Orangutans fighting for survival

I MET a Wild Man of Borneo last week.

He peered down from the trees; then swung off through the branches. The encounter, though fleeting, was a special privilege.

The guidebook to Borneo’s Tabin Nature Reserve, an area of rainforest the size of two Irish counties, says that “visitors would have to be very fortunate to spot” an orangutan. The sighting, alas, did not indicate great field-craft skills on my part; led by a local guide deep into the heart of the reserve, we came upon scientists from Orangutan UK who pointed out the young male.

Though weighing up to 90kg, the most arboreal of the great apes lives in the canopies of tall trees, swinging from branch to branch on arms longer than its body. ‘Orang’ means ‘man’ in Malay and ‘utan’ is ‘forest’. It’s an apt name; this shaggy red-haired hulk is a member of the great ape family to which we ourselves belong. About 14 million years ago, the line which would lead to them separated from the one which was to produce us; we share 97% of our genes with this relative.

Big-brained and highly intelligent, the orang is ‘human’ in many ways. Frightened babies cling to their mothers just as our infants do. Siblings play boisterous games and throw temper tantrums. Individuals have a concept of ‘self’ and can learn sign language. Leaves are used to amplify ‘kiss-squeak’ sounds, the equivalent of the ‘tsk-tsk’s we make when annoyed. Amplification probably makes hearers think the squeaker is bigger than he is.

Opposable thumbs provide manual dexterity. Accomplished tool users, orangs fashion twigs into crude brushes to extract insects and honey from tree-holes. Sumatran orangs make a special tool which is held between the teeth while scraping off the stinging hairs of neesia nuts. Then, a piece of wood is inserted in a crack in the nut’s rock-hard case and manipulated until the seeds can be reached. Orangs, famously, construct a tree-nest every night. Leaf ‘hats’ protect the animals from rain and crude ‘umbrellas’ shield them from the sun.

Once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, orang utans are found only in Borneo and Sumatra. In 1980, the World Wildlife Fund estimated that there were around 20,000 in Sabah, the province in which Tabin is located. Only 11,000 remain. The main problem is habitat destruction. Logging companies, both legal and illegal, are cutting down forests to meet the insatiable demand for timber in the West and in China. Seeing the stacks of timber, I thought of Cill Cais; ‘Cad a dhéanamid feasa gan adhmad’! The cleared land is planted with oil palms, which provide bio-fuels and ingredients for margarine. The extent of the destruction is mind-boggling. On a three-hour minibus journey, plantations lined both sides of the road without a break. Orangutans can’t live in palm trees.

Logging is not the great ape’s only problem. Mothers are shot so that their distressed babies can be sold to the pet trade. The trade is illegal in Borneo but law-enforcement in the world’s third largest island, with an area bigger than France, is virtually impossible.

The Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok was established in 1964. Injured orangs, and orphan babies confiscated during police raids, are brought here. Over four to six years the youngsters are taught the skills necessary to survive in the wild. The programme resembles the human educational system with primary secondary and third-level stages. ‘Graduates’ are taken by helicopter or boat deep into the rain-forest to be released. To date, almost 200 orangs have been returned to the Tabin wilderness. Animals, unable to re-adapt fully to the wild live in the forest around the site, relying on hand-outs of food. Sepilok has become Sabah’s number-one tourist attraction; camera-popping visitors crowd the boardwalks at feeding times. There is not much to see, however. The orangutan ‘school’ was not open to the public, at least when I was there. Apes pick up infections from humans and becoming too familiar with people is not a good idea for creatures destined to return to the wild.

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