Face to face with the queen of Orangutans in Sepilok, Malaysia

by The Longest Way Home ~ October 17th, 2011. Published in: Travel blog » Sabah (Malaysian Borneo).
Side profile of Orangutan

From any angle an Orangutan is a beautiful creature ... but face to face, eye to eye, it's mesmerizing

Well prepared for the Orangutan this time

Afternoon at Sepilok, a time to let the tourists back in, and a time to watch Orangutans up close.

I met a Primate researcher who was working there and we discussed a little about the pro’s and con’s of tourists and the rehabilitation centers ability to run without them.

Without tourists there’s no money,” she said as the crowds massed around the viewing platform. “But, it’s also not good for the orangutan’s to be so close to people.

True words that in the 21st century of commercialism meant they were not so happy to have tourists there. Yet, on the other side they needed revenue from tourists, otherwise there would be no Sepilok.

How to get a front seat for a close up photograph at Sepilok

I returned to the corner seat that I’d been cherishing for 30 minutes. A front row seat as another long tether of tourists arrived.

Orangutan high in a tree

Most orangutan's stay high in the trees, and are not natural ground dwellers

Again I wondered about Africa and if the openness of it all had spoiled me. As thus far it seemed more like a human meeting place than rehabilitation center.

Then there was a gasp and the crowd parted near to me. An Italian lady froze to the spot and kept repeating something that obviously wanted to come out of her read end.

Mercifully her partner pulled her to the side as a mother orangutan walked up onto the seats right beside me.

Bashful looks, and accusations

Almost with a bashful look of having arrived too early she sat for a second, rubbed her face and turned to the wooden post beside her. All this to hide her face from view. Then, as if peeking out to see if we were all still staring she wiped her face with her hand again. Bit her lower lip and as if to say ‘now what‘.

Again the Italian woman noisily interfered in a mind-numbing way, breaking the silence and wonder of watching the mother Orangutan up close.

“I think this is the one that was biting my husband this morning!”

The crowd murmured and the mother orangutan bowed her head behind the wooden seat in front of her. The primate researcher I had been talking to spoke up to ask confirmation about the Italian woman’s accusation. Her husband shook his head and it became apparent that there had been no biting. Only a “sighting.”

Again the husband pulled his wife further away from everything, much like her mind.

Face to face with a beautiful face

The female orangutan once again peered out from behind the wooden seat. She looked briefly behind her. Then over to the empty feeding platform, before briefly locking eyes with me as I sat there only a few feet from her. Never expecting to get this close, I had a zoom lens on. Utterly useless this close up. I fumbled with the idea of capturing a moment on camera, or just soaking this feeling in.

I took a gamble and did a lens change without looking down. And, just as I completed the action. Our eyes met again.

“A ten second gaze of wonder …  at least on my part.”

Mother Orangutan close up

Making eye contact with an Orangutan mother (click to enlarge)

It’s not often you get to look into the eyes of something/one that’s 99% like you, yet a world apart. (the Italian lady might be an exception).

Learn from your travel lessons

Once the feeding was over the crowd scattered. But something I’ve learned in my travels is to always wait around until the show is taken down and truly packed up. Or you are kicked out. And, it didn’t fail again here.

The majority gone, the mother orangutan made her way back onto the viewing platform en route to the other side of the forest. Our paths crossed once again as it was also my route back.

A sole volunteer tried to keep the 10 or so remaining tourists and their cameras from getting too close.

“No flash please!” she repeated.

Two Korean ladies who I know understood this, showed complete human idiotic behavior and from 3 feet away flashed their cameras into the Orangutans face.

Baby Orangutan swinging on a rope

Humans provide Orangutans both the best, and worst hope for a future - a catch 22 the staff are all to aware of ... (click to enlarge)

Death to the tourist

If the mother orangutan had ripped the Koreans in two I wouldn’t have blamed her. And, she had the strength to do so. While docile in appearance, when Orangutans move they can really move quickly.

Still not content with the obvious; one of the Korean ladies once again showed her intelligence and reached out trying to touch the orangutan mother. Her friend readied herself with excited coos for another flash photograph.

Thankfully a volunteer got to her first and lashed out with a slap across her arm.

An Australian verbally berated the Koreans as possibly having missed out on Darwin’s theory, but in a much cruder way.

I pushed up, and blocked their view with the PhD researcher. The two Koreans squawked to each other and moved on. Silence soon followed.

“They’ll probably try to sue us,” muttered the researcher. She sighed, and went off to follow them to the office.

Following the Queen Orangutan

The mother orangutan walked along the wooden walkway railing again, then slipped down into the foliage. The remaining tourists left and I was alone. Or so I thought.

