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Published: September 23rd 2007
On Christmas Day last year, I discovered I had become the sponsor of a young orang utan living on Borneo so, as I knew I'd be in the neighbourhood as part of my Southeast Asia tour, I felt I should pay him a visit. Unfortunately when I started to try to pinpoint exactly where he was, the latest WWF news was that he was enough of an adult that he was roaming freely and had become impossible to track. So with no likely encounters possible with Etin, the orang utan reserve at Sepilok offered the best chances of some primate sightings.
The staff at Sepilok attempt to reacquaint orphaned and domesticated orang utans with the independent ways they would normally have in the wild. For those orang utans unable yet to find all their own food in the jungle, there are 2 feeding sessions a day at which wardens dump a large quantity of fruit on a platform and a number of the primates swing in for a snack. It's these feeding sessions that draw the crowds, and there must have been over 100 camera-wielding tourists waiting expectantly as 10AM drew close.
Cables have been rigged up from out
in the jungle that converge on the platform and the first sign of an impending orang utan arrival was when one of these started thrumming, causing a swell of noise in the throng. Soon after, an orang utan hove into view, long arms carrying it effortlessly along the bounding rope. When it reached the platform, it sat down, eyed the crowd, and slumped into a disinterested posture. A second, more shy, one came via the same route but stopped on a tree 20m away from the platform. At this point, the first one remembered just who was keeping it fed, and proceeded to hang on the cable in various positions designed to show off its flexibility and cuteness. With orang utans sharing over 96% of their genes with humans, it's really not so difficult (or incorrect) to anthropomorphise them.
The appearance of the wardens with heaps of fruit precipitated a conveyor belt of orang utans in from the jungle, including a mother and baby. Unfortunately a large tribe of macaques was also attracted by the promise of free food and proceeded to make off with a good chunk of the spread, with the orang utans seeming disinclined to stop
them. A pair of macaques did provide some entertainment, and no doubt an embarrassing moment for the parents of the many young children in the audience, by engaging in a short but lazy bout of copulation by the bananas.
Our next intended stop was in the Kinabatangan floodplain, a stretch of old Bornean jungle bursting with wildlife but difficult to explore independently. With less than 24 hours' notice, we were lucky to find places on a package leaving the following day. Unfortunately the pick-up was from a highly inconvenient location - we could reach it via either an expensive private car, or by taking a public bus but run the (apparently high) risk of it being full by the time it reached Sepilok. We decided we couldn't take this risk so needed to get to the start-point of the bus's journey in Sandakan to ensure tickets.
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