by James Litston, The Telegraph, December 11, 2018
Nothing says Christmas 2018 like a Rang-tan in your bedroom. If that sounds like nonsense, you must have missed the supermarket Iceland’s festive advert (and no wonder: its supposedly political slant – it was originally commissioned by Greenpeace – saw it banned from TV, only to rack up more than five million views and counting online instead). It’s the animated story of an orphaned baby orang-utan seeking refuge in a child’s room when its own forest home is destroyed. “They’re burning it for palm oil,” says the doe-eyed Rang-tan sadly, “so I thought I’d stay with you.”
It’s thought-provoking stuff: and all the more so given that, right now, I’m the one in Rang-tan’s bedroom. I’m at Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, a sanctuary in Malaysian Borneo, and I’m watching one of these auburn apes weave a nest of twigs in a tree. Being lovers of creature comforts, they fashion a new sleeping platform each day. It’s one of many essential skills that Sepilok’s residents must master before they can go back to the wild.
The centre’s 200-odd apes were all rescued from the pet trade or orphaned by habitat loss, but here they get a second stab at life. A visit to the centre provides an incredible opportunity to see them eye to eye; plus, with orang-utans living solitary lives, it’s a rare chance to see them interact.
Already this morning, I’ve watched the centre’s youngest orphans playing on a jungle gym, practising skills that will serve them well for a future life in the trees. Like human babies, their different temperaments are clearly evident. One swung boldly hand over hand, following a rope bridge into the forest. Two others engaged in some rough and tumble, while a fourth lay on the grass, gazing at the sky. It’s tragic that they’re here at all, yet uplifting to see them thrive.
Facilities such as Sepilok are critical to orang-utan conservation. Once ranging across south-east Asia, these charismatic creatures are now found only in Borneo and Sumatra, and even here deforestation could see them die out in two decades. As Rang-tan explains so poignantly, forest loss is driven by palm oil – a highly profitable product used in processed foods and cosmetics.
I’d seen the issue for myself while descending into the local airport. For mile after mile, a landscape once covered in primary rainforest lies smothered in oil palms. But here’s where orang-utan tourism comes in. Beyond being an extraordinary experience, a visit here sends a message that rainforests and their wildlife are valuable resources in their own right. That natural value is immediately apparent on arrival at Sepilok: a 10,000-acre rainforest remnant surrounded by an oil palm monotony. Yet even in isolation, it pulses with life. Giant hornbills flap noisily between trees, while pallid moths glide by on plate-sized wings. There are monkeys here, too, plus songbirds and snakes: but orang-utans steal the show.
Today’s 3am wake-up call may have been brutal, but the early start has me here in time for feeding those youngsters that have completed the first phase of rehabilitation. Released into the forest, they forage for themselves but supplementary food is put out twice daily. A human crowd gathers for the simian spectacle.
From a deck overlooking a clearing, we watch a ranger pile treats on to a platform. Orang-utans appear from the forest before he’s finished, their different personalities once more apparent as they tuck into breakfast. With scant regard for table manners, two youngsters roll on the buffet while a larger individual looks on, a carrot dangling from his mouth. Another plucks a piece of melon and climbs above the fracas, hanging upside down from a branch to eat his prize in peace.
With cameras clicking all around, it feels very much on the tourist trail, but it’s nevertheless an unforgettable encounter. When ready, these lovable apes will be relocated to a national park; but for some time yet their antics will enchant Sepilok’s visitors. As I watch the apes return to the trees, each one an ambassador for a species in peril, the Iceland ad’s call to action rings round my head: “Oh Rang-tan in my bedroom, I swear it on the stars: the future’s not yet written, but I’ll make sure it is ours.”
Nine nights’ B&B at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria costs from £2,049pp, through Hayes and Jarvis (01293 762456, hayesandjarvis.co.uk), including flights, transfers and a Nature of Borneo tour.