Hi there,

Welcome to my blog, and thank you for visiting! I’m not sure how this will go as while I enjoy keeping personal records I’ve never done it in such a public way. I’ve created this blog with the aim of sharing and exploring adventures, experiences and passions close to my heart. I’m hoping it will give any readers something they can take away for themselves whether it be inspiration, ideas, awareness, new perspective, or simply just enjoyment from reading the posts.

To start, my name is Samantha. I’m currently living Auckland, New Zealand. I was born and raised here, and I know New Zealand will always be home no matter where I may find myself. Since I can remember I have enjoyed the company of critters great and small. I have a Bachelor’s degree in Applied Science (Wildlife Management and Animal Welfare), and I have always strived to work in some animal field or other from shelters to zoos to rehabilitation centres to veterinary hospitals.

Since I was little, non-human animals have been my fascination and main interest. I grew up in a house backing onto a reserve in the suburbs, and we’d always be out feeding the ducks and other birds. One thing I learnt more and more as I grew up was that animals cannot speak for themselves. Like human babies, they are dependent upon others to stand up for their welfare when it is in question. Animals have all levels of intelligence and a lot of the time I think it is forgotten how sentient they really are. We all have complex nervous systems, different methods of reproduction, brains of various sizes and function, and unique designs that give us the ability to fit into certain ecosystems. Different species work into different niches and thus through all of these connections life on earth progresses. We are all important to each other in some way.

As species have niches in different ecosystems, another thing I have learnt ‘growing up’ is that as individuals we are encouraged to find our own personal niche too. I think this can be a struggle in different ways for different people – there is so much to be passionate about, but sometimes people are unable to follow their passions, or they spend their life without one. I find myself drawn to people who care about what happens to the world and who strive to personally contribute something positive. There is a lot of strife in the world, and so much that needs to be done, and I really do feel that if each person contributed something positive to an issue they felt strongly about, the world would be better off.

So I suppose that is why I have set up this blog; to be able to recount and set up journeys of contributing to and exploring things that matter to me. I’m grateful to anyone who takes the time to read it, and hope it encourages others to share and think about their own journeys and adventures. My latest expedition was back to Borneo for the first time where I worked at an orangutan rehabilitation center for a couple of months – keep an eye on the blog for updates!


Note: All the photographs used in this blog are my own unless otherwise stated. If you would like to use them please be polite and contact me for permission. :)

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Borneo – Orangutans: 2016


2014 - Arctic Wolves

America – Wolves: 2014


Thailand elephant walk Samantha Boston wildatheart Blameitonmywildheartblog

Thailand – Elephants: 2013


White arctic wolf kiss Samantha Boston wildatheart Blameitonmywildheartblog

America – Wolves: 2010


Articles on my work have been published with permission at:

– Foundation for the Adoption, Sponsorship and Defence of Animals: Responsible Tourism blog; see article here.
Eastlife Magazine (April 2016, pages 17-18); article about my wildlife work and Borneo trip.
Rural Living Magazine (April-May 2016, pages 35-36); article about my wildlife work.
The New Zealand Herald; article on palm oil before I left for Borneo.




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I have returned from volunteering at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in the forests of Borneo, where I stayed for two months caring for resident rescued animals. Alongside orang-utans, the Centre also cares for animals such as monkeys and the occasional pygmy elephant. Most animals are at the sanctuary because they lost their families and homes to the unsustainable palm-oil industry and illegal wildlife trafficking. Countless animals lose their habitats and quality of life due to these industries, and I wanted to make a difference to those that I could.

SORC is a non-government funded organisation that relies solely on donations. As part of my excursion I did some fundraising and was able to provide a donation that went directly towards the health and welfare of the animals in our care – I am incredibly grateful to those who so generously donated to my cause and attended any of my fundraisers.

To my individual supporters, thank you SO MUCH:
Alan (NZ), JB (NZ), Joanna (NZ), Michael (NZ), Kymmy (Australia), Jonathan (NZ), Debra (NZ), Brian (NZ), Brett (NZ), Shirley (England), Andi (USA), Ty (NZ), Veronica (NZ), Rags (NZ), Virginia (NZ), Joe (NZ), Sudeepta, Sara Wiseman (AUS), Mink (NZ), Erin (NZ)
…plus all of the wonderful anonymous supporters from across the globe, and everyone who came along to my fundraisers. Your contributions are incredibly appreciated, and thoughts of your support keep me going when things get a bit tough!

Thank you also to the following businesses for assisting my fundraising efforts:
The Bucklands Beach Veterinary Clinic
CareVets Mt Wellington
Sommerville Veterinary Centre
Ponsonby Vet

Thank you also to all those who support me and my work by visiting and reading this blog! I’ll keep you updated with the next journey!


The Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre – Rehabilitation Process


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Pertaining to the three months I spent in Borneo in 2016.

I was very excited to begin work with the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabiliation Centre (SORC) in Malaysian Borneo, not just because of the incredible animals that I would be spending time with, but also because it would be the first ever time I would be working with a native mammalian rescue program that released animals back into the wild. In New Zealand I spent some time volunteering at a wonderful local bird sanctuary that aimed to release its animals where possible, but other sanctuaries and shelters I have worked at have been final forever homes for the animals.

There are some confidential aspects of SORC that I will not delve into detail here, and during my work I gathered an understanding that the rehabilitation process is not supported by everyone who has come into contact with the sanctuary. Most sanctuaries, I would say, come across some criticism at one point or another, but in SORC’s case the fact remains that since its birth in the 1960’s it has been responsible for the successful rescue, rehabilitation and release of over 800 Borneo orang-utans (or so I was informed by the rangers). Considering that the wild population of this species currently sits at an estimated 100,000 individuals (compared to an estimated 300,000 in the 1970’s), SORC’s success is undeniably contributing to the Borneo orang-utan’s conservation. Without this organisation, the extinction of this species would likely be more imminent than is already threatened. SORC’s focus on education also aims to bring the number of illegally captive animals down by teaching the public why orang-utans should not be kept as pets, and what to do if these animals take up residence nearby.

When an orang-utan is brought to SORC (usually after being rescued from a small cage on someone’s property, or reported as injured), it enters an initial period of quarantine. This, of course, gives time to assess the animal’s health status, treat evident diseases and parasites, and ensure resident animals are not exposed to any potential health threats that new animals can introduce. Volunteers such as myself are not generally permitted to work with quarantined animals – these patients require extra care, and the chance of disease spread would be increased with different people frequently coming in contact with different animals.

For youngsters, the next step from quarantine is the nursery. The nursery houses infants generally under 4-5 years old, who interact together during the day under supervision in a beautiful outdoor jungle play yard. By night they are kept in a sleeping area which is sectioned off to give each individual his/her own space. In their outdoor area, which is connected to the wider forest, they have a man-made jungle gym and a little copse of trees that they generally stay close to. If the babies really wanted to they could head out into the deeper jungle, but these little ones tend not to stray too far from what is familiar. The youngest babies watch and mimic the older infants, thus learning how to swing, climb, and interact with each other. At the end of the day they are called in by watchful staff, and come back to the safety of their sleeping quarters.

Chikita feeds from a platform at the outdoor nursery.

