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August 27, 2007

Orang Hutan - Sarawak Part 1

Tom McLaughlin

Okay, let's get this straight. It's Orang Hutan, not orangutan. Orang means man and hutan means forest in the Malay language. Orang Hutan. Impress your friends by saying I read an article about the Orang Hutan on The Tentacle and then politely correct them when they say orangutan.

I had always wanted to see these apes in the wild and I got my wish and visited the orang hutans on the island of Borneo. The journey took me from Baltimore to Los Angeles to Kuala Lumpur and finally to this "land below the wind," a 38-hour trip.

Kuching, the capital of the Malay State of Sarawak is an unbelievably tranquil, laid back, polite, tropical area. A land of a thousand smiles, it is very rude to blow your horn. The one time it did occur during my six day stay, people quietly shook their finger at the offender.

There are two locations about a 20-minute ride from the center of town to observe these magnificent beasts in a semi-wild state. You can also perform a two or three day trek into the forest and observe them in the upper canopy in the wild, but my health, unfortunately, was not up to that.

The first area abuts the national forest. A platform has been built about 100 yards from the observation trail where fruit has been placed and these wondrous creatures come down to feast. These individuals require a fruiting tree every month to sustain them. One month it maybe a rambutan, another a mangostein, and still another a durian. During those months where there are not enough fruiting trees, felled by logging or cleared for oil palm, they are fed from this platform. When a fruit is in season, one will not see them until the next scarcity of food and they will return.

On seeing these animals, one's mouth drops open in awe. You can't believe how big, beautiful and graceful they are. Everybody in our group just stared until they remember to pick up their cameras. The Orang Hutans gradually filter in and take the fruit they need, and, like a ghost, quietly disappear back into the forest. Trying to spot these behemoths in the canopy is nearly impossible.

For reasons unknown, one of the large males decided to have a closer look at our group. He sauntered forward and headed straight for me. I was immobilized until the forest rangers moved the group back, not in fear, but out of respect.

He got so close. For some reason he liked me; another arms length and we would have been touching. After checking us out, he knuckle-walked back to the platform and disappeared. The show lasted for about 15 minutes, but it was - and will be - the most incredible 15 minutes of my life.

Unfortunately, there is a worldwide market for these animals. Hunters and smugglers shoot the females and capture the youngsters. Malaysia has very strict laws. A mandatory five-year prison sentence, confiscation of all property, plus a $30,000 fine for anyone caught endangering these animals.

Our next stop, very close by, was the rehabilitation and treatment center for the Orang Hutans rescued from the smugglers. Orang Hutans of all ages live in a colony next to the veterinarian hospital. Cages are present to treat the injured or those which became ill because of nefarious treatment. Hanging around in trees are several orang hutans. The forest rangers kept a close eye on both human and apes, keeping the two groups apart. When healthy, the apes can stay at the hospital or go back into the forest at will. There are no fences and the jungle backs onto the grounds.

Unfortunately, the Orang Hutans prefer to stay. Very few wander back into the forest to resume their former life style. And why should they? Food and water are plentiful. There are humans who come every so often to entertain them. Attempts to relocate some individuals deeper into the forest have resulted in disaster. The animals were found dead, unable to adapt.

At first I was very skeptical of the term eco-tourism. For me, it held the idea of a group of westerners playing Tarzan in a Hilton environment with Paris serving the drinks. I found that part is certainly true. My daughter and I stayed first at a Holiday Inn and then at the Hilton, both for under $80 per night. We took a van to the sites and returned to the luxury, recounting our close adventurers with the King Kong's of the area.

About two kilometers from the Holiday Inn where we were staying is a Malay fishing village. Many of the employees for the hotel came from this kampong. Talking to several of them, I learned the hotels provided steady employment and they did not have to rely on a fisher economy. The idea of going out to sea in boats and staying for two or three days doing back breaking work only to return with a barely saleable product is fading fast. It's not a bad life serving a fat white man a cup of coffee. Income from these jobs opens schools, clinics, mosques and allows travel beyond the village.

Many of the people who lived in the tropical rain forest have also adapted to this idea. They still wear only the cloths and hold the blowguns, but this time it's for tourists. They speak Malay, return to the forest for alternative medicines to sell, and raise families in government housing instead of the jungle floor.

I spoke to many of them in Malay and they seem to like the idea of their new life, passing back and forth between the forest to gather herbs and stay if they wish, returning to modern life upon their whim. They now have a choice of schools or forest living or both.

Next: The Proboscis Monkeys of Sarawak.

(Author's Note: This information comes from my visit and conversations with individuals connected with the Orang Hutans. I speak fluent Malay. The Holiday Inn was built by the Malaysian government and has only recently been turned over to the Holiday Inn Company for management. This hotel bears no resemblance to any of the Holiday Inn properties in its beauty and splendor.)

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