Feature The jungles of Borneo offer a last precious refuge to the orang-utan, but their habitat is still under threat.
Borneo: Island of the orang-utan
The orang-utan's eyes stare back from about 20 metres up, black glossy orbs sunk into a startlingly human-like face, transfixing the forest visitor. On the Kinabatangan River in northern Borneo, one of the only places in the world where our tree-dwelling relatives live in the wild, the boatman has cut the engine as we drift to shore. There she is: an adult female in the branches above. I scramble on to the muddy embankment to get a closer look.
We've been roughing it at a jungle camp on a wildlife tour of Sabah, the northern-most of two Malaysian provinces on the Texas-sized island of Borneo, trying to catch a glimpse of rare fauna on their own turf. Despite decades of clear-cutting to establish palm oil plantations to supply a basic ingredient in our foods and cosmetics, Borneo remains one of the world's great wildernesses.
Orang-utans are famously slothful creatures so there's plenty of time to watch one once we've found her. The female stretches her arm out on a branch to rest her head sideways, seeming to smile with contentment. With wisps of hair on a brown pate and eyes half closed, she looks like nothing more than a granny dozing in a rocking chair. Geneticists tell us these arboreal apes share 96.4 per cent of our DNA, but only seeing them up close do you really understand how they got the name orang-utan, literally "forest person" in Malay.
Sadly, ours may be one of the last generations able to meet the endangered orang-utan on its own ground like this. It's unknown how many are left in the wild, but the number is estimated to be in the tens of thousands, or less than 14 per cent of what it was as late as the mid-20th century, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Because of logging and habitat destruction in Borneo and eastern Sumatra, its only other habitat apart from zoos, the remaining numbers are dwindling rapidly.
This part of the lower Kinabatangan flows far from major cities and towns, but beyond the clump of trees in which the female rests, the signs of man are in abundance: there's no forest at all there but rather palm oil plantations stretching for miles. Covering much of Sabah, the plantations are the result of Malaysia's breakneck agriculture development in the 1970s and 1980s. Unlike Sarawak, the other Malaysian state of Borneo, and the underdeveloped Indonesian side of the island, deforestation has virtually come to a halt in Sabah, if only because there's no more land to develop. The few tracts that haven't been turned into plantation are preserved as a forest sanctuary. The region therefore represents the likely future of the orang-utan, as the species struggles to survive on what tiny patches of land man sets aside for it.
The vastness of palm oil's reach becomes clear on the ride to the jungle camp of Uncle Tan's Wildlife Adventures. An outpost in the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, a disconnected patchwork of protected clumps of jungle, visitors reach the camp by minibus and then boat, riding almost two hours from the nearest main road through seemingly endless palm plantations to reach the jetty.
It's basic here - something Uncle Tan's seems proud of - but comfortable. Solo travellers may have to share cabins with strangers, sleeping on floor mattresses under mosquito netting that keeps away bugs the size of small tractors. Between buffet meals, Uncle Tan's offers a three-day, two-night itinerary of nocturnal and diurnal river safaris and forest walks. "HBS, Hardcore Borneo Style" is the motto of the exclusively young Sabahan staff, most of whom belong to the orang sungai ("river people" in Malay), the indigenous natives of Borneo who are, unlike most Malaysians, neither ethnically Malay nor Chinese. It's a pierced and Mohican crowd with a habit of bringing out the acoustic guitar and playing multiple renditions of Knocking on Heaven's Door after dinner, but they're also professionals, with deep knowledge of both forest and river and respect for the same.
On the first night's river excursion, we sputter out with an outboard motor, the blackness of the forested embankment backlit by the night sky. With the pilot holding a torch close to his head, we soon spot the reflecting eyes of a crocodile peeping above the waterline.
"Is it dangerous?" I ask the pilot.
"Yes," he says. That's all. I wait for some sort of qualifier, but none comes. The eyes disappear before we come close.
About an hour downriver, we spot glowing crocodile eyes again, and get close enough this time to marvel - in silence, for the pilot cuts the motor - at its size, two to three metres in length. As we drift close, the beast thrashes and submerges, not to be seen again.
Myriad close encounters ensue. On our forest hike the next morning, we spot an elephant bug, a creature from a fairy tale with yellow polka dots on its wings and a blue trunk. We return to camp to find a reticulated python, the world's longest snake, slithering beneath one of the cabins. That night we're treated to sightings of nocturnal animals with more bizarre names and captivating appearances: the slow loris, a bug-eyed mammal that slithers in the branches above; the dog-toothed cat snake, tied in knots around a tree; the tiny, rough guardian frog; the Bornean horned frog, and so on. It's that kind of place.