A little further on I looked down and there in a flatten spot of fallen leaves was the mother orangutan. She’d come across some berries to eat. She stared over again and I wondered what she was thinking, if anything.

Orangutan eating berries on the ground

Orangutan eating berries on the ground (click to enlarge)

Food, territory, or simply thank goodness the Korean apes were gone.

Strangely enough, I was thinking that I too has hungry, needed a home, and was also relived there was no one else around.

A few minutes passed and I felt very grateful.

Looking into the eyes of an Orangutan puts a lot in perspective, and won’t leave you

My camera down I simply looked on and thought of the simple, yet engaged life this creature with a personality has. And yes, I wanted to say person. Look into a primate like a chimpanzee or orangutan’s eyes and that is the feeling you get. Very different from a smaller primate. (or possibly Korean / Italian tourists on said day)

She looked up at the top of a the tree as a shaft of light shone through. Then over at some neighboring trees. Behind me I heard the clanking of a tourists boots on the walkway. Instead of watching her leave, I left first. It’s something you should do before all is spoiled by another horde of people.

It’s not everyday you get a one on one meeting with the queen of orangutans.

Coming Soon:

How to go beyond the travel channel or guidebook

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23 Great responses to Face to face with the queen of Orangutans in Sepilok, Malaysia

  1. hayadith says:

    yeah its true, with tourists coming i don’t think those orangutans will be well taken care of..

    anyway, that third picture is amazing..
    planning to come again?

    • I don’t know where the rest of money would come from without tourism. Though considering most of the Orangutan’s rain-forest is being destroyed by the palm oil business, perhaps simply taxing these businesses for the total cost would do the trick?

      By the way, what’s you twitter name, I wanted to give you a shout out but couldn’t find it?

      • hayadith says:

        hmm, perhaps from wwf? i don’t know..
        if im not mistaken, the gov is giving large amount of fund to Sabah tourism board. Maybe from there..

        my twitter, search for hayadeen ..what it’s all about?

        • I think the government is also giving money to Orangutan protection too. According to the researcher, it’s been used to buy protected land. The problem is, the palm oil people can out big them easily. And, so the Orangutan land is often separated from other sections. So the Orangutans cannot “migrate” / “move” safely throughout the year.

          Sorry, just wanted to give you a shout out on twitter ;)

  2. Tommy says:

    Outstanding, never would have thought you could get so close to them. I understand that tourism can harm rehabilitation, but wow. So close.

    • Yes, I got close. But was also aware not to get too close. I’m aware how a primate might react. Moreover, I was very conscious about the amount of people around. I did feel bad at certain stages. Ultimately, I think visitor numbers should be halved.

  3. Gretchen says:

    Most rehabilitation programs, regardless of the ‘residents’ they serve, have always had to struggle to stay solvent. In these economic times, it has only gotten worse with funding cuts and dwindling donations so catering to the tourist trade has become a (somewhat) necessary evil. Though taking that road does help pay for the food and facilities, it also interferes greatly with the rehabilitation process on many levels – primates in particular. Having worked with squirrel monkeys, rhesus and baboons, outside interactions serve only as a distraction for both the primates and the providers.

    It still amazes me the number of people who feel the rules only apply to others or think they can get off that one flash photo before anyone else notices. I know one woman who regrets that action as she not only lost her camera to a rhesus, but also part of a finger when the female bit it off. The woman refused to give up the camera and the rhesus took action before any of us had time to intervene. One of those ‘happened in the blink of an eye’ moments. The woman sued but the facility only had to pay the medical bills. Oh, and the finger part was not retrievable. The woman insisted we ‘inspect’ the poo so the missing portion of the digit could be re-attached. Sorry lady, finger = food. (Crazy world.)

    • That is a pretty interesting story to say the least!

      Like I mentioned to Hayadith, most of the Orangutan’s environment is destroyed by palm oil production and deforestation. Ultimately, considering the vast profits made in that industry, a tax to save the Orangutan would cover any need for tourisim.

      Unfortunately the whole thing is so bogged down in profits and politics I don’t think it will ever happen.

      If the mother orangutan had bitten off the Korean’s finger, I’d imagine they’d sue the place into surrender. And have the Orangutan put down. These were the types of ladies that I’m sure would have loved to have cuddled a baby Orangutan in a pink tutu for $40.

      This wasn’t happening, but would surprise me.

      • Gretchen says:

        Thanks Dave! :)

        Placing a tax on the plantation owners would be one solution for sure. But, as you say, profitability and politics will keep that from happening. There are no easy ways to ‘fix’ something that has always been on the verge of breaking and/or has been broken. Wildlife management/rehabilitation has been on the brink for generations. It has it’s ups and downs depending on the economy and certain political stabilities.