Chikita taking advantage of an outdoor nursery feeding platform

As the littlies progress in age and ability, they “graduate” from the baby nursery to the “outdoor nursery”. This second nursery stage is where more training occurs, but the animals are expected to venture further into the forest to forage and also to make nests. The outdoor nursery is located at a different area to the baby nursery, and while it also contains a man-made jungle gym, it is bordered by forest that is frequented by semi-wild orang-utans. At SORC, a “semi-wild” orang-utan is one that has been rescued and partially rehabilitated, but makes regular appearances at the sanctuary, taking advantage of frequent meal times. Because of these regular semi-wild visitors, orang-utans in the outdoor nursery phase of rehabilitation have regular contact with much older animals, and it is hoped they will steadily develop more confidence to follow the older visitors deeper into the forest and become more independent. These youngsters are also called in at night, but if they wish to stay out in the forest until the next day (and the rangers believe them to be capable), they are left to their own devices. An orang-utan growing in confidence slowly spends more nights in the forest, until they finally do not return to the sleeping quarters at all. Once this occurs it is a cause for great celebration amongst sanctuary staff.

Aside from these nurseries there are other “stages” of rehabilitation. There are five feeding platforms in the forest, each one standing progressively deeper inside the forest than the one before it. The first feeding platform I have already written about, which is visible to tourists. This is the platform that receives the most frequent deliveries of food, and is where the less confident of the “semi-wilds” will make regular appearances. The second feeding platform, a little further into the forest, is loaded with food less frequently. The fifth feeding platform, deep in the jungle, is only occasionally set with food by rangers. As an orangutan grows in confidence and learns to forage better on its own, it is hoped that they will venture further and further into the forest, finding their own food and learning to rely on the feeding platforms less and less, until they do not return at all.

Clennan and her new baby

Clennan and her new baby at the outdoor nursery

There is a fine balancing act at SORC between giving enough care to the animals, and stepping back to encourage their independence. An animal too attached to humans will never be fully rehabilitated, and if they were to be released far from the sanctuary their dependence and trust of humans would likely lead to their death. During my few months in this protected jungle I did indeed meet several “semi-wilds” who were so attached to SORC staff that it is likely they will never leave the immediate area. While these animals could be viewed as evidence of the program’s failures, I heard many, many stories about the past orangutans who had been rehabilitated successfully. I was even lucky enough to see two rescued females who were living in the forest unassisted and had incredibly given birth to babies of their own. And to me, the “semi-wilds” who are not currently out on their own are not deemed as failures; they have a wonderful, safe home now, and they contribute to the successful rehabilitation of newer orangutans.

It is undeniable that SORC is positively contributing in a huge way to the conservation of the overall species, and also to the welfare of the individual animals they care for. If you are an animal lover this is definitely the type of place that deserves your support.


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New Zealand’s Far North


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Auckland (my home region) can be a pretty raucous place, especially over periods of celebration. With plenty of public holidays surrounding Christmas and the New Year, my partner and I decided to head out of Auckland to escape the condensed chaos for a few days. New Zealand is an incredibly beautiful country, but as I’ve been more focused on overseas wildlife projects of late I haven’t actually dedicated a lot of time to exploring my own homeland. To mark the transition of 2016 into 2017 we planned to travel as far north as we possible could – to the very tip of New Zealand’s North Island.

Kawau Island
Cape Reinga
Trounson Park & Kai Iwi Lakes

Kawau IslandKawau Island

We started our little journey on a gorgeous island in the Hauraki Gulf (north of Auckland) with some of my partner’s family for a post-Christmas meetup. I had been to Kawau Island a few times in my youth – but don’t have many vivid memories of it. It is a beautiful place, with some historical features that draw small crowds, and is home to some of NZ’s unique native wildlife such as flightless kiwi and weka birds. As with much of New Zealand, introduced flora and fauna has taken a great toll on the island’s ecosystem, and the effects of these invasive species is observable. Wallabies, for example, were brought to Kawau Island from Australia in the late 1800’s and continue to impact on the native animals and plants. These mammals compete with flightless birds and other animals for food, and browse heavily on young vegetation, hampering the regeneration of native forest.

Kawau Island has no road access, so getting around by car is not an option. Boats are the transportation method of choice, and walking to destinations allows you to take advantage of the beautiful scenery (while keeping active!). Kawau is a stunning place, easily accessible from the mainland while still allowing you to feel far removed from its hustle and bustle.


After our short stay on Kawau Island we headed up to Hokianga, a region along the west coast of New Zealand’s Northland. We drove through the small town of Kohukohu, which is a very cute little place that boasts of its local creative talent and attractions such as fishing, beautiful walks, nights of music and dancing, and several small art galleries. There is a car ferry that departs from Kohukohu, and takes passengers across the Hokianga Harbour to a town called Rawene, another Hokianga village steeped in pre-European Maori and early NZ European settlement history.

Kohukohu, Cabin in the Skye, sunset, wildatheart photography, Wild at Heart

View from Cabin in the Skye

After passing through the town of Kohukohu, we turned off onto a gravel road used by logging trucks and residents and arrived at our first accommodation – a gorgeous little place that we found on AirBnB called “Cabin in the Skye”. This cabin was built by hand and reminded me of a beautiful, modest chalet I spent three months living in when I first visited Oregon to work with wolves. The cabin is eco-conscious with a small gas stove-top for cooking, compost toilet and gravity-fed water from a tank. The view of the surrounding forest and harbour in the distance is spectacular, and the experience here was calmingly serene and peaceful. As it is so rural it is not ideal if you are hoping for a central location close to popular tourist destinations, but it is perfect for those wishing to feel instantly separated from the commotion of a busy life. I would definitely spend more time there in the future.

We were based at this little site for a few days, and spent our time exploring nearby beaches and forests. On our first morning we took the car ferry across to Rawene and headed out to find the Koutu Boulders – spherical concretions up to several metres in diameter. I was navigating, and as I was not familiar with the area at all I guessed as to where we should drive. We found a car park and had a wander down to the beach track. It was high tide, and unfortunately we discovered that the hiking track to the largest boulders is only available at low tide from this point. We had a short wander around and saw some small boulders but decided to move on.

From Koutu we travelled down State Highway 12 to Omapere, and relaxed on the beach here for a while. Then, we continued down the Highway for a quick look at the Waipoua Forest. Waipoua is part of the largest remaining native forest in Northland, and is home to plenty of flora and fauna endemic to New Zealand including ancient kauri trees. There are many beautiful hiking tracks through the forest, and we stopped off to quickly visit Tane Mahuta – ‘Lord of the Forest’ – the largest known living kauri tree. It is over 50 metres high, with a girth of over 13 metres. The little track to Tane Mahuta is a popular tourist spot, and there were plenty of people around when we visited. Crowds don’t really hamper this experience in my opinion though, and I would recommend it. It is quite a breath-taking being able to observe a living thing that has been standing for over a thousand years. The dampness of the forest contrasts heavily with the hot, dry sand of the beach only minutes away, and the ability to be so close to the salty ocean as well as native forest is one of the things that I love most about these regions of New Zealand.

The following day we went for another little explore, this time to the beach of Mitimiti which was an hour or so away. Mitimiti has to be one of the most beautiful beaches I have visited to date. Because of its rural, gravel road location, it remains greatly untouched by tourists. There isn’t a proper car park per se, so we stopped at a place with a small handful of other cars and found a few locals enjoying themselves. The beach extends so far in either direction from this spot that we only had to climb around one rocky point to find a wide expanse of beach with absolutely no other people in sight. We spent the day here, only sharing the area with cows, horses and birds. While there is plenty of cattle in New Zealand, this is the first time I have seen cows on a beach, so I was enjoying watching them lie around in the sand, licking salt off the rocks.

