When my son finished his Mormon mission in the southern Philippines, his twin brother and I joined him for an extensive tour of the islands of Mindinao, Palawan, and Borneo.
At the end of the 5-week trip, we spent one week in the State of Sabah, Malaysia, on Borneo. Near the northeastern coast, we visited the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. At Platform A in the rehab center, the visitors were allowed to mingle with the young apes. My son carried in a water bottle, and was quickly accosted by a young orang. He had to struggle to keep the bottle, and he found out first hand about the grip strength of the young apes.
The rehab center was designed to take young orangs that had been sold as pets, and subsequently returned when they got too big (and other similar disasters), and teach them how to survive in the wilds. One of the young orangs was even missing an arm.
At Platform A (Outward Bound School), the orangs dependence on the food and emotional support given by the rehab staff is gradually reduced. Here, organgs are given increased freedom and encouraged to fend for themselves.
Orangs live in the rain forests of Borneo and Sumatra; they are the only great apes to live outside of Africa. But orangs are rapidly losing their natural habitat . . . the rain forest. A 2007 UN report concluded that palm oil plantations are the primary cause of the rain forest loss. Between 1967 and 2000, Indonesia’s palm oil plantation acreage has increased tenfold as the world demand for the commodity soared; it has almost doubled this past decade.
According to a recent article in the Smithsonian (Dec 2010):
As recently as 1900, more than 300,000 orangutans roamed freely across the jungles of Southeastern Asia and southern China. Today an estimated 48,000 orangutans live in Borneo and another 6,500 in Sumatra. (Birute Mary) Galdikas (who runs a rehab facility in southern Borneo) blames people for their decline. “I mean, orangutans are tough,” she says. “They’re flexible. They’re intelligent. They’re adaptable. They can be on the ground. They can be in the canopy. I mean, they are basically big enough to not really have to worry about predators with the possible exception of tigers, maybe snow leopards. So if there were no people around, orangutans would be doing extremely well.”
On Borneo, my sons and I hiked out to Platform B that is populated by orangs that are almost ready to be turned loose into the rain forest. We waited for more than an hour, fearful that the orangs might not show up. But finally, we hear and then see them. To see the animals in this near-wild environment is breathtaking. Since the rehab center was established, more than 100 orangs have been successfully released into the wilds around Sepilok.
She (Galdikas) has discovered that the tree-dwelling animals spend as much as half the day on the ground. Adult males can reach five feet tall (though they rarely stand erect) and weigh up to 300 pounds. They’re massive,” says Galdikas. “That’s what you notice more than height.” Females weigh about half as much and are four feet tall. Both sexes can live 30 to 50 years. At night they sleep in nests of sticks they build high in treetops.
My sons and I visited Borneo 19 years ago. And since our visit the situation for the orangs has gotten even more tenuous:
Her (Galdikas) most chilling fear is that these exotic creatures with long arms, reddish brown hair and DNA that is 97 percent the same as ours will fade into oblivion. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and I just clutch my head because the situation is so catastroophic,” Galdikas says in a quiet, urgent voice. “I mean, we’re right at the edge of extinction.
I hate zoos, but if you want to see healthy orangutans, the best place I’ve found is the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colorado.