        Yes, there are countries (governments) that are trying to be pro-active in the process because they have come to realize the importance of each species place in the world. But, and it’s a huge ‘but’, there is little ‘trickle-down’ factor when it comes to the general population across the globe. An animal is still just an animal. So what if we lose an entire species – mankind has to survive. I know – preachin’ to the choir on that one.

        Okay, stopping now as I could pontificate for hours on this subject. I’ll save you the headache of reading it. ;)

  4. Victoria says:

    Incredible interactions like this are moments that define your life. It’s such a pity that some people are too self-absorbed to appreciate it, let alone respect it.
    Again, the difference between a tourist and a traveller.

    • It’s certainly something that lives with you. I’ve seen many a wild animal, but large primates really get to you when you make eye contact.

      As for tourism vs traveller … I begin to wonder. I think culture has a lot to do with it. In some countries it’s okay to put a a little dog in a sweatshirt, gloves and woolly hat in 40 degree temperatures just so it looks cute. In other countries you’d be arrested for it.

      Who’s right? The majority? In that case, it looks like woolly hats for all. I don’t know how this can be improved … I really don’t. Education seems the only way, but it’s so not a priority in most countries anymore.

  5. iamthewitch says:

    My my my! That first and third pictures of the orang utan are Amazing! Well done! I’ve never really come face to face with one before, having been in this country for so many years.. it’s fascinating really, to learn so much about it from this post :)

  6. Liv says:

    I say charge a hefty entry fee (because it’s a privilege, not a right), allow no more than say, 10 people in during feeding time, and make them sit through a briefing before they’re allowed to set foot anywhere near the jungle.

    This behaviour is not confined to the animal rehabilitation centres. I saw a lot of it when I hung around the Gion district in Kyoto. The poor maikos and geikos – they’re just trying to get to work, but they have to first dodge the crazed tourists, hordes of them, running after them down the street, flashing their cameras in their faces.

    • I’ll have to disagree with the charge a hefty price idea. Doing this would make it an exclusive “rich club”. And, while it would solve the issue of the crowds, it’s also essentially eliminating many, many people who could never afford to see Orangutans. And, by eliminating a lower economic class, it’s creating a huge divide which is similar to all the protests occurring towards financial institutions throughout the world over the past few weeks. I’d rather a hefty tax on palm oil company’s etc who buy up Orangutan forest, and stop everyone from visiting them.

      • Liv says:

        I’m for protecting the species, not exhibiting the species. Sepilok, well intentioned though they may be, is exhibiting the species.

        I’d like to see exclusivity, because I want everyone to know that it’s a privilege to see these animals. They are not for our entertainment, it is not a God-given right to view these animals. Even way before rehabilitation centres, when Victorian explorers came to see what the island was all about, it was rare to spot them in the jungle.

        Exclusivity could mean paying a hefty fee, or it could be tightly controlled informed access – not more than x number per viewing time, and before each one, everyone is briefed. Or day long programs, to fully understand the plight of these animals. I’m for making it as difficult/inconvenient as possible to view these animals, to weed the idiots out – but I might be one of those lone nuts with this kind of thinking.

        I hear you about the tax – but it’s about as likely as the moon being made out of green cheese, sad to say. Not to mention, it could/would impact on the smaller mom/pop growers.

        Can I ask – what information did Sepilok offer for visitors, to conserve the orang utans? It might be useful to highlight to your readers.

        • I agree on all your points, bar the exclusivity by charge. It’s basically like saying “If you have money, you are important enough to see them”. And saying to other people “Sorry, you don’t have money, so you are not good enough to see them.”

          I understand your point, and agree with it. But I think a daily lottery at the gates would be better, albeit highly inconvenient, rather than hefty charges.

          In regards to what did Speilok offer for the visitors? I’m saving that for another article where I’ll compare Sepilok to other conservation centers / rehabilitation centers. A will say this, I was not at all impressed.

  7. Ivy says:

    Everything was told in the previous comments, i think. It always makes me so stupidly happy to know that other people also do care about animals. Great post! Love it! ;)

  8. How can others possibly be mean to animals? Those mean people doesn’t even respect animals. They have done nothing wrong. It’s good that there are people who volunteer to take care of them. Those mean people doesn’t even respect animals. Kudos for them!

    • I think there is a huge educational thing here. Some people will say it’s cultural. But, I’ve seen people in the USA dress dogs up for fashion shows. And, then you have the “Little Miss Sunshine” type shows too. So, I’m hedging bets on education with dash of culture.

  9. Annie says:

    I enjoyed your post and linked it to “sepilok” on my latest post Bon Voyage!