We were heading for the Sepilok Orang-utan rehabilitation compound about 2 hours drive. They feed the Orang-utans twice a day at 10 and 3, we were hoping to make both and the guide had been keen for us to leave early. For the first 20 minutes he talked about the sanctuary, including an interesting but controversual talk on the Palm Oil plantations. Currently the focus of a major Greenpeace campaign to stop people using Palm oil as huge swathes of Rainforest has been destroyed and the space is now used as plantations. We have driven through hours of Palm Oil, I think it is quite a handsome tree but Jo hates it, and after 3 or 4 hours of only seeing it it gets pretty tiring, this is really immaterial though more important is the damage it causes
. The guides point of view was that the rainforest had already been cleared by logging (which was legal and uncontrolled until at least the 80's possibly 90's) Palm oil had now been planted in these areas (about 15% of the region I believe) He saw it as a use of land (which provides Malaysia's second highest income) where Rainforest was already destroyed. I would have thought that you need to have some fast growing trees in these vast areas otherwise you could end up with huge areas of land turning to desert. When I talked to him he claimed that the Plantations were not increasing (except in small cases where small amounts of land are being returned to native people who then ironically in my opinion turn it to Palm Oil for profit) and that the only logging was selective, which is sustainable. He also pointed out that around 50% of the region (Sabah) is still rainforest, this is quite a huge perportion and I would have thought much larger than most western countries. If (and that is a big if, the guide didn't seem to always be accurate) I can definitely understand the defence. There are of course big questions like is the rainforest in pockets (which is bad for genetic bredth in species ) is it linked through the palm oil and what happens when animals stray into plantations? It is also just for this region not for the whole of the island or larger region. Jo doesn't agree with his arguments and all the other travelers I spoke to agreed with her, I simply think it shows that as always things are more complicated than they first appear.
Sorry about the aside, I thought it was to interesting not to mention and complex to keep short. During the talk something really exciting happened though. I was sat in an aisle seat near the front, while the guide was talking facing us I was watching the road in front when a large, dark shaggy ape appeared out of the bush on the left
. Luckily we weren't going very fast as the road was extremely rough. The ape propelled itself across the road on its feet and knuckles, I managed to utter the word orang-utan quietly and Jo looked at me like I was mad (apparently she was thinking it was strange that I was pointing out the guide was talking about Orang-utans) The lady behind me, Julia, had also seen and managed to say it loud enough the guide heard, he looked puzzled but turned round just as it disappeared into the bush again.
We piled out of the bus to see it clamber up a tree only a couple of metres from the road side. It was a medium sized male, close to human size (but much stronger - apparently 4 times) It was incredible to see a genuinely wild orang-utan, the guide said he had never seen one in this area. He stayed in the tree for some time, not impressed with our presence he started to pull off branches and throw them to the ground. We could have stayed there for hours but after about 10 minutes, he had retreated into the tree and we decided to give him some peace. I'm sure it's good that's he is afraid of humans hopefully it will keep him away from the areas he could be in danger.
After the bonus encounter we still managed to make the 10am feeding. This was quite tame in comparison though, there were a couple of hundred people there and it felt more like a zoo than watching wild animals
. It was a good opportunity to see them up close and to get some good photos. We still went back in the afternoon and this was better, there were less people but also the weather turned bad and we were caught out in the worst rain/thunder storm I've ever known. The water droplets were huge and it was coming down in sheets, combined with ear splitting thunder. This doesn't sound like it would make for a great animal watching experience but for one almost everyone left once it started, secondly it was incredibly refreshing (we even started to feel cold) best of all though when the only Orang-utan that had turned up realised it was going to rain he sat in the most sheltered area he could find, covering himself with a hat he had made from twigs and leaves. He looked like he hated the rain even more than we did. Maybe you had to be there but to see this behaviour and the emotion shown by the Great Ape was incredible. A reminder that even semi-wild animals that see humans everyday can still surprise and delight you. The centre does great work for the animals and is a great way to see them so I would highly recommend it.
We returned soaked to our accommodation. Which thankfully had warm showers. In fact it was really nice, our hut had a balcony overlooking a lagoon and they kept deer, goats, cows and geese - I'm not entirely sure why but most of them didn't seem to be on the menu and they had good livig areas. In the evening we had a quiet celebration for one of the travelers, Chris', Birthday. It was pretty low key but our guide had gone off to buy a cake which was a nice touch.
We set off from our river side accommodation bright and early. We were feeling pretty exhausted but the short boat ride to bus woke us up, this was lucky as when we got there the coach wouldn't start and we had to push start it. We did get it going and feeling pretty macho for 7.30 in the morning we set off.