Mitimiti beach wildatheart photography Wild at Heart blameitonmywildheartblog






Mitimiti beach wildatheart photography blameitonmywildheartblog






Cape Reinga lighthouse New Zealand wildatheart photography Wild at Heart blameitonmywildheartblogCape Reinga

At the very top of New Zealand lies Cape Reinga, a powerful place that draws 150,000 visitors every year. This steep headland marks a meeting point for the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean, and a lighthouse perched 165 metres above sea level acts as guide for passing boats. Cape Reinga is a truly spiritual place – for the Maori people, it is believed that departed spirits travel up the whole of Aotearoa to reach this place. There is a lone pohutakawa tree that snakes it roots down under the ocean, and it is through one of this tree’s tendrils that Maori spirits slide to reach the underworld.

I have always wanted to see Cape Regina – for its beauty, geographical position, and to stand in awe of this spiritual place and pay my respects. On the eve of the New Year, my partner and I drove further north to a small town called Te Kao, about 40 minutes away from Cape Reinga. We dropped our bags off at another AirBnB find, “Mother Jimmies Bach”, where we would be spending the night. I felt a bit spoilt after our Kohukohu accommodation, and Mother Jimmies’ holiday house was not, in my mind, comparable – a typical ‘kiwi’ bach, it had everything you would expect from standard accommodation, room for several more guests, and was comfortable enough but had none of the little quirks and details that made Cabin in the Skye such a beautiful delight. Mother Jimmies is also incredibly rural and quiet though – we could only see one other house in the distance; pasture and waterways were our neighbours.

Spirits Bay New Zealand Northland wildatheart photography Wild at Heart blameitonmywildheartblogAfter getting our bearings with our new accommodation, we then packed some food and did a quick Google search for some inspiration on any recommended stops along the way to Cape Reinga (this was quite tricky as reception was very limited – another bonus if you are wanting to feel far away from things). We stumbled across some commentary about a place called Spirits Bay, and thought we would adventure off to find it. The further north we drove, the drier the surrounding landscapes became. Cattle grazed on yellow grass. The wind whipped thinned and dusty trees. Signs calling for water restrictions and fire hazards dotted our path. Sand dunes, white as snow, crashed near the shores weaving in and out of view.

We did not regret our decision to find this recommended spot. Spirits Bay is yet another beautiful piece of swimmable coast surrounded by rural landscape. The Bay lies east of Cape Reinga, and there is actually a walking track that connects the two via Pandora, another stunning inlet that holds a campsite only accessible by foot. Time didn’t permit us to make the hike to Pandora, but we spent some time soaking in the picturesque Spirits Bay, another area of spiritual significance. Its shimmering blue waters, white sand and inhabited rock pools were a dazzling place to spend the day. There is a campground right next to the bay, and there were plenty of others enjoying the site. If you are to stay here, organisation is a must because of its rural location.

Cape Reinga New Zealand Northland wildatheart photography Wild at Heart blameitonmywildheartblogCape Reinga was the next, and final, stop for the day. A beautiful, winding drive from Spirits Bay brought us to the tip of New Zealand. The Cape can be incredibly blustery, but we had great luck with the weather and found ourselves immersed in this breath-taking spot, bathed only with hot sun in a clear, blue sky and a gentle breeze. The feeling of being on the top of the world, in such a spiritual place, surrounded by oceans is impossible to describe. Hopefully my photos can illustrate some of the attraction the Cape holds.

After the Cape, we headed back to the bach and chatted under incredibly bright stars as the New Year emerged. Fireworks sounded somewhere in the distance, but none were to be seen from this hidden house nestled in dry, rural New Zealand.

Trounson Kauri Park & Kai Iwi Lakes

We wound our way south the following day. It would have taken over six hours to get back home from Mother Jimmies Bach, so we had made a plan to stop roughly halfway and spend a bit more time in Northland before getting back to routine. Trounson Kauri Park was our next stop, the “Birdsnest Holiday Home” our temporary dwelling. This gorgeous AirBnB rental was stunning. Attached to the hosts’ own home, this little chalet contained two beautiful bedrooms, a French-inspired bathroom, its own little kitchenette, and the surrounding gardens were gorgeous. Jasmine flowers waved in the breeze outside the kitchen window, creating a soft perfume. A creek trickled near an outside eating area. Native bird song could be heard from all directions. If I had to choose a favourite between Cabin in the Skye and this treasure, I don’t know if I could.

To satisfy my partner’s quest to go for a daily swim, we decided to have a look at the Kai Iwi Lakes – a group of three freshwater lakes located in a recreational reserve. I had heard about this group of lakes as a spectacular place to visit, and was quite excited to finally get there. New Zealand spoils us for choice with its very many options of forests, mountains, beaches and more to discover, and when we arrived at the Lakes I decided that we had already found my favourite parts of the trip at Mitimiti, Spirits Bay and Cape Reinga. An overflowing campground next to the most popular lake bustled with people dragging kayaks and pool toys over to the water, there was a kids’ activity corner with loud music and many little dancing bodies, and smoke from contained camp fires curling around a throng of vehicles. The wind must have decided to hold off only for our trip to the Cape, because it was in full force at the Lakes. Sand was blowing in all directions, and the surface of the water was very choppy.

The water at the Lakes is far warmer of that of the ocean, and I’m sure I would have been content spending more time there had the wind not been so assertive – it’s a great spot if you enjoy kite surfing, kayaking, jet skiing, etc. but it can be a very busy place.

Kereru wood pigeon New Zealand wildatheart photography Wild at Heart blameitonmywildheartblog

Kereru, New Zealand wood pigeon

After the daily swim had been achieved, we decided to stop off at the Trounson Kauri Park, which was a mere ten minutes away from our AirBnB homestead. The Trounson Kauri Park is a restoration project for native forest and wildlife, and as a conservation site dogs are not allowed. There are strict notices instructing people to stay on the pathways because walking off the track can damage fragile kauri roots close to the topsoil. We enjoyed a beautiful 40 minute walk through the Kauri Park, appreciating the sounds, sights and smells of native NZ forest. Pest control is a massive issue in New Zealand, and it takes a lot of work to keep such ecosystems as free of invasive species as possible.

We saw no sign of kiwi that day, but as they are nocturnal animals we decided to head back that night. The Park allows people to come and go as they please, and our wonderful hosts at Birdsnest armed us with a special red lamp attached to a large battery in a backpack. This lamp would allow us to spot the kiwi without upsetting them like a normal torch would.

It was a drizzly night with heavy cloud in the sky. Despite the walk only taking 40 minutes, it occurred to me that we were heavily reliant on this red lamp. We had left our cellphones at the house, and had no other source of light. Stumbling around in the dark there wouldn’t have been ideal, especially with the fragile wildlife around! Thankfully the red lamp did not fail us, and we took our time gazing through shrubs on the ground, listening for sounds of kiwi. The first flash of movement we detected led us to sight a rat racing up a tree. Rats are one of New Zealand’s most notorious pests. Every now and then we would switch off the lamp and tiny blue star-like lights would shine out from around us; glow worms. I had never seen glow worms before that night, and was pretty delighted about it! We found condensed patches of them every time we came across a tree that had toppled over, soil clinging to its roots, glow worms dotted throughout the darkness.

