Just outside Kuching in the Borneo region of Malaysia lies a wildlife sanctuary for one of the most intelligent primates and one of our closest ancestors…the orangutan. The word ‘orangutan’ is derived from the Malay words ‘orang’ meaning ‘people’ and ‘hutan’ meaning ‘forest’. So orangutans are known as ‘people of the forest’, and rightly so, because the males are the largest tree-dwelling mammals in the world.
First and foremost, this wildlife centre is NOT a zoo. Contact with the animals is kept to a minimum in order to reduce the dependence they place on humans and ensure they have every chance of survival when they are released back into the wild. The main objectives of the Heart2Heart program are as follows:
- To raise additional funds for Orangutan conservation and rehabilitation works
- To extend ownership of the program to other citizens of the world
- To disseminate information on Orangutan conservation efforts done in Sarawak
I was lucky enough to be able to spend a half-day at the Matang Wildlife Centre learning about this endangered species and the orangutan conservation efforts currently ongoing throughout Sarawak. Orangutans are on the brink of extinction due to poachers as well as their natural habitats being burned and/or cut down.
Orangutans are brought to the centre through a few different channels. Some are captured when they are found injured in the wild. Some are confiscated from their owners while attempting to be smuggled out of the country. The children are sometimes found abandoned when the parent(s) have been shot by poachers. If they are not rescued, there is an extremely high chance that the orangutans would die or be killed in these situations.
The Rehabilitation Process
The rehabilitation process for young orangutans recovered in the wild goes something like this:
- Admission and background investigation
- Quarantine: The orangutans go through a health check before being integrated with the other animals. Special dietary and medical requirements are determined.
- Training Stage 1: This is the initial training where the young primates are taught basic skills like tree climbing, food gathering, and social interaction in confined areas of the centre. They are closely monitored as they are typically with the mother for the first 7 years of their life.
- Training Stage 2: This would be considered primary school and the orangutans first exposure to the forest. Again, they are still closely monitored at this point.
- Training Stage 3: This would consist of more advanced deep forest skills training.
- Release and Monitoring: Once the orangutans have successfully mastered the required skills, they are released into the forest. The staff from the centre still monitors them to ensure proper assimilation (usually for a week or so). If everything goes well, then the animal is left to live in the wild from then on. If any skills still appear to be lacking, they will be taken back and the training will continue for a bit longer before another release attempt.
In the rare case of a permanent disability or other failure to assimilate into the wild, the orangutan would continue to live at the wildlife centre indefinitely to protect them from harm in the forest.
During the half-day visit we learned a lot, but were also able to get involved in the day-to-day care and maintenance for the orangutans. We began by cleaning and scrubbing down one of the large cages for Peter, the most senior male Orangutan at the centre. Next was preparing the enriched food for the animals’ lunch. The meal consisted of some greens, nuts, and honey, all blended together. Each of us stitched together a cloth bag, stuffed it with the mixture, and stitched the bag closed. Figuring out how to open the bag provides a bit of a challenge for the orangutans and stimulates their brain. I think Peter was getting a bit antsy while we were preparing the food.
He was probably a bit happier after I gave him his food bag.
Orangutans are incredibly intelligent creatures and it was a wonderful experience to be able to aid in their conservation efforts at the wildlife centre. While the half-day program was a great introduction, I hope to go back and volunteer for 1-2 weeks at some point in the future. Only then can you really start to get a feel for their everyday lives.
Thanks so much to the Matang Wildlife Centre for giving us this great experience and I highly recommend visiting if you are in the Sarawak region of Malaysia.
Disclosure: This trip was sponsored by Tourism Malaysia. However, as always, all opinions of the trip are my own.