On a boardwalk in the jungle of Borneo, the khaki-capped woman in front of me is flapping her arm like a bird in flight. Ahead there’s a redhead who is causing quite a scene. As I round the corner I am met by a gaggle of people wielding cameras like a paparazzi scrum. And then I see her.
Propelled forward into the scrum, I elbow my way closer with as much grace and subtlety as I can muster. Her name is Rosa and she is small for her age. Her bottom lip protrudes to a pout and her black eyes are piercing despite their small size. She stands on the boardwalk railing at eye-to-eye height and grips onto a thin branch overhead for balance. Arms crossed above her head, she seems relaxed and when she scratches her temple, as if she is pondering her next move.
Looking around at her audience, she could retreat back to the forest but chooses to walk along the railing for another 100 metres. The lone female volunteer urges everyone repeatedly to maintain their distance for her safety. We do, of course, but as a whole we are captivated.
This is an extra treat after witnessing feeding time at Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah. After a serving of milk and bananas, the orang-utans had left the vicinity, leaving only macaque scavengers behind.
At the feeding platform orang-utan matriarch Clenan appears. Born in the wild to a rehabilitated orang-utan mother, she has always been extremely independent. She’s a bit of a mystery, according to the sanctuary volunteers, rarely appearing at the feeding platforms. But the tiny newborn that clings to her fur explains why she is here today.
At one point Clenan, who hangs from the rope, stretches her hand out to another mother on the platform and they stay like that, holding hands for close to 20 seconds, disentangling only once the mother on the platform plants a kiss on Clenan’s hand. There is a collective “awww” from the crowd and that kiss is the start of everyone’s love affair with the orange primates. They have intense social interactions that are so familiar to our own that they are a privilege to witness.
Their feet act like hands, gripping onto rope as their arms reach for food. Known as the old men of the jungle, it has to be said that even the babies look like elderly men. Perhaps it’s the tufts of fur on their head or their wrinkled skin. More likely it’s the seriousness of their small black eyes. Make eye contact and you’ll feel a frisson of connection.
The sanctuary rehabilitates orphaned orang-utans and has done so since 1964. Staffed by passionate volunteers, the orang-utans are released into free roaming areas once they reach the age of seven.
Orang-utans build new nests to sleep in every day to evade lurking predators such as pythons and clouded leopards. They are particularly efficient builders to; they can construct the nests in as little as 10 minutes.
However, the biggest threat to their survival is humans. Many of these orang-utans were rescued from people who kept them as pets and others are victims of habitat destruction due to palm oil plantations.
As we flock to follow Rosa, who has granted us such a rare encounter, it becomes apparent that the same desire to be close to them or encroach on their territory has led to their peril. I pull to the back of the crowd and watch as a staff member takes her hand to walk her toward the safety of the treetops.