Kuching is the main city of Sarawak, one of the two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. It is a very laid-back, peaceful, attractive city. So attractive that the people there always say, “once you come to Kuching, you stay here, or you always come back”.
Well, it happened to me. I went there, and I stayed there for nine months. This small city is built around the Sarawak River and the life seems to follow the flow of the water – quiet, cool, captivating, but also frenetic, intense and wild. Especially wild. A few steps out of the city and you are in the middle of the rainforest, meeting the other inhabitants of the island, the orang-utans.
Discover the people from the forest
In Malay orang-utans means “people from the forest” and it is exactly how everyone there considers them. They are known to be intelligent, sentient, almost human, but in danger. Indeed, these great apes, whom we share 96% of our genes with, are now listed as an endangered species, and they can only be found in Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.
Around Kuching, you can meet them at the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, just outside the city. To go there you can hop in a bus from the city centre, but by experience I would tell you that the network buses in Kuching is really not reliable – maybe you will get there, but maybe you won’t be able to come back! Luckily, a lot of hostels and tour agencies offer a half-day trip to the centre for very reasonable prices, including the entrance fee.
How to spot the orang-utans safely
Before you go there you should know that you can enter the orang-utans area of the park only during feeding time, which is at 9am and 3pm, for an hour or so. The rangers of the park will give you all the security measures not to upset or excite the apes. And to scare you a little bit, they will also show you a few pictures of reckless people who got armed by the orang-utans – and, for example, got their finger ripped off! So, to avoid this kind of trouble, no flash, no pointing your finger at them, no eating food or drinking water in front of them, and, for some weird reason, no sticking your tongue out at them – apparently it can drive them quite mad.
Besides these securities measures, the rangers will raise your awareness about their living conditions in the centre. Indeed, it is a rehabilitation centre, so it aims to help relearn reflexes and habits to survive in the wild to the orangs-utans who have been captured or hurt, and to teach these habits to the ones who are born in captivity. So as much as you want to see them, the rangers hope none of them will show up for feeding time, because it means they can find food on their own in the wild, which is a big step towards their release to their real home, the wild wide unlocked rainforest.
So, depending on they days, you can admire dozens of them for more than one hour, or just have a glimpse at an only one, hiding in the lush foliage of the forest. To increase your chances to see them, avoid visiting the centre during the raining season (between November and March), because they can find food easily at this moment, and they are not likely to show up for feeding time.
Let yourself be mesmerized by their humaneness
As I worked in a tour agency and a hostel in Kuching for nine months, I had the chance to visit the centre quite a lot. Most of the time I was hoping in the shuttle to the centre just after my night shift at the front desk, and I just used to sit on a bench, feeling sleepy but like in a dream, as I was watching these impressive creatures moving graciously in front of me. Indeed, the orang-utans might look big and heavy but there are also such agile animals. They swing amid trees from branches to lianas with some much facility and casualness, using their four limbs, without any distinction between arms and legs – they all have the same purpose: grab food, hang on a tree, walk, and communicate. It results to an astonishing show as you see an ape hanging on a tree using one arm and one leg, as he eats with his foot and scratches his head with his hand. Besides the human expressions on their face and in their look can shake you to your very core. You can discern the feelings that are filling them just by looking at their eyes or watching a mother taking care of her baby.
Keep in mind their survival in threatened
Once I took a friend who was visiting me to the centre, and she couldn’t take her eyes off of the apes as she was repeating, “I feel like in The Jungle Book! I feel like in The Jungle Book!” Indeed, that is what the orang-utans are capable of: making you feel like in another world. A peaceful, fragile, staggering, elegant world.
But sadly, such a world is threatened nowadays. Deforestation, dam construction, oil palm production, overexploitation of the land and poaching, chase away the orang-utans from their habitat and their habits. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) the population of orang-utans in Borneo has dropped by 60% from 1950 to 2010, and about a thousand of them are killed each year. Among the 100 000 remaining on the island a lot of them live in rehabilitation centres like Semenggoh – and you can find such centres in Sabah, the other Malaysian state of Borneo, and Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of the island. It became highly difficult to spot them in the wild as they became – and we can’t blame them – very distrustful of humans. But even in rehabilitation centres these orang-utans might be the lucky ones, as a lot of their own have been illegally sold to zoos around the world. And, if they can survive the trip, they are treated like unemotional attractions for tourists.
So while you can, go to Borneo or Sumatra to meet them, respect them, understand them, admire them, and maybe help them, as a lot of rehabilitation centres are working with volunteers.