Borneo’s Hairy Gymnasts

On our way out to the Iban longhouse we stopped at the Semenggoh (aka Semenggok) Orangutan Rehabilitation Center to try our luck at seeing some of these awesome creatures in the (semi) wild. Orangutans are another rare primate found in Borneo. You’ll recall from our Bako post that proboscis monkeys are endemic to this island, and orangutans are nearly so.  The only other place they may be found in the wild is the Indonesian island of Sumatra.  They are the largest tree living mammals in the world, and the alpha males have super wide cheeks with concave faces. Apparently these grow larger when they become the dominant male, crazy!

Semenggoh is Sarawak’s main orangutan rehabilitation center for those people of the forest (literal translation of organgutan) that have been injured, orphaned or previously kept as illegal pets. After initial rehabilitation in smaller centers they are brought here for re-introduction to the wild, while they are still monitored. Thus they are semi-wild, and since there is nothing like a cage or enclosure separating us from them, our introduction came complete with a number of warnings that incited just a touch of fear in addition to the suspense and excitement.

We were told not to carry food or even water bottles with us, and after hearing the stories about some of the bouts of violence from these mean lean hairy machines, I’m very glad we listened. Luckily for us, but sadly still, the most violent orangutan died recently. Hot Mama, as she was called, liked to start ish. But apparently she tried to start something with Ritchie, the alpha male weighing in at around 250 pounds, who took matters into his own hands and left Hot Mama for dead, dismembering three of her limbs in the process.

We lucked out and got to see three orangutans right away. A mama and baby plus another that was either a female or young male. This was a fantastic experience. These are such incredible and acrobatic creatures, swinging around on the ropes and trees. They jump around, do cartwheels upside down on the ropes, and hang from various limbs while they eat.  Their flexibility is extraordinary.  It’s like watching really hairy muscular people doing the parallel bars at the Olympics.

One of the rangers fed them from a platform, handing them bananas and coconuts. It was crazy to see an orangutan carry a coconut away in its foot while it scurried up a tree. I hadn’t realized their feet are basically like additional hands, shaped almost identically and with opposable thumbs/big toes. They’re smart, too, banging the coconuts against the tree to get the juice out.

Orangutans live quite long, up to about 40 years in the wild or into their 50s if in captivity, and we got to see Semenggoh’s first and only grandmother. She and her son were just hanging out in a tree above the parking area. Grandma was so mellow, and she blinked her eyes real slowly like a wise old grandma, not worried about missing anything. After ogling at her for a while, a ranger came by and gave her a turnip, which she shared with her boy orangutan, while everyone oohed and aahed.

As we were hustling to get back towards the parking lot when we heard Grandma was out, Alan had a near-miss with a Wagler’s pit viper that decided to chill out in the middle of the trail!!  Foot mid-way in the air he fortunately spotted it in time and so (thank our lucky stars) there was no trip to the hospital (if only we were so fortunate the rest of our trip!) and our guide Eric was able to stop and warn all the other tourists approaching from both sides.

We also saw some crocodiles in little cages. Aren’t they scary looking?! Those eyes… And we got our first peek at Borneo’s neat carnivorous pitcher plants.

Practical Info

Semenggoh is only about a half hour drive from Kuching.  We arrived for the 9 am feeding.  I think there are at least two feeding times most days and your chances of seeing an orangutan are much higher at these times.  Because all our Borneo activities were handled by a tour agent, we do not have many details on how to visit.  But this information should be widely available online and your hotel in Kuching can probably arrange a visit…or see e.g.:

February 21, 2014 (Friday)

4 thoughts on “Borneo’s Hairy Gymnasts”

  1. So you’re back in business–and pleasure–with these amazing creatures. Hats off to you all.

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