Yet it's the orang-utans, not the numerous proboscis monkeys, hornbills and kingfishers, that really draw tourists here. Such is the demand for orang-utan sightings that Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, a few hours away near Sandakan (and just down the road from Uncle Tan's other site, a bed and breakfast), often pulls hundreds of visitors daily to its scheduled feedings of semi-wild orang-utans. Here, one is almost guaranteed - almost, and that's crucial - to see one, if not several of them, whereas with Uncle Tan's and other jungle tours it's often a matter of luck.
The non-profit centre does excellent work rescuing orphaned orangutans and teaching them how to live in the wild, yet some still leave disappointed. For many, it seems too much like an artificial environment created for tourists. According to Mike Steel, an adviser at the centre giving out orang-utan adoption flyers for Orangutan Appeal UK, some visitors have the opposite problem, complaining that they haven't seen enough of the creatures, having paid the US$9.60 (Dh35) admission fee. The centre is quick to emphasise that it's not a zoo.
"The tourists who moan about it are not worth it," says Steel.
Later, I pay a visit to the village of Sukau, also on the Kinabatangan, hours from Uncle Tan's camp. Here, a group of orang-utan researchers led by Marc Ancrenaz, the leading authority on the primates in Sabah, are carrying out fieldwork. I find accommodation in one of the village homes as part of Balai Kito Homestay, a programme run by the local community. By coincidence, it turns out that the owner of the house is the personal assistant to Ancrenaz himself.
The sleepy fishing village epitomises rural life for many of the Orang Sungai. Despite repeated promises from the government, residents still have no running water, so we bathe in the Kinabatangan every evening. Ancrenaz's organisation, a French NGO called Hutan, is funding a tourism venture here intended to give local people a new source of revenue and a stake in preserving the country's wildlife heritage. Red Ape Encounters, fully owned by the residents of the village, is one of only two companies authorised to take visitors on extended walks into the Kinabatangan sanctuary. With other tour companies, the vast majority of wildlife spotting is done from the boat.
Mincho Suhailie, a research officer and wildlife warden for Red Ape Encounters, says the company offers something the Sepilok centre and other tours do not: an experience akin to being an orang-utan researcher for a few days, observing the 22 resident animals on Hutan's six-square-kilometre patch of forest up close, with a maximum of 15 people on site at any one time, following them tree to tree in the company of experts. The clientele is heavy with zookeepers, photographers and other diehard nature lovers who pay a premium for the experience. "We try to give them information you won't find in a book," says Suhailie.
The opportunity sounds fascinating, but it's beyond my limited budget. I do, however, have an opportunity to sit down with Ancrenaz himself, the leader of the research project. His groundbreaking work shows that a sizeable portion of Sabah's approximately 10,000 orang-utans survive, albeit briefly, within the surrounding palm plantations, often making mad dashes through the palms, subsisting on fallen fruit, to find "forest islands" in which to nest. That's something many primatologists would have deemed impossible 15 years ago, when it was thought the animals would have trouble surviving in any degraded forest, let alone a palm plantation.
So it seems that the depleted populations have adapted - so far. The problem, Ancrenaz explains, is that living in isolated clumps of forest, the populations are now so fragmented that the animals will probably go extinct within 50 years because of inbreeding. To avoid this, Ancrenaz needs the co-operation of plantation owners.
For many conservationists, the palm oil industry is the devil itself, but Ancrenaz is trying to hammer out a compromise. He is negotiating with the industry to allow 100-metre-wide corridors between the scattered bits of preserved forest to allow the apes to move more freely.
"Unfortunately, the palm oil industry is here to stay," Ancrenaz says. "We have to deal with them."
A visit to the Kinabatangan is an eye-opener, for one observes not just the orang-utans and other strange creatures of the rain forest, but also the strangest one of all, humans. The sheer scale of Sabah's plantation development, a massive boon to the country's finances, is currently being replicated in other parts of Borneo and eastern Sumatra. Clearing of the forests there continues, and it's likely that the rest of the orang-utans' habitat will come to resemble Sabah within decades. It's not too optimistic to believe, however, that along the banks of this remote river, conservationists and industry will hammer out a peace treaty that could serve as a model for other regions where the wild ape's fate is in doubt. It might be little consolation for conservationists, but it could ensure we're not the last people on earth to visit these relatives at home.
The flight Return flights on Malaysia Airlines (www.malaysiaairlines.com) from Dubai to Kota Kinabalu cost from US$870 (Dh3,193)
The hotel Double rooms at Uncle Tan’s bed and breakfast (www.uncletan.com; 00 60 89 535 784), located on the road to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre outside of Sandakan, cost $32 (Dh117) per person. A homestay in the village of Sukau, on the Kinabatangan River in eastern Sