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Going Wild at Sepilok

by Eric Madeen

At the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Malaysia there are two types of visitors. The first type, Tourismo Sepiloki, averages a couple hundred per day, every day, and speaks in many tongues from more than 50 countries. They make a point of arriving about an hour before the daily feeding times of 10 A.M. and 3 P.M. so as to take in a film about the center. Then they follow an ironwood walkwpy about 200 meters into the 4,294 hectare Kabili-Sepilok Forest, a virgin jungle reserve just 24 kilometers outside of Sandakan. There, at Feeding Platform A, sweating profusely in damp heat, they marvel at the gymnastic entrance, complete with dramatic swings and climbs down a network of ropes and vines, of the second type of visitor, Pongo pygmaeus, the original man of the forest. Better known as orangutan — generally quieter and, despite rare instances of camera hijinks ("They'll take your picture if you're not careful") and food thievery, seemingly better behaved than the first type.

Four-Stage Process

Since the center opened in 1964, some 150 orangutans have been successfully released into the wilds of the reserve, which can sustain a population of 80-100 orangutans. First, though, they usually arrive at the center malnourished, dehydrated and orphaned, largely due to habitat destruction. (Alas, before some 70 percent of Borneo's forests fell to the chain saw and axe, the orangutan, it was said, could swing from one end of the island to the other, both length and width.) One famous orphan, Clinton, was found in a basket in the Sepilok cafeteria.

The orphans brought to the center by Sabah residents are usually given Malayan names by those who have found them. Jamal, a two-year-old male, was captured alone in a cornfield, his mother either "killed by accident or by poachers or destruction of habitat." The staff names the others, usually with inspiration from the dominant news story of that year. Hence, it's fitting that Clinton came to the center in 1998. "During the Gulf War we had Saddam and Bush," Sylvia said, then motioned to the forest, grinning, "both went wild."

The process of going wild takes about eight years. Why so long? Because the orphans, like humans, have a lot to learn and the four stages of rehabilitation are complex, beginning with a 90-day quarantine and thorough veterinary exam complete with TB tests and blood screens for malaria and other parasites. In Stage 2 they proceed to the indoor nursery and cages where they learn climbing and swinging skills before reaching, at about age 6, Stage 3: the Outdoor Nursery located deeper in the forest. They're placed in a bigger cage and let out to forage and build their own nests by instinct. "In the wild," Sylvia explained, "orangutan mothers teach their babies the art of survival. But orphan orangutans have to learn by themselves." Stage 4 is Free Roaming, when those aged 8-10 move deeper into the forest and finally become independent and disappear. They do reappear, though, from time to time, as visitors. Even adult males with well-formed flanges and several females with babies have shown up unexpectedly at Feeding Platform A.

A Banana a Day

With its food supply (bananas on the days I visited) kept monotonous to encourage rehabilitated orangutans to forage for their own natural diet, Feeding Platform A at feeding time is the place to be. I watched in awe as a mother orangutan wrapped a vine around a rope and twisted before lifting herself up and spinning circles to much laughter. Then she sat back down on the platform. Her baby, now over her, clutched the rope and rocked, her little feet, like hands, trying to grab her mother's hairy fur. The mother's cuddling and adoring kisses drew empathic sighs across visiting species.

Then at 10:07 a.m. bandits arrived in the form of wild pigtailed macaques. Though the macaques are smaller than the orangutans they seem much fiercer, especially the adult males with their fangs (whom tourists are warned not to smile at or feed). But, "the macaques are just batted away by the orangutans if they try to take their food." Sylvia curled her arm, showing how the macaques, taking refuge below the platform, are reduced to snatching.

The best place to stay while you're doing the Orangutan Centre and its splendid hiking trails, Turtle Island, Gomantung Cave, Kinabatangan River and sundry, is the Sepilok Jungle Resort and Wildlife Lodge, just a few-minute walk away. Owner John Lim Shau Ket and family run a tight ship, catering to everyone from backpackers to executives and their large company seminars. The setting is paradise, ensconced in lush, weed-whipped grounds with koi ponds, many palms and, during fruiting season, an odd orangutan.


This article first appeared in Wingspan, the inflight magazine of All Nippon Airways.