One of the main reasons I was excited to go to Borneo was to see the famed and endangered orangutans. My wish was granted on my first full day in Borneo after a quick flight from Kota Kinabalu to Sandakan and an hour cab ride out into the jungle. Before embarking on our Kinabatangan river cruise adventure with Uncle Tan’s, we had a half day to explore the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center and the surrounding area.
When we first arrived we were told, via an ironically hilarious sign, that most of the trails winding through the sanctuary were closed that day due to a “bear on the loose”. The neighboring Sun Bear Conservation Center had apparently lost track of one of its residents.
Nevertheless, the path to the feeding area was still open and we were just in time for the morning meal time. An employee casually climbed up a ladder to the main platform and dumped a bucket of bananas on the wood and waited for the orangutans to arrive.
Within moments the orangutans slowly swung through the trees and across the ropes connected to the platform to get some morning grub.
After an hour of standing in the sweltering heat and sweating from every crevice possible, we decided to head out and began our walk along the wooden path back to the center. A restless orangutan decided to do the same, and he swung through the trees above us and then made his way down to the walkway.
He climbed up onto the railing and sat to have a good look at all the weird creatures wandering through his hood. Despite the warnings from personnel, people stood increasingly closer to take selfies with the primate until one unlucky lady got too close.
All of a sudden, the orangutan grabbed her cardigan and absconded into the trees! There he paused and– I couldn’t make this up if I tried– started to put on the cardigan! He put one arm through the sleeve but when he (or she? who knows at this point!) struggled to wrap it around his back he gave up and put it in his mouth and bounded off into the jungle.
After our exciting last glimpse of the orangutans we decided to go to the nearby Sandakan Rainforest Discovery Center canopy walk, a series of catwalks high above the jungle with gorgeous views of the rainforest below. The path then meandered down the stairs and through the jungle, and onto a swinging bridge across a small lake.
It was the perfect introduction to Borneo and I highly recommend the experience to anyone hoping to see orangutans!
But why are orangutans endangered?
Orangutans numbers are dwindling primarily because of loss of habitat. Malaysia and Indonesia, the only two places left where orangutans can be found, have some of the highest deforestation rates in the world as precious rainforests are destroyed to plant palm forests for palm oil plantations.
I drove through and flew over thousands of miles of Borneo, and nearly every time I looked out the window, all I could see were palm plantations. It was overwhelming, and a reality check at the devastating loss of rainforests in the name of human greed. Poaching and illegal animal trade have been other contributing factors to the decline of orangutan populations, as well.
What can we do about it?
Well, that’s a question I’ve struggled with myself. Here are my ideas:
- Petitions: A good place for the average citizen to start is by signing petitions that aim to reduce deforestation by pressuring Indonesian and Malaysian governments to enact laws protecting the rainforests. Avaaz is an organization commonly working toward this goal.
- Donate: Support organizations that work to rehabilitate orangutans and fight to preserve their habitat.
- Reduce demand: Find ways to reduce our need for palm oil. Did you know palm oil is used in a wide range of everyday products from margarine and chocolate to ice cream, soaps, cosmetics, and fuel for cars and power plants? Try to purchase products that don’t use palm oil, and thereby reduce the demand for it. Every little bit helps.