We saw no kiwi, but heard a male and a female calling to each other. I had never heard kiwi call in the wild, and in the heavy darkness of the forest it was incredibly eerie. I can guarantee they sound nothing like you think they might! Females, especially, sound like some kind of strangled animal. Have a listen to the male and female’s call here.

Cows Mitimiti Beach NZ Northland wildatheart photographyNew Zealand’s Northland is a beautiful place. Far less busy and untouched than the widespread region of Auckland, there is much to discover – especially for a quiet-loving, nature enthusiast like myself.



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SORC – The Feeding Platform


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Feeding platform on the right, visitor's viewing area on the left

Feeding platform on the right, visitor’s viewing area on the left

When visiting the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilition Centre one of the main attractions is the outdoor feeding platform. Here, twice a day within public viewing times, a ranger carries a basket-load of food on his back and empties it onto the feeding platform. This is an opportunity for any orangutans in the area who are feeling a bit peckish to come and fill their bellies. Often the ranger is shadowed by one or more semi-wild orangutans, and once they climb onto the platform they are in full view of lucky tourists. Directly opposite the feeding platform, across heavily jungled ground, is the tourist’s viewing area – a large, wooden boardwalk where scores of people wait each day for sightings of this critically endangered species.

My first proper contact with non-human primates was at the Auckland Zoo back in my zoo-keeping days almost ten years ago. While the Zoo kept its exhibits as natural as possible, it was nothing like seeing the animals at Sepilok. At the Centre you are treated to a rich view of orangutans in a natural jungle environment. Of course, you are not completely guaranteed to see orangutans at every feeding, but to me that is a great part of its beauty; the animals are not forced to be there, they come and go as they wish, and when you do spot an orangutan it is a very special moment.

A lot of my downtime in Borneo has been spent at this feeding platform. I would usually arrive an hour before the scheduled feeding – that way the rangers are about, but instead of noisy crowds you are surrounded by the hushed chorus of daylight jungle. The cicadas generally create the loudest noises you’ll hear, and during the last few weeks I’ve come to recognise the calls of different birds; cuckoos, woodpeckers, the screeching hornbill. Because a breeze tends to be an elusive luxury here, usually the only rustle of leaves you’ll hear is caused by some animal or insect moving about. If you wait long enough you’ll likely hear the distant crash of foliage and branches as an orangutan swings from one tree to the next, slowly approaching the feeding platform. Every now and then the rhythm of the forest crescendos with the sudden Jurassic-like cry of a pygmy elephant.

The sounds of the jungle are probably the best things to pay attention to when orangutan-spotting; you’ll likely hear these primates long before you see them. Waiting, listening and watching is one of my favourite past-times at Sepilok. I love simply being immersed in the shroud of the thick forest, keeping still and looking out for wildlife.

Clenan and baby

Clenan and baby

Currently we have two females with young offspring; Mariko and her three-year-old male, and Clenan with her baby of only a few months (so small that it hasn’t been sexed yet). When Mimi, the very pregnant female, joins the group, we affectionately refer to the collection as the Mum Club. Seeing the Mum Club together in the same area is an incredible delight, and is proof of the fantastic work that Sepilok does rehabilitating these animals to the point where they can survive in the wild and even reproduce.

Long-tailed macaques are also prominent in the area. These monkeys travel in groups, and if you see them close by it’s advised to keep some distance – they can be aggressive and don’t have the same fear of humans that shyer creatures of the forest possess. Not even the orangutans are comfortable around them – more than once I’ve witnessed an ape over five times the size of one of these monkeys back away and give up its choice of fruit to an assertive macaque family. Long-tailed macaques are also native to Borneo but I must say that I’m biased when it comes to hoping who gets the food.



On my first day at Sepilok I breathed a sigh of contentment when I arrived at the feeding platform and realised that this complex jungle would be my home for the next eight weeks. It has a certain magic and mystery about it, and no other place on earth shares its exact story. The flora and fauna coexist in this delicate balance of rainforest ecosystem, of which humans are intruding strangers – we have to adapt to survive here, not the other way around. Sepilok is a tourist destination, yes, but it does not exist for the people – its jungle depths are as wild as possible, and that’s just one of the things I truly love about it.


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Borneo – Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre


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Here I am, nearing the end of my fourth week at Sepilok, a heavily jungled area of Sabah, northern Borneo. So far I have seen some incredibly unique and ecologically-essential species (see previous blog posts), but nothing has entranced me more than the gregarious Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Orangutans are, if you are new to my journey, the main reason I am here in Malaysian Borneo. Since the beginning of July I have been volunteering at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and I will be here until September.


The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) officially came to fruition in 1964 thanks to the joint efforts of passionate English woman, Barbara Harrison, and the Sabah government. 43 square kilometres of protected jungle (the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve) surrounds the actual Centre, which sits on the edge of the forest and now greets tourists with large, welcoming gates. Today at the Centre you will find plenty of educational material (including a fantastic short documentary that talks about SORC’s crucial work), a lovely little souvenir shop, a cafe, and of course ample opportunities to view the vivacious orangutans in a jungle environment. It is well set up for tourists and as such makes a fantastic travel destination on any Borneo itinerary.

SORC works through “RRR” – Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release. Orangutans come to the Centre after being found injured, as illegally-kept pets, or orphaned and alone. Older animals are patched up as required and released back into appropriate areas, whereas youngsters are kept at the Centre until they too are old and confident enough to be released. At the Centre the apes are taught important life-skills such as climbing, swinging, nest-building and foraging. Tourists can even view some of the juveniles at the Outdoor Nursery platform: a jungle-gym right on the edge of the forest that serves as feeding point, training ground and open play area all in one. Youngsters can head out into the surrounding trees, or they can remain at the jungle-gym until they are more comfortable with exploring. Giving the juveniles the freedom to venture out as they like allows them to develop the confidence to interact with their jungle home at their pace, which I think is fantastic.


View of the Outdoor Nursery platform from the tourist’s viewing area


Orangutan at one of SORC’s feeding platforms

The conservation status of the Bornean orang-utan has just been re-assessed by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) and this species is now classed as Critically Endangered – meaning the work of SORC is more vital than ever. The orangutans’ numbers have seen an incredibly sharp decline (an estimated 60%) since the 1950’s, and by 2025 it is theorised that a further 22% decline will be seen – this equates to a population loss of 82% by the year 2025. It is likely that even this is a hopeful number, though, and that the population decline we see over the coming decade will actually be higher. Protecting remaining animals is key to the conservation of the species as a whole, and being able to have a personal involvement with this work of SORC’s is truly inspiring. Over the next few weeks my blog will be focused on the animals, the area, and the incredible work that goes on here. If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia I would, of course, encourage you to come and see it for yourself – the more support we give to places like SORC, the more the orangutan’s conservation can be funded.

