“This is not a zoo,” the park ranger told the crowd. “There’s no guarantee that you’ll see any orangutans. But if you do, and one comes near you, get the hell out of its way.”
It was a cloudy morning at Semenggoh Nature Reserve, one of Borneo’s orangutan rehabilitation centres. I listened to the park ranger finish his speech, feeling giddy with anticipation. I’d flown to Borneo to see orangutans and the moment had nearly arrived.
Semenggoh Nature Reserve is home to 25 orangutans who live a semi-wild life in its rainforest. Some of these orangutans had been rescued from captivity; others were orphans. They’d been trained to fend for themselves and then released back into the wild.
The ranger’s speech ended and we walked up the muddy path through the jungle. The air was unmistakably tropical, I felt smothered in a thick blanket, my nose tantalised by strange flowers and bursting fruit hidden in that green gloom.
The path opened into clearing. In the centre was a wooden platform, covered in eggs, bananas and sweet potato. The orangutans try to find their own food, but the reserve is too small to support the entire population. So they rely on humans to survive, a painful irony.
I felt nervous, because seeing the orangutans wasn’t guaranteed. Yesterday, no orangutans had come to the feeding area. The visitors to the Semenggoh Nature Reserve had gone away empty handed.
But I needn’t have worried. Long ropes stretched across the clearing, linking the huge trees like vines. After a few minutes the ropes started bouncing as an orangutan shuffled across with its child.
The orangutans were silhouetted perfectly against the bright sky. These black shapes moved with so much confidence and purpose, never looking like they might fall. Long arms brought the mother and her baby safely down to the feeding platform.
My heart warmed as I watched the relationship between the mother and her young. It’s all to easy to project human emotions onto these animals, but it looked like maternal love.
The baby orangutan was definitely cuter than the cretinous human children that were running around the clearing, yelling and screaming at the top of their lungs.
The two orangutans sat there eating, trying to ignore the voyeuristic stares of the crowd. More came to join the meal, until there were five orangutans having a feast.
I left Semenggoh Nature Reserve feeling so privileged to have seen these incredible creatures. But I also felt sad. Orangutans are killed for bushmeat, for crop protection, for use in traditional medicine. Mothers are murdered so that their babies can be captured as pets.
And then there’s the destruction of their habitat for palm oil, which has pushed them close to extinction. I wondered if I’d ever see orangutans like this again.