Introduction

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Hi there,

Welcome to my blog, and thank you for visiting! 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 was born and raised in Auckland, New Zealand, and I know NZ 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 growing up was that animals cannot speak for themselves. Like human babies, they are dependent upon others to stand up for their welfare. 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 – thus through all of these connections life on earth progresses. We are all important to each other in some way.

I tend to find myself drawn to people who care about what happens to the world and who strive to personally contribute something positive. There is so much to be passionate about – 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. For me, I aim to dedicate a month (or three) each year to a wildlife rescue and/or conservation project. And that is why I have this blog – to recount the journeys, and explore the things that really matter to me. I’m grateful to anyone who takes the time to read it, and hope that it encourages others to share and think about their own journeys and adventures. My latest expedition was to Borneo for the first time where I worked at an orangutan rehabilitation center for a few months, and I am currently in the USA back with some arctic wolves that I have spent a bit of time with in the past. Keep an eye on the blog for updates!

Sam.

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

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2014 - Arctic Wolves

America – Wolves: 2014

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Thailand elephant walk Samantha Boston wildatheart Blameitonmywildheartblog

Thailand – Elephants: 2013

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White arctic wolf kiss Samantha Boston wildatheart Blameitonmywildheartblog

America – Wolves: 2010

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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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Donations

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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:
Whittaker’s
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!

Sam.

The Wolves of the White Wolf Sanctuary

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Each time I visit the White Wolf Sanctuary there are, naturally, changes in which wolves are residing here. In 2014 (when I was last here) we had ten wolves, and now we have 12. Sadly, two of the wolves I cared for in 2014 are no longer with us, and this visit I have been introduced to four more.

Goliath

Queenie and Goliath are two of the ‘new’ wolves I have met for the first time. Goliath is our most senior citizen at 14 years of age. He was brought down from Washington to be enclosure-mate for our elderly girl Hope after her partner died. Goliath looked after Hope very well – he would stand over her in the rain, bring her blankets to shelter her face, carry food to her because her eyesight wasn’t so good, and escort her across to new enclosures when we were moving them around.

Queenie

When Hope passed away, Queenie came here to be Goliath’s new enclosure-mate. She was actually form Goliath’s old home in Washington, so they already knew each other. Queenie is a relatively shy gal, and has only just started approaching the fence to sniff me when I come by. My relationship with Goliath began interestingly – he would come over to the fence for a scratch, then decide he was done with it and would snap around to nip me! He reminded me of a chimpanzee I used to work with at the Auckland Zoo, Janie, who would press her back against the bars for you to tickle her, then quickly reach around to try and grab your fingers, hooting with a cheeky glee. Sometimes I think I’d much rather have the animals enjoy my company without playing little games (we all know of a cat or two who only let you pat them so many times before they strike!), but they’re all wonderfully unique and actually it’s pretty special getting to know their different nuances. Goliath has now, after almost four weeks, has decided that we can be friends without the nipping, and it’s so nice to know that I’ve gained his trust.


Baker

Baker is another ‘new’ boy I’ve met on this trip. Last time I visited WWS we had two young sisters, Nukka and Malina, who were of an age where they could be housed together without too much sibling rivalry. In the wild, as wolves reach maturity they often go out to start their own packs. In captivity, however, because they are penned together with nowhere to venture, they can fight quite viciously. When Nukka and Malina matured more they began to fight with increasing aggression: it was time to separate them. Thus, Baker was found as an enclosure-mate for Malina. They get along very well – at the moment they are housed in the wolves’ favourite enclosure. It has tall, long grass to hide in, a pond under a copse of trees for cooling off, and hills to sit atop and watch the world from. It is a very large enclosure, and most days I hardly see this elusive pair.

Malina

Considering that Malina and I got along quite well during my 2014 visit I thought she would be more friendly with me, but thus far I just receive a good morning greeting of a quick sniff from her and Baker, and off they go. We’ve had a bit of cooler weather up the mountain lately which suits the wolves well, and instead of sleeping somewhere sheltered out of sight Malina and Baker have ben energetically playing around their enclosure, which is a real delight to watch.


Nukka

Malina’s sister, Nukka, is now housed with Baker’s son, Everett. Everett was actually initially paired with shy Malina, but it was quickly observed that he was a bit too dominant over her and so they switched enclosure-mates. While Nukka shares her sister’s shyness of strangers, that’s where their similarities end. Nukka is an absolute love-bug, whereas Malina likes to watch you from a slight distance with her beautiful dark eyes. Nukka has no qualms about bowling into Everett when she wants attention, whilst Malina is much more polite with her mate. Everett and Nukka are a force to be reckoned with, and it is not unusual to hear them loudly snapping and growling warnings at each other if one is deemed to be invading the other’s space.

Everett

Everett is a real darling, and he and I have become fast pals – though that’s not saying much, because regal Everett turns into a whimpering affection-seeker with almost anyone he meets. Unfortunately for some men who visit the Sanctuary, if the wolves are going to be shy around anyone it’s usually new males. Everett, however, doesn’t possess this wariness of male strangers, and will shower almost anyone in wolfie loves. Occasionally he does tire of the limelight, and recently we had a group of small kids almost urinated on when he decided they were crowding him too much.


Dear Tamahawk and Archidamus have been so wonderful to be around again. Tamahawk, our littlest white wolf, was a relatively new resident when I first arrived in 2010. She is now over ten years old, but certainly hasn’t lost an ounce of her young wolfie spirit. Tamahawk has such an endearing, silly personality – you wouldn’t know she’d had a rough start to her life.

Tamahawk and her short little tail

Poor Tamahawk had initially been kept as a pet in someone’s backyard. Wolves are very social animals who crave the company of their own kind, and she would often howl in search of friends. To stop her from doing this her muzzle was taped shut by her then-owners – of course this also prevented her from eating, drinking and breathing properly. Her growth was probably stunted by this, and you’ll find that she’s only about half the size of most of the other wolves.
After Tamahawk was finally surrendered to the authorities she was taken to a facility where they sadly did not introduce her properly to the two mature females already living there – she was attacked quite badly, and aside from her other injuries she had to have half of her tail amputated due to her wounds.
This doesn’t seem to stop her from shoving her tail into your face when she wants cuddles – she loves having her backside scratched, and her little tail will wiggle along while you’re patting her.

Archidamus

She and our sole timber wolf, Archidamus, make quite the pair. Archidamus also had quite a miserable start to life, and does not trust new men one bit. He is such a honey though, and once you gain his cautious trust he will enthusiastically offer himself for pats – he runs over to me more than miss Tamahawk does most days now! They both have quite big personalities, and when they each want your attention they are quite loud to voice their disapproval of the other as they try to shove each other out of the way. These two play together frequently, and are such an entertaining pair to observe.


Sakarri

Sakarri and Modoc – oh, how I missed these two. At ten years old now I also first met this pair in 2010 and bonded with them instantly. Sakarri, whose name means ‘sweet’ in Inuit, is the most stranger-social of our wolves, and as soon as she hears new voices she’ll start whimpering away with her little tail flicking from side-to-side until she’s had a chance to meet all of the visitors. She simply can’t sit still for very long, and her personality is like chalk and cheese compared to her brother Modoc’s, who is very gentle, and calm, and watchful. Modoc doesn’t tend to approach strangers, but would spend all day leaning against the fence for some one-on-one cuddles if he could. Modoc was the first wolf I ever went in an enclosure with, and I love him dearly. He has beautiful, deep, lemon-coloured eyes, and when he wanders over to you for a pat you can’t help but feel that you are special to this very gentle giant.


Tehalin

That brings us to Tehalin and Nike, the siblings of Sakarri and Modoc. These two also have such lovely, special personalities, and it’s Tehalin I find myself thinking about most of all when I’m back in New Zealand missing the wolves terribly. During my internship in 2010, Lois (WWS founder & director) and I would often go into Nike and Tehalin’s enclosures to clean – or at least attempt to, with the two whirlwinds of wolfie excitement gambolling around us. Now that I’m generally on my own during the work days I don’t go inside the enclosures when the wolves aren’t sleeping (you need at least two people for two of our wolves – they’re so strong, and it is very difficult to stay upright when both of them are slamming into you in excitement!) but we still share a lot of close time together on opposite sides of the fence. One bonus about interacting through the fence is that the wolves settle quite quickly – Tehalin (after he’s done licking your face) tends to sit down, leans right into you and lifts his chin for a good scratch. Like Modoc, he never tires of cuddles, and would stay all day with you if there wasn’t other work to be done. I’ve spent a lot of time with this dear boy.


Every time I visit the wolves at WWS I never know if it will be the last time I’ll see any of them. It’s a very sombre thought, so I just make the most of the time that I have with them. They are all such wonderful, unique animals, and I am so glad that they are able to live out their lives in safety, peace, and with lots of respect and affection here at the beautiful sanctuary.

Sam.