– Sam

SORC website – Orangutan Appeal UK

Bornean Orangutan IUCN listing

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Borneo – Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary


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So far during my stay in Borneo I have spent time at two wildlife sanctuaries I would recommend to anyone – the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, both in Sepilok. One reserve I have also visited, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, was a stark contrast to my two local Sepilok-based centres.
Getting to Labuk Bay from where we are based takes about 25 minutes by van. On the morning we headed out I was still not quite acclimatised to the heat so I rested my eyes for part of the way, enjoying the van’s air conditioning. When a fairly sizable bump in the road jolted me properly conscious I opened my eyes and almost instantly felt like we were in another world. Out at Sepilok, where I will be based for about ten weeks, we are right on the edge of the jungle – virgin rainforest sings and sways outside my window, and it murmurs the constant conversations of incredibly diverse wildlife. Here, though, as we neared Labuk Bay, rows and rows of palm trees sped past my vision – oil plantations. Until then I hadn’t actually seen any plantations, and now it seemed there was no end to it – not even when we reached the sanctuary itself.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, it turns out, is privately owned and the original plan for the whole area in the ‘90s was to completely convert it to a palm tree growth site as part of an oil plantation. Apparently, however, during the development process the owner came across some native proboscis monkeys and decided to spare fragments of the animals’ natural habitat in order to keep a number of them protected. Thus, if you visit this so-named sanctuary you will find a vast expanse of palm oil trees enclosing small pockets of mangrove forest, which is where the monkeys have been allowed to stay. Today the sanctuary is composed of this fragmented mangrove habitat along with man-made feeding platforms, logs, dead trees and other natural furnishings in front of various tourist viewing decks. Four times a day when fruit and vegetation is scattered across the feeding platforms they are utterly swamped with monkeys.


Typical view from a tourist platform



Male proboscis monkey

Proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) are an incredibly unique species only naturally found on the island of Borneo. With ongoing habitat destruction being such a common theme in this area of Southeast Asia, across the last three generations of proboscis monkeys (about 38 years) it is estimated that the population has declined by between 50-80%. This species is classed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as Endangered, and it faces the typical barrage of threats for this region – habitat destruction (especially due to the species’ preference for coastal and riverine environments) from logging, plantations, human settlement and forest fires, and this monkey is illegally hunted for food and traditional Chinese medicine. Unfortunately proboscis monkeys have a tendency to move quite slowly, which makes them easy targets.


Female proboscis monkey

When I was studying my degree at university I remember having to do a presentation on an endangered species of my choice, and this was the animal I chose. I had never seen a proboscis monkey – or heard of them – before researching unique species to talk about, and I was fascinated. Their common name, of course, refers to the almighty proboscis (long nose) the monkeys possess – especially the males. The nose may act as a resonator for vocalisations, and can even swell depending on a particular individual’s current temperament. They are such an interesting creature to watch, and seeing them in person was something I’m really glad I have finally been able to do.


Another intriguing monkey frequently seen at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is the silvery lutung (or, silvered leaf monkey – Trachypithecus cristatus). Silvery lutungs do not inhabit such a restricted region as proboscis monkeys, thus they naturally have a higher population number. The IUCN currently classes them as Near Threatened. When I was at Labuk Bay and the first silvery lutung leapt out of a tree onto an exposed branch, its orange baby clutching onto its fur, the gathered crowd exclaimed in excitement. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, a dozen more of these monkeys were vaulting out of the brush and crawling along the viewing platform railings, hurrying to grab some edible green stalks the rangers were handing out. They were close enough to touch, and I watched as people took ‘selfies’ with seemingly uncaring monkeys directly behind them. This really reinforced my feelings that Labuk Bay is spreading such a different message to the Sepilok centres – at Labuk Bay the monkeys are encouraged to get close to people, and they have no fear of humans.

Silvery lutungs do not have the same allure that many Bornean animals have to poachers for traditional medicine, but they are hunted for food in certain regions and make a very popular pet. At Labuk Bay there was no education on why wild animals should not be kept as pets – in fact, the opposite was being pushed; the idea that these monkeys are not disturbed by humans, and can be removed from natural habitat. This is not a message I support.


The third species found at Labuk Bay that I was particularly interested in is the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) – no, not a monkey, but an absolutely stunning bird. On Borneo you can find eight species of hornbills – so far I have spotted two (the oriental pied, and the rhinoceros hornbill). Oriental pied hornbills have a large geographical range throughout Southeast Asia and into China, and because of this habitat availability they are classed as Least Concern by the IUCN despite their actual population numbers being unknown.

One of the most defining features of this bird is the ‘casque’ – the hollow, hard structure composed of keratin above the beak. While rhinoceros hornbills have a striking orange and yellow casque, oriental pieds have pale yellow and black. They are a large bird that can weigh over 900g and can have a length of over 85cm. This species is monogamous, and at the volunteer house we are lucky enough to have a mating pair that frequents our garden’s trees. If you visit Labuk By it is likely you will see at least one of these birds; they are also attracted to the tourist viewing area with food lures.

After becoming quite familiar with the very education/conservation-focused sanctuaries in Sepilok, Labuk Bay was a bit of a surprise for me. The animals are encouraged to get close to tourists, and I couldn’t see any thorough educational material about any of the animals and the threats they face or their conservation whatsoever. If you want to get unnervingly close to monkeys then this destination definitely ticks the box, but it’s not a place that I believe promotes respect for the animals, nor does it curb the “Oh look, I want a pet monkey!” mentality that adds fuel to wildlife trafficking. I have spoken to a few rangers at Sepilok about Lubuk Bay, and I did have a good point mentioned to me: tourists bring money, and money is what will improve things there. Tourists want the thrill of seeing a wild animal up close; tourists pay for selfies. Labuk Bay is certainly not, in my opinion, spreading the right message at face value, but eventually they would like to. What they have is a start.

I would still rather promote places that teach the beauty and importance of wild nature (and why it should stay wild), but I do understand that Labuk Bay is doing what it can temporarily – and at least these animals have a safe home to live in with plentiful food. I’m just glad that Sepilok’s centres are run very differently.
– Sam.


Nasalis larvatus
– Proboscis monkey IUCN listing
Trachypithecus cristatus – Silvery lutung IUCN listing
Anthracoceros albirostris – Oriental pied hornbill IUCN listing

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary website

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre website

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre website

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Borneo – Malayan Sun Bears


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As difficult as it has been to keep the absolute longing to begin work right away at bay, the first week in “quarantine” was a wonderful opportunity to explore our surroundings and learn more about the fascinating creatures that make the island of Borneo their home, Malayan sun bears being one of them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, where I spent several weeks volunteering a couple of years ago, they had a few rescued sun bears. I never got to work with them though, as I was busy with the elephants. Fortunately, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is just next door to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where I am currently working, thus very easy access for us volunteers. During my first week here in Sepilok I spent some time wandering around BSBCC, and during our quarantine week us orangutan vollies were lucky enough to meet BSBCC’s CEO & founder, Siew Te Wong. There is not a great deal of research out there about the Malayan sun bear on Borneo, and Wong (a wildlife biologist) has done an amazing deal of field research to get more information about these animals published. In his extensive travels Wong has been witness to poorly-treated captive animals (e.g. in sub-standard zoos and in private homes), and in 2008 he set up BSBCC. BSBCC is a refuge for sun bears in need, as well as a rehabilitation centre with the ultimate goal of assisting the sun bear’s population numbers through animal rehabilitation & release and community education.


Spot the sun bear!

