Orangutan, the endangered great ape, showed amazing flexibility and strength while swinging across branches on tree-tops, giving a rare experience to watch it preparing a nest for its young in its natural habitat in rainforests of Borneo Island, Malaysia.
As much as the rackets of poaching remain active and deforestation continues, two parts of Borneo Island in territorial control of Indonesia and Malaysia hold a key to protect the critically endangered great ape – Orangutan.
The killing of the two orangutans with airgun shots in Indonesian part of the island within the span of just one month in early last year had brought threats to critically endangered great ape under the spotlight. Malaysia’s hectic conservation efforts on its part of the island present a glimmer of optimism to protect the rare mammal.
The Borneo Island is divided into three parts and owned by Malaysia, Indonesia and the oil-rich part of the island by Brunei. The reports suggest orangutan habitat in Kalimantan – the Indonesian portion of the island – and Sumatra Island in Indonesia is fast shrinking due to poaching and deforestation. It pushes this critically endangered Kalimantan great ape towards risk of extinction.
The Malaysian part of the island, however, serves as orangutan’s paradise, allowing it to live freely in its natural habitat. It is not unbelievable if it’s an eye-account. The iconic Borneo ape, showing amazing flexibility and strength while swinging across branches on tree-tops, was a treat to watch. The live gymnastic show was not without purpose. It was preparing a nest for its young in its natural habitat in protected rainforests of Malaysia. In contrast, Indonesia is fast losing its rainforests in its rush to supply the world with timber, paper and, more recently, palm oil.
The opportunity to witness orangutan’s live show in the heart of animal’s kingdom came during river safari along Sg. Kinabatangan River in the island. The boat cruise point was located at a couple of hours’ drive west of Sandakan, a small town in the state of Sabah, eastern Malaysia.
The firsthand experience of Malaysia’s efforts to preserve rainforest reserves and wildlife was part of the International Educational Program. It was a lucky day to spot Orangutan, long-nosed Proboscis monkey, long-tailed macaque and Jungle owl in the wild along majestic Kinabatangan River. It is the longest river in Sabah traveling 560km down to its mangrove swamp estuary into the Sulu Sea on the East coast of Sabah.
Severino Paulin Jr alias TOP, the tour guide, informed that Orangutans are amongst the most intelligent mammals as they can employ their skills to use a variety of tools to make nests on tree tops. “The female Orangutan is very possessive of her young as it chased away not just the strangers but even young’s own father,” he said and informed that an orangutan can weigh as much as 100 Kgs.
Beholding presence of crocodiles, hawks, eagles, hornbills, and kingfishers was breathtaking. The newly-discovered Borneon ‘Pygmy Elephant’ feeding on the edge of the Kinabatangan River was a unique experience. It is home to many species of insects, reptiles, and amphibians including snakes, frogs, and stick-insects.
Extending safe hands
The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah and Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Sarawak safeguard orangutan and other endangered animals in their natural habitat.
Established in Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, Sabah, in 1964, the Sepilok Sanctuary rescued abandoned or orphan orangutan babies. These apes are left stranded as the development works, logging, illegal hunting and proliferation of initially rubber and recently oil palm plantations haven’t completely stopped even in Malaysia. However, it is the commitment and the resolve Malaysian government betrays to protect the mammal that really matters.
“We observed Orangutan Care Week for the entire month of November last year in order to create awareness among the local visitors, school students and tourists with regard to rehabilitation of the rare species of apes,” said Sylvia Alsisto, the in-charge of the Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary.
The sanctuary also serves as a source of creating awareness among the local visitors, school students and tourists with regard to rehabilitation of the rare species of apes.
The Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre has so far admitted 760 orangutans, 81.6% have been rehabilitated and 66% of these rehabilitants have been released into the wild. An orangutan may take up to 10 years to learn the necessary skills to survive in the wild.
“They have a fantastic survival rate in the wild,” Sylvia Alsisto said and informed that most of those released back in the jungle have survived successfully. Some couldn’t because of various reasons, including natural disasters, and a few came back to live around the centre.”
Sylvia Alsisto said that this training site has no boundary and orangutans are free to explore the forest reserve. The weekly check-up is conducted to ascertain the health condition of the orangutans.
A study claimed that orangutans, the apes in the iconic movie series “The Planet of the Apes”, are closest to humans. They share 96.4% of their DNA with human beings and weigh as much as 100 kilograms.
The Rainforest Discovery Centre (RDC), adjacent to Sepilok Sanctuary, is home to a huge variety of plants and trees and migratory birds. It serves as a laboratory for ornithologists to do research on some 300 species of birds. The Centre gives a spectacular view of the lush rainforest and a glimpse of bats, giant squirrel, and Borneon bristle-head and many more.
“The process of development has slowed down but not ceased completely,” said an official at the Rainforest Discovery Centre on condition of anonymity when asked about the phenomenon of continuous development posing a threat to forest reserves and its wildlife.
The illegal hunting doesn’t pose a just one-way threat. Sometimes the hunter also gets hunted. Lion poaching has been on the rise in South Africa in recent years. But in an incident reported early last year, the lions had eaten a big cat poacher near Kruger National Park, Limpopo province in South Africa. They ate his body, nearly all of it, and just left his head and some remains next to his loaded hunting rifle and ammunition.
Reality versus accusations
Malaysia, located in Southeast Asia, is one of 17 megadiverse countries on the planet with large numbers of endemic species. It is estimated that Malaysia contains, 20% of the world’s animal species. There are approximately 210 mammal species, 620 bird species, 250 reptile species, and 150 frog species. The survival is impossible in the absence of their natural habitat.
Malaysia has 80% green cover including 20% agricultural land and 60% rainforests. It makes the country a major carbon sink, fights global warming and ensures the protection of flora and fauna ecosystem.
It is amazing to see Malaysia protecting rainforests and wildlife creatures. Yet, it is accused of favouring development over the environment through deforestation and reducing natural habitat for wildlife.
These accusations have, however, done more good than harm. Now, Severino Paulin Jr said, the Malaysian government is allowing cropland development only in areas marked for agriculture. Forest areas can no longer be cleared for oil palm plantation or any other development purposes. “It has committed to increasing the forest cover in Sabah from the existing 26% to 30% by 2025,” he said.
He said that palm oil is Malaysia’s largest crop, but the industry has been the victim of negative propaganda, which, however, can be neutralized through sustainability into the production. “If Malaysia is successful in its efforts to save its wildlife by preserving rainforest reserves, it will help promote its palm oil industry too,” observed Severino Paulin Jr.
Malaysia’s biodiversity, therefore, is a shining example for the rest of the world to protect the natural and manmade forests, mangroves along coastal belts and wildlife. It is confronting edible oil lobbies out to dent its palm oil market and mafias discrediting through accusations of deforestation. Yet, it shows unflagging commitment to preserving its rainforests and wildlife not just to protect its own environment but also to contribute to mitigating global warming in the world.