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Days at the White Wolf Sanctuary

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Working days at WWS are relaxed and slow to start. The heat of summer keeps the wolves lazily snoozing until at least mid-afternoon in their circular little dug-out bed burrows, in the long yellow grass, or under their favourite picnic tables. The first task of the day is to check and clean out the many water troughs within each wolf pair’s habitat. These water troughs are placed strategically within easy reach of a hose and a large, metal pipe.  Troughs are filled from outside enclosures; the metal pipe is used to push troughs on their side to empty, and the hose is then inserted into the pipe when you are ready to refill one. This multi-tool process is essential – if you left a hose itself inside a water trough you may as well kiss it goodbye; the wolves love to play with them! Protecting the hose inside a metal pipe means the wolves can’t run off with it.
Filling water troughs
While each trough is refilling, you can duck into the enclosures to retrieve last night’s food trays. We have a huge amount of ravens at the Sanctuary. Because of this we feed the wolves their daily meals just as the sun is about to go down for the night. This way the ravens aren’t about in the same force as you would find them in the daylight, and the wolves can eat in peace.
Retrieving the food trays is a task I’ve never had to do on my own until this (my third) visit to WWS. I’ve found it quite daunting – and I know our Health and Safety Officer back at my job in New Zealand would be utterly mortified at some of the current practises here! Due to various circumstances I’m actually the only day-time staff member at WWS at the moment. Anything requiring entry to wolf enclosures is absolutely best approached by two or more staff members: you should have a wolf ‘spotter’, and someone to distract the animals if need be. However, I don’t have those options right now. So, while I wait for water troughs to fill, I ‘spot’ each wolf (there are two in each enclosure), double- and triple-check that I can see exactly where they are, and then I sneak in through a gate, uplift the food bowls lying near the entrance, and slide the gate shut as I exit. We currently have six different wolf pairs in their own habitats, so that’s six times I need to steal in and out without incident.
The most likely ‘incident’ here would be one or both wolves feeling energetic enough to get up and trot over to see what you’re doing; without someone to distract them it would be near impossible to get out of the gate without them following you.

Everett White Wolf Sanctuary Samantha Boston arctic wolf

Everett snoozing

In my mind I do also note the concern of a less friendly wolfie encounter. During my original internship to WWS in 2010, Lois (the Director) and I would frequently interact with the wolves inside their enclosures. As Lois (who is in her late 70’s now) is less physically-able, less and less interactions inside the wolves’ enclosures occur – right now she is unable to supervise outdoors at all. Enclosures are the wolves’ territories; their places of safety. Almost all of the wolves come up to the fence for pats and scratches and kisses from me, but you are asking a lot more of them to trust you actually inside their home environments. Spooking a wolf or making it feel uncomfortable has the potential to do irreparable damage to the relationship you have with it, and wolves in captivity who feel threatened may of course choose to defend themselves. Neither of these are nice outcomes, thus, it is best to utilise the lazy heat of the morning for food bowl collection time; all the wolves tend to be snoozing away happily – they might lift their heads to see what I’m doing, but that’s about it.
Just because I know Mum is reading this: if there is any chance of the darling creatures being too close to the gate, or if they are looking even slightly more than blissfully sleepy, I don’t risk it (we’ve got plenty of bowls!).

This concludes outdoor ‘work’ for the moment, and then it’s in to the meat prep. room to do food preparation. The wolves get beef, pork and whole chicken frames almost daily. We also have a road-kill collection permit thanks to the Oregon Department of Transportation, so if someone hits a deer or elk they can contact us and we will pick it up. Sometimes hunters also donate carcasses to us. Figuring out the daily meal plan for twelve wolves can be quite a big job, and a lot of time is spent chopping meat and dividing it into equal parts.

Most days in summer we have a privately booked tour scheduled. These can take up to two or three (or more!) hours in the afternoons depending on how interested the visitors are, and how much the wolves like these new people. I enjoy the variety of having tours some days and then having others where bigger jobs can get tackled when we’re not open to the public.
Tours are great fun, and as a non-government funded organisation we rely solely on donations and the admission fees people pay to see the beautiful wolves. Currently it is $50 per adult and $15 per child (15 years and under). Groups are given an educational talk before being taken around to see all the wolves and (hopefully) pat some of them. I have met some truly wonderful people on these tours who are just so interested in the animals and what we do here. Being able to share this beautiful place with like-minded people, and even introduce some to their very first wolves, is just so special. At WWS we aim to education and inspire. A lot of people out there assume that a wolf’s just a wolf – but these animals really do each have unique personalities, and so many of them are ridiculously affectionate with humans given the chance. They aren’t the evil, cruel beasts we see portrayed in movies and other media. When a tour ends and someone tells me, with tears in their eyes, that it has been a life-changing experience for them, I know we are making the difference we hope to.

Nukka White Wolf Sancatuary Samantha Boston arctic wolf

Nukka

Between cleaning, food preparation, tours and of course providing companionship to the wolves if that is what they so desire (after all, at WWS we are their happy servants!) the days pass quite quickly. I feel so grateful that each night I get to lay my head down on my pillow with a heart so full of love, and a feeling of such satisfaction that I’m doing something good for the animals, and other people.

Sam.


