night, right beneath the floor. The rest of us must have been very tired indeed, as we heard nothing.
The greatest challenge, however, is to make the orphans associate in a natural way with other orangutans. In the forest, the mother will teach her young one everything, but these orphans have no mother – most of the mothers were shot illegally by poachers, who wanted to sell the young to a zoo or elsewhere. If an orphan is detected by the authorities, it is confiscated and sent to a rehabilitation centre.
Having no mother, the orphans often attach themselves closely to one another – or to their trainer. The latter, however, is not encouraged, as the young orangutans are not supposed to be too closely attached to people. But this is an almost impossible task, as they have an enormous need of physical contact. To embrace a small orangutan, clinging to you with arms and legs, is an unbelievably lovely experience.
Some of the larger orphans are very naughty. They get hold of our backpacks or camera straps, pulling with immense force. They won’t let go before their trainer hits the ground in front of them with a stick. They then fall to the ground, rolling and whimpering.
Birds are abundant in the reserve, among others the huge rhinoceros hornbill (Buceros rhinoceros), the noisy black magpie (Platysmurus leucopterus), the colourful scarlet-rumped trogon (Harpactes duvaucelii), the gorgeous white phase of paradise-flycatcher (Terpsiphone paradisi), and numerous woodpecker and sunbird species. During a night trip into the forest we hear many strange sounds but are not able to spot their source. Along the trail we find numerous luminous fungi, glowing in the dark.
One day, on our way towards the platforms, we are accompanied by a group of American tourists, who are fairly boisterous, but very hearty indeed. Rain had fallen the previous night, causing leeches to be quite a nuisance. And when crossing the small streams on slippery logs, we must be very cautious indeed, even with ropes to hold on to. Some of the American ladies have a hard time, as they are wearing high-heeled shoes. An elderly lady, wearing a sophisticated straw hat, turns around to warn us. ”Watch the leeches!” she yells, at the same moment slipping on the log and falling into the small stream. Fortunately, she is not at all hurt, and, despite her ill-luck, she’s in a surprisingly good mood.
When we arrive at the platforms, seven young orangutans are already gathered here, stuffing themselves with milk and bananas. One of them is a charming devil, approaching the edge of the platform to gaze down at the American tourists. He makes faces at them, then proceeds to urinate on the ladies’ fine straw hats, causing them to jump about, screaming. One of the gentlemen just laughs, remarking: ”A shower of blessing from above!”
We are quite sad, when the time has come for us to leave the orangutans and their trainers. As an appreciation of their exceptional goodwill and friendliness, Niels presents the staff with a small gift – a caricature drawing of the five of us.