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are found in regions of Southeast Asia, including on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. These animals are the smallest species of the bear family, and possess a dark coat with an individually-unique pale horseshoe patch on the front of their chests which is said to resemble the rising sun. Sun bears have developed amazing ways to exist in their ecological niche. For example, they have very long tongues (between 20-25cm!) for snacking on hard-to-reach honey, and are fantastic climbers. Initially I had no idea of just how high they can climb – trees are where they source a lot of their food from, and where they spend long periods of time resting in nests that they crudely build from branches and leaves heaped together. Sun bears eat a variety of food (mainly insects, fruit and honey), and due to this diet they positively influence flora and fauna species around them – when searching for honey and bugs they use their long claws to create grafts in trees which other animals can then nest in (e.g. flying squirrels and hornbills); they nibble away at termite infestations; seeds from fruit are naturally dispersed after passing through their digestive tracts; and they enhance the forest’s soil health by mixing it thoroughly as they dig around for invertebrates. Sun bears are invaluable to their environment, yet – as with so many other animals – face massive threats to their survival due to human interference.


Sun bear foraging for insects

Habitat destruction, of course, has caused a massive decrease in the expanse of natural habitat available to the Malayan sun bear. Palm oil plantations are a major culprit of population decline in countless species on Borneo, and the sun bear is no exception. Habitat loss caused by logging (unsustainable and illegal) and forest fires are also significant causes. Being so small and beautifully cute, sun bears are also a target of wildlife traffickers. Their gall-bladders and paws are sought-after for traditional medicine, which means they are an animal popular with poachers.

Sadly, although the Malayan sun bear is a protected species, law enforcement in this region of the world is lacking when it comes to injustice to wildlife. It was interesting yet disheartening to speak to our guide, Jeremy, at BSBCC about this species because despite the sun bear’s incredible contribution to the natural ecosystem, it is common for Malaysians to be unaware that this species even exists in the jungle they see every day. This lack of education is something BSBCC is working hard to change.

One thing I adore about Sepilok is that so many incredible species such as the Malayan sun bear coexist in this untamed environment just outside my door. Free-ranging orangutans move through BSBCC as they please, and wild sun bears roam the very jungle I can see out the window of the volunteer house. The natural habitat here is so unique and rich, and it astounds me that it is not more protected along with its extraordinary fauna. The work of organisations such as BSBCC is utterly crucial to ensuring that more people are aware of the importance native species hold to the local environment, and in teaching why we ought to be fighting to save what’s left of the natural world. The Malayan sun bear is classed by the IUCN as Vulnerable, which is one step up from Endangered. In the past 30 years it is suspected that this species’ population has decreased by over 30%, and that this population decline will not stop as long as forest areas containing high-value timber and/or suitable room for plantations are available. Also, without significant anti-poaching measures, the sun bear’s commercial exploitation will continue to be a large part of this species’ future.

While the plight of unique species such as the sun bears can seem overwhelming, there are very practical things you can do. Have a look at my recent post on palm oil for more information on this product that has impacted the environment so greatly (and how, as a consumer, you can avoid supporting it). When travelling, choose eco-tours that support conservation and wildlife welfare, and if you are in a charitable mood you can simply donate directly to an organisation of your choice. In Southeast Asia it can be tricky because there are many establishments that promote themselves as conservation projects, when really they support poaching and wildlife exploitation; I recommend doing some research if you are considering an organisation to support.

BSBCC is certainly an organisation that I would vouch for; the work they do is invaluable to the Malayan sun bear’s conservation and for individual animal welfare. BSBCC’s physical establishment has changed greatly in the last eight or so years, and now boardwalks sprawl high above wild enclosures, nestled amongst the trees – visiting this sanctuary is a perfect way to see elusive sun bears in a very natural setting. BSBCC works hard to rehabilitate their animals and will release individuals that they are confident can survive on their own. Those that cannot be released into unenclosed jungle will live a life as wild as possible at the sanctuary, foraging for food, climbing trees and building nests, and sunbathing as sun bears love to do. If you want to learn more about sun bears or the work that BSBCC is doing take a look at their website – it can be inspiring to see just what other people are doing to help the world.



The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre website

IUCN Malayan sun bear listing

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Borneo – Sandakan Tour


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I am nearing the end of my first week in Borneo, and so far I have somehow managed to escape the horrid reactions to mosquito and other insect bites that some of my companions have been cursed with. All else, though, we deal with together; the draining heat, the cravings of food from home and familiar luxuries, and of course the love for the work we will soon be undertaking.
When I talk to friends back home they describe to me a typical New Zealand winter; iced-up car windows, clear skies with cold days suddenly turning to heavy cloud and tumultuous rain. Winter is hard to imagine when here the hot air presses in on me like a weight. Sitting still sees you covered in a trickling sweat; my skin constantly glistens, and smells of Deet. Although the jungle is sheltered by an entwined tree canopy, there is no breeze; the heat captures you, so you keep moving to create a slight air current that makes it seem less stifling. Right now Sabah is in its driest months, but every night we hear the furiously loud thunder and see the lightning storms. Dry weather keeps the leeches to a minimum – I have yet to come across one of these worms, but we know that after the rain they will become much more familiar, as will even greater populations of buzzing, biting insects.

While us volunteers are still in our “quarantine” week, we have been given the opportunity to travel around the area a little. We’ve been split into two groups for various activities, the first being a trip around Sandakan. This was mainly to allow us to get to a supermarket so that we could pick up some essential items, but also saw us visiting a couple of local tourist destinations.
On Thursday my group of six hopped in a van with our cheerful and knowledgeable local guide, Gary. Gary gave us the chance to mention the types of shops we needed to visit, and also told us bits and pieces about Sanakan. Sandakan used to be the capital city of the state of Sabah, but this ended in the 1940’s when the Japanese invaded. Once a main trading centre and site for British settlement, in 1944 Sandakan was destroyed by the devastating Japanese occupation and consequential bombing by the Allied forces. Now the region is known for its fishing, eco-tourism and resource exports. Gary says it is nothing like the capital city it used to be.

Sandakan Memorial ParkOur first stop of the day was to the Sandakan Memorial Park. This park is a beautiful tribute to all of those who died during the horrific events of the Japanese occupation; British and Australian troops, and locals alike. I admit that I had little knowledge of what actually happened in Sabah dring those years, and to learn its history was harrowing. The Memorial Park itself sits on the very site of one of the infamous prisoner of war camps where countless soldiers were tortured and killed. During the war, Allied forces damaged the Sandakan airfield and surrounding area so greatly that in 194 the Japanese had to move their local operations. Thus began the “Death Marches”.
At first, hundreds of prisoners were selected to carry food and other supplies to Ranau, a town 260 kilometres (160 miles) away. They were made to travel on foot. While these soldiers were deemed the strongest of the bunch, they were still malnourished, and often injured or diseased. Many died along the way or were shot. Once the Sandakan camp was completely closed several months later, the remaining prisoners were forced to do the same journey across two further marches. Keeping in mind that these leftover men were generally deemed weaker as the first group, they also fared terribly. Ultimately 2,345 Allied prisoners died thanks to these horrific marches. Only six prisoners survived – a mere six Australians who, incredibly, managed to escape during the three marches. They were the only survivors left to tell of the true horror.