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White Wolf Sanctuary – First Week Back with the Wolves

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It has been three years since I last saw the resident wolves of the White Wolf Sanctuary (WWS). Last Saturday I boarded a plane in New Zealand and arrived in Eugene, Oregon, about 19 hours later. I spent the night in Eugene and the following day getting lost in the town’s multitude of one-way streets, constantly reminding myself to keep right after spending most of my life driving on the left-hand side of the road. Once I found myself on Highway 99 to Florence my stress dissipated and the scenery quickly changed from large fast food buildings to pine forests and open road.
When I made it into the small, colourful town of Yachats it was like being welcomed home. The ocean stretches to your left for as far as the eye can see, the forest covers the mountains and hills like a bristly blanket, and the bright, multi-coloured buildings smile down at the highway invitingly.
For the duration of my volunteer work at WWS I’ve got myself a lovely room behind the Drift Inn pub & restaurant. The Drift Inn has always been my favourite place to eat on the coast, and since I was last here they’ve put together some enchanting little studio apartments that are rented out to visitors on AirBnB. Each room is unique, with beautiful mosaic tiled bathrooms and hints of coastal inspiration everywhere you look. My room is nestled up a flight of stairs and is the perfect place to retreat to at the end of the day, with the sun streaming in through the windows and the ocean breeze offering songs from the Drift Inn’s regular live musciains down below.

Arriving back at WWS on Monday was quite surreal. For the most part it hasn’t changed – the habitats are the same (the Director does not like use of the word “enclosure”), the meat prep. area and tours haven’t changed; it has been very easy to fall back into the routine that I’ve become so familiar with. Things that have changed are the people here, and there are some new wolfie face I’ve met as well as being reunited with old friends.

Malina and her blankie

The four siblings, Nike, Tehalin, Sakarri and Modoc who I first met in 2010 are here and delightful as always. I never know when it will be the last time I see them, so I hang on to every moment with these beautiful souls. Nukka and Malina are also still here – they were two relatively young female siblings I met in 2014. Back then they were young enough to be housed together, but now they have mates of their own. Malina is paired with a so far elusive male from Washington named Baker, and Nukka’s habitat mate is a stunning young male with a pink nose named Everett. Everett also happens to be Baker’s son.

Everett

I have spent some wonderful time with Nukka and Everett so far. I’m always a bit nervous that my old friends may have forgotten me – but Nukka has been straight into gifting me with sloppy wolf kisses and it almost feels like I never left. Everett is an absolute darling, and he’s also treating me like we have known each other forever.

Tamahawk and Archidamus are still together. In 2014 I had a bit of a scare with timber wolf Archi when I pulled a gate too hard and the loud noise and sharp movement frightened him. When I walked around the sanctuary with a staff member on Monday I was informed that that’s quite normal for Archidamus, and he actually growls and barks at people he is wary of, which tends to be most men. In this first week back I’ve been as respectful of Archi as possible, keeping my distance from his fence (his territory) but Tamahawk has insisted on pats, and it turns out that Archi wants them just as much as she does! I’ve shared some lovely moments with them both so far, and I’m very thankful that Archidamus has forgiven any past transgressions.
The final two wolves at WWS are Queenie and her mate, a fluffy tundra wolf aptly named Goliath. Queenie is inquisitive but rather shy, and has not fully approached me yet. Goliath is our oldest resident at 14 years of age. He is a bit slower than the others, and his hearing and eyesight aren’t as good as they once were. Goliath seems to have taken a bit of a dislike to me, much to my sadness! He’s tried to nip me a several times so far – I’m hoping that in the coming weeks he’ll begin to trust me a little more in his own time, but we’ll see.


I haven’t noticed it rain once this entire week. Up on WWS’s mountain we don’t get much of a breeze, so the wolves spend most of the day sleeping until the sun gets a little lower. The days here are very peaceful. Tour groups often stay longer to sit on the porch and just listen to the natural quiet; the occasional rustling of the tall, dry grass; the calling of the ravens and crows. It’s difficult to capture this peace in writing, but perhaps you can imagine it; twelve wolves dozing happily in the afternoon sun, turkey vultures gently circling overhead in search of carrion, an old leaf here or there lazily gliding out of a tree to the earth below.
There’s actually something here that is making me increasingly anxious, but I’ll get into that another time. For now there is a beautiful, quiet day to enjoy. Below is a video I took while writing this; I was watching Queenie up near our driveway, and the wolves began howling. It is a haunting, joyous song that echoes around the hilltops.

Sam.


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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.

Sam.


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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
Hokianga
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.


 Hokianga

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

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

Sam.

 


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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.

Macaque

Macaque

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.

Sam.


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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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– 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.

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Typical view from a tourist platform


 

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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.

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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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.

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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.

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-Sam.


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.

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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.