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.
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.