The Memorial Park as it stands today is a sobering and moving tribute. Every year on ANZAC Day a service is held in remembrance of all those who fell. Being there, in that exact spot where so many fellow humans were held captive, tortured and slaughtered, was a very emotional experience. We spent many long moments in silence. I won’t forget it.


The rest of our day included a visit to a beautiful Chinese temple overlooking Sandakan and its long bay. The Memorial Park and temple instilled a sense of stillness and quiet. It was a very moving few hours. Sabah holds a great deal of history, and there is a richness of diverse cultures. Usually my focus is just on the animals, but it was really good to learn a little about Sandakan’s past and its people.

Our day ended with a complete contrast – a frantic but necessary trip to the (huge) local supermarket. We are now equipped with snacks, practical items such as washing powder for our soon-to-be filthy clothes, and other bits and bobs. We’re as prepared as we can be for our first working day on Monday, and are more than excited for the next stage of our adventure.

– Sam.

Borneo – First Days


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Greetings from Sabah, Borneo! After an 18 hour journey from New Zealand (which wasn’t too bad in comparison to some other trips I’ve made), I arrived in Sadakan on Sunday the 3rd of July. I spent the night in Sadakan city, and headed to Sepilok the following day. I haven’t quite started official work at the sanctuary yet; I and the other volunteers are in a “quarantine” week to ensure we don’t pass any lingering bugs on to the orang-utans. We have been getting to know each other a bit, exploring the local area, putting in plenty of orang-utan observation time, and generally settling in.


I was so excited to finally land at the little airport of Sandakan on Sunday. I do not handle flights and rushing around transit loungers very well, so to step off the plane and find hot heat, exotic birds and beautiful jungle trees was so very welcome. I drank in the familiar Southeast Asia setting with a smile.
Arriving at my hotel in the city was a different story. Before getting to Sepilok I wanted to stay somewhere for a night so that I could gather my thoughts and have a nice, long sleep, but I found the city far from relaxing. I arrived too early to check in, so went for a bit of a wander to find some food and was quickly reminded how much I stand out here! I’m regarded as relatively tall in my home country, let alone Malaysia. People would stop and stare, and in the crowded streets it was quite difficult to get around. Everyone was, of course, very friendly, and I had cheerful “Hellos!” thrown at me from all angles, but I knew I wouldn’t be making street walking a regular activity there.
There is a day-time market right outside the hotel, and throngs of people bustled around it. I suppose I didn’t expect it to be quite so busy – once the time came to check-in I made a quick dash for my room. I didn’t stray too far until leaving the following day for Sepilok.


One thing I noticed was the amount of litter in the water and around the streets. It made me sad to see it, and I had not been able to spot any public rubbish bins along the waterfront – from what I could tell it seemed that trash was simply dropped on the ground. Indeed, during my first night a group of youngsters ate their dinner outside of the hotel. In the morning their rubbish and leftovers still lay in a pile on the street. It doesn’t seem hard to simply pick up and dispose of your litter, but I suppose if it’s not general custom then people simply don’t consider it.
The following day I met up with another volunteer who was staying close by and we shared a ride to the airport to meet some of the others. In total there are twelve of us from all over the world. We will be roommates, work colleagues and social company for the next two months.

Arriving at Sepilok was a relief. Out here we are surrounded by animal conversations and heavy, swaying jungle – it is nothing like the city, and I feel far more at home here. Our accommodation is near the tourist’s entrance to the sanctuary and every day we see people come and go for their daytime visits. Until we begin our work we will be blending in with the tourists, joining the river of groups to watch the twice daily orang-utan feedings. I am really looking forward to beginning at the sanctuary next week, but for now the opportunity to watch the orang-utans and familiarise ourselves with the area is appreciated.

– Sam.


Palm oil – what’s the issue?


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In six weeks today I leave for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which is a sanctuary in the northern state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. I’ll be working at the Centre for two months, during which time I will be dedicated to the care of the resident rescue orangutans as well as surveying areas of jungle for wild orangutans. One part of me can’t wait to tell you about the journey – the other part, well… Species of orangutan face a lot of hardships, and I know it will be difficult to see some of these first-hand.
The Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is a species endemic to the island of Borneo and is categorised on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as Endangered. It is currently thought that there are three subspecies of the Bornean orangutan; Pongo pygmaeus morio is the subspecies you will find in the Sabah region, and it is estimated that there are less than 10,000 individuals of this subspecies remaining in the area. In the last 60 years the Bornean Orangutan’s numbers have been declining at a rate of well over 50%, and this is not predicted to stop.

The undisputed main threat to the species is habitat loss due to agriculture – and undoubtedly the number one offender of this group is palm oil plantations. Of an island 740,000 square kilometers large, only 86,000km² remains as available habitat for native species such as the Bornean Orangutan – that’s little over 10%. A few years ago, when I was first looking into getting involved with a project in Borneo, someone asked me, “So what? Rainforests are only for tourists anyway.” This was a sad notion to hear, yet it is a common one. The idea that we can be so incredibly self-centered to convince ourselves that every inch of this planet is merely here to serve our singular species only makes me want to fight harder for the others we are very quickly killing.

I’ve been fundraising like crazy for the upcoming trip – selling palm oil-free chocolates, running movie nights and chatting to various local magazines to get the word out. I’ve discovered that so many people want to help – often they are held back because they don’t have the availability to dedicate themselves to a project like this, and it’s been wonderful being able to talk to so many people about the good conservation work that is going on out there. In a lot of discussions I’ve had it’s become apparent that while many people know orangutans are in trouble, they weren’t quite aware exactly why.

So: palm oil plantations. What’s the big issue? Does an issue even exist?

I’m going to answer that last question with a big: YES. Yes, there is an issue. And it is big. Thousands of football fields a day big – that’s an incredibly general idea of how much frequent deforestation potentially occurs to make way for this particular oil.

Palm oil is the edible vegetable oil extracted from palm fruit which grows on the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). This palm tree is a highly efficient oil producer – it bears fruit year-round, requires less land than many other oil producers, and it grows amazingly well in areas of high-heat and high-rainfall (such as – you got it – Borneo). Palm oil itself has become a greatly desired ingredient for many household products (from food to cleaning supplies to cosmetics to bath products) due to its versatility. Food manufacturers in particular favour it because it is stable at high temperatures and is high in saturated fats (as opposed to trans fats). Palm oil is so popular that it is contained in about half of all packaged food products globally. In New Zealand it is estimated to be an ingredient in at least one of ten supermarket products. This can be hard to tell as manufacturers do not currently have to label palm oil on their packaging – it often comes under the guise of general “vegetable oil”.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest cultivators of palm oil. Every single day virgin rainforests are being cleared in order to set up plantations for these palm trees. There is other space available (e.g. unused land from previous agricultural ventures) but virgin rainforest is an attractive option because timber from felled trees can be sold for profit. Rainforest is also cleared by burning – this is meant to be a controlled and isolated method, but it doesn’t always remain that way. And, of course, the ‘controlled’ burns bring casualties – orangutans and thousands of other animal species are caught up in these blazes. These fires have also contributed to Indonesia being one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters on the planet. The negative impact of this unsustainable industry is devastating and irreparable.
Indigenous peoples are also affected by the palm oil trade. Palm oil manufacturers will often say the introduction of plantations brings strength to local economies, however, in reality the replicated results are communities that have had their lives completely changed and which are suddenly dependent on the palm oil market’s success. Native inhabited, valued land is overhauled for transformations, and people are usually left little choice but to work the plantations for pittance. Workers do include children.

This industry is incredibly unsustainable and damaging – yet the trade is lucrative and the demand is high, so it is seemingly unstoppable. Most consumers contribute in some way to this trade – every time we quickly pop in to the supermarket to pick up a few basic items, it is highly likely that we are supporting this unbelievable environmental impact and species decline. A high number of our favourite multi-national companies are allies of the palm oil trade, as are many of our treasured local brands.

To show that the big-spending palm oil customers do care about the environment, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was created in 2004. This collaboration (between palm oil manufacturers, their customers and some NGOs such as WWF) works to increase the amount of sustainable palm oil produced – defined by them as “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, legal and economically viable”. 40 million tonnes of palm oil is produced per year – this industry-led group said that by 2009 1.5 million tonnes of this palm oil was sourced via sustainable means (according to their definition). That’s just 4% of what is globally produced. Here’s an RSPO fact sheet if you want to check out some of their distributed information.

If you hadn’t picked up on it, I’m hinting here that the RSPO really isn’t as wonderful as they make out to be. For one, it’s industry-led, not independent, so has a high bias towards keeping palm oil production up. While products containing palm oil endorsed by the RSPO are most likely more sustainable than products that aren’t, purchasing them still supports the demand for this vegetable oil no matter its source. One thing we can do as consumers is recognise that every product we buy is supporting the demand for what goes in to them – by making a conscious decision to buy palm oil-free, we are not adding to that demand.
It’s certainly not easy to do this – as I said, in New Zealand (and countless other countries, no doubt) it is not a legal requirement to label the type of vegetable oil used in a particular product. I encourage people to contact companies and ask them outright if their products contain palm oil. The more people show they care, the more seriously this sort of thing will be taken.
The Auckland Zoo has a few handy resources on their website for those in New Zealand – check out their palm oil-free shopping guide. Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia also have a guide up on their website, and for those in the UK Ethical Consumer magazine have a guide on their site too.

In a few weeks I will be writing from Borneo where I’ll be able to share some first-hand stories about the devastation these palm oil plantations can wreak. It doesn’t hurt us to be conscious consumers – it may take a little (sometimes a lot) of effort, but we are living in a time where convenience seems to outweigh the greater good. I admire those who take the time to remember that their individual choices do make a difference – great or small, they do matter.


Say No to Palm Oil
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
Auckland Zoo – palm oil information (NZ)
Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia (AUS)
Ethical Consumer (UK)

OR-7’s Journey


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Anyone who has spent time close to wolves will be able to tell you that they are incredibly compelling animals with dynamic personalities. Every time I head back to the White Wolf Sanctuary I am greeted with a multitude of characters – some of whom I am familiar with, some of whom are new and are exciting to get to know. I have no doubt that even those who work more hands-off with wild wolves will still have noticed very individual behaviour within packs.

There is one wild wolf in particular who managed to grip the attention of people all over the world, and I think his story is worth sharing. Not only has he made history by being the driving catalyst for an entire state law change, but he defied all odds of location and distance on his instinctive quest to start a family. His name of identification is OR-7 (he was the seventh wolf in Oregon to receive a radio tag), but he has since been affectionately renamed as Journey. He was first radio collared in 2011 when he was about two years old.

Journey originated from the Imnaha pack, a pack of wolves inhabiting a north-east corner of Oregon. This pack was formally identified around 2009 when a video camera caught sight of a group of ten wolves, including a radio-collared female. This female had already made history herself when she trekked down to Oregon with her mate and became the first officially-identified breeding female in the state since the last wolf bounty was collected there in 1947. Journey is one of this female’s pups, and he went on to undertake an incredible expedition himself.

In roughly September 2011 Journey dispersed from his pack, which is something that is encouraged of wolves of this age so that they can find an outside mate and start their own family group. Instead of staying near the area, Journey wandered for miles… and miles… and miles… sometimes 30 miles a day (for metric users like myself that equates to almost 50km a day)! In not even three months, Journey had traveled over 1,200 zig-zagging miles (almost 2,000km) and found himself in California.

Here’s a neat map you can click on that shows how exactly Journey got to California and where he stayed over the years:
Journey's Journey to California

Once his collar signal was recognised in California, it caused quite a stir. This is because it had been almost a whole century since a wolf was spotted in the area. California, like Oregon, once ran a government-funded bounty program that successfully wiped out wolves from the entire state. The last confirmed wild wolf (before Journey) seen in California was identified in 1924. Wolf supporters at the Center for Biological Diversity took the opportunity to set up a petition to invoke state protection for all grey wolves. Fast-forward to June 4th, 2014, and the California Fish and Game Commission finally announced that grey wolves would be listed under the California Endangered Species Act; they would receive state protection.

2014 is getting a bit ahead of the story, though. After first arriving in California in late 2011, and causing such a stir with wolf supporters and those opposed to the protection of wolves, Journey then spent some time flitting between the states of Cali and Oregon with no real established territory of his own. While he was just a wolf doing what wolfies do, people were in awe of him and used him as a real focus-point for positive discussions about the importance of wolves in their natural environment. (If you haven’t already, check out this great video that demonstrates the positive impact reintroduced wolves have had on the environment.)

In 2013, after a couple of years of wandering around (more locally, this time), Journey found himself a mate. And then, only two days before California announced the inclusion of grey wolves on the CESA, US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists released information that they had visited Journey’s known location in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, and seen and heard two – possibly more – wolf pups. Below is the first photo taken, courtesy of USFWS, of Journey and his mate’s two pups – the first wolf pups in the Oregon Cascades in over 60 years! Check out the Center for Biological Diversity’s article tying Journey’s pups in with California’s state pledge of protection.

OR-7 pups

Two of wolf OR7’s pups peak out from a log on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, June 2, 2014. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since then it was confirmed that Journey and his mate had a total of three mouths to feed – three famous pups born in the Oregon Cascades. All the yearlings survived that 2014-2015 winter – and last year it was confirmed that Journey and his mate successfully produced a second litter! The family group have been named the Rogue Pack, due to their location. HERE is a gorgeous time-lapse video showing two of the three older pups hanging out near a trail-cam (thanks to The Oregonian).

Journey and his mate’s presence has sparked a lot of conversation around wolves and their place in the ecosystem. For the most part, though, people have been accepting of the Rogue Pack (they are keeping well out of the way of humans, which is good). And while the pack are not currently in California, the state protection has lasted in case any other wolves wander through. The status of wolves in California is, however, up for review – for recent updates you can head to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

I left out a small detail of this story, wanting to save it until last. Journey traveled hundreds upon hundreds of miles to finally find his mate and start his own pack. And which wolf did he end up finding to create a mating pair with? None other than a female who quite possibly originated from a neighbouring pack from northern Oregon or Idaho! Scat samples that scientists analysed last year show that Journey’s mate may very well have come from a similar region to him, indicating that each wolf wandered hundreds of miles to meet each other despite being potential neighbours. Why Journey decided to trek so far we will never know, but for now the growing Rogue Pack is safe in the Cascades, leading the way for future packs in the area.


The White Wolf Sanctuary
Center for Biological Diversity
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – wolf updates
California Department of Fish and Wildlife – wolf updates

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