Asia’s only great ape, the orang-utan or ‘man of the forest‘ is found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, so I was excited to see them while in Malaysian Borneo.
After hearing about lots of crammed zoos (I’m talking to you Beijing), it was great to be introduced to the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. They take in orphaned and confiscated orang utans as well as Sun Bears, Gibbons, and the occasional injured Elephant. They provide basic medical care, and then train them with basic skills to survive again in the wild (that the mother would normally teach) with the goal of successful reintroduction into the wild as soon as they’re ready.
Recently rehabilitated individuals have their diet supplemented by daily feedings of milk and bananas, which makes it a nice tourist attraction, since the feedings provide an excellent chance to see orang-utans. In this respect the part we can see looks just like a zoo, but a little more research reveals them to be one of the world’s leading wildlife rehab centers due their track record of successfully reintroducing orangutans into the wild. They say the additional food supplied is purposefully designed to be monotonous and boring so as to encourage the apes to start to search for food for themselves.
Baby orangutans are often captured and sold as pets, destroying not only that family but also preventing that baby orangutan’s development of basic skills. It happens more often than you’d think -there’s a story just this month on this being found in Indonesia, and the authorities accused of investigating but not doing anything about it.
“Sepilok is considered by the Wildlife Department to be a useful educational tool with which to educate both the locals and visitors alike, however, they are adamant that the education must not interfere with the rehabilitation process. Visitors are restricted to walkways and are not allowed to approach or handle the apes.
In the wild orang utan babies stay with their mothers for up to six years while they are taught the skills they need to survive in the forest, the most important of which is climbing. At Sepilok a buddy system is used to replace a mother’s teaching. A younger ape will be paired up with an older one to learn the skills they need.
Video of a Baby Sumatran orangutan, recently born in captivity at Melbourne (Australia) Zoo. The photo of the baby in the 2nd link may make you think you’re looking at an short old man, like the Curious Case of Benjamin Button.