Protecting Orangutans In Borneo

5 March 2015

Borneo, the third largest island in the world, has captivated the hearts of explorers for centuries. The island is made up of three different countries — Malaysia, Indonesia, and the independent Sultanate of Brunei.

Dayaks, Borneo's ancient indigenous tribe, still populate the island, although they have long since discarded "headhunting," their ancient practice of preserving and displaying the heads of their dead.

Borneo is as rich in culture as it is in biodiversity — its many rainforests and surrounding reefs are heterogeneous ecosystems. It is because of this that Borneo has always held a special place in my heart.

Meet A-Ul, a rescued Bornean Orangutan. All photos by Owen Morgan.

I set out for Borneo as part of an around-the-world adventure. I had enough with being a regular tourist and decided it was time to take the road less travelled. For me, that meant journeying to developing countries and getting involved with different nonprofit organisations that offer volunteer projects to help humans, animals, and the environment.

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Volunteers Run A Centre For Orangutan Orphans

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I joined a team of four volunteers in the small city of Ketapang to work at the pioneering orangutan rehabilitation centre created by International Animal Rescue. The staff of this British-based charity have given up all creature comforts to work tirelessly on the conservation and protection of Bornean orangutan populations.

orangutan and tower Volunteers work hard to build a feeding tower for this little guy.

I signed up with The Great Projects, a United Kingdom-based organisation that coordinates with local charities to create ecofriendly volunteering experiences that save endangered species around the world. At the time, International Animal Rescue was a small centre that cared for about 30 injured or orphaned orangutans.

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Get To Work With Native Animals

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Our task was to build a new feeding tower, three storeys high, and to assist the local team of builders and vets enrich the enclosures with food-based toys and puzzles to keep the apes mentally stimulated. It was an intense four-week program that involved labouring in the heat of the Bornean sun, but to see the infant orangutans climb over their new platform was a joy to behold.

Sun bears A pair of sun bears forage for berries and fruit.

The experience was so rewarding that I returned to Ketapang two years later to see how the orangutans were faring since our last visit. On the way, I stopped in the city of Kuching, in Malaysian Borneo, to work alongside native animals such as sun bears (the smallest bears in the world), binturongs, hornbills, gibbons and pythons as well as the resident orangutans.

The projects varied day to day — cleaning out the animal dens, constructing a python enclosure and building new animal enrichment devices kept us extremely busy. Working so closely with these animals allowed us to connect with them on such a level that we felt we knew their personalities. We would marvel at their progress towards recovery from their previous lives in chains.

Binturong Meet the binturong, a mysterious animal known by locals as 'the bear-cat'.

Our return to Ketapang was met with many positive changes in the centre since our first visit in 2011. The pioneering project had developed dramatically — the number of apes had doubled (it now housed over 60) - and the centre had relocated away from the city to back into a small forest in a rural township.

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The Giant Male Ape Was In Danger Of Being Shot

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The forest gave the young orangutans a crucial chance for some natural rehabilitation. Each day they were let out in small groups, which we called "Jungle School," to re-learn and practice natural climbing skills that would have been passed on to them from their mothers.

It was here that the team rescued A-Ul, a fully grown orangutan discovered on the fringe of a plantation. The giant male ape was in serious danger of being shot by local villagers, who were afraid of him being so close to their homes.

The International Animal Rescue team worked quickly and efficiently to tranquilise A-Ul and bring him back to the centre for a full health examination. Once he was determined healthy, the team released him deep into the forest, safely a full day's drive and hike away from where he was rescued.

Working The International Animal Rescue team locates A-Ul.

Because of organisations like The Great Projects and the programs they facilitate to rescue endangered species, what is considered "a once in a lifetime" experience for a tourist is a regular occurrence for a rescued orphaned ape. And in my book, the orangutans are not the only ones being rescued.

Working as a volunteer of The Great Orangutan Project finally led me down that less-travelled road I was searching for. I have the Bornean orangutans to thank for that.


Discover more of Borneo. Borneo To Be Wild

And you can't miss the monkeys. Monkey Business in Borneo



About the Bornean orangutan

The population of Bornean orangutans has declined by half over the past 60 years. Over 50 per cent of their habitat has been destroyed in the past two decades by deforestation, logging, and hunting. The northwestern subpopulation has been most dramatically affected, followed by the northeastern and central populations.

Touching orangutans is forbidden for the ape's protection. Compared to a human's complex immune system, orangutans can succumb to even the mildest of human illnesses — even the common cold can prove fatal.

Avoiding physical contact, especially with the babies, helps in the rehabilitation process. Infant orangutans form strong bonds with their mothers, staying by their sides for the first eight years of their lives. They suffer major emotional trauma when the adults are killed. Looking for a replacement, the infants instantly latch on to their human caretakers, both physically and emotionally. Volunteers stay at the project for a minimum of two to four weeks before flying home. Forming a bond with baby orangutans for shorter periods of time creates mental scars that cannot heal.


 

This article was from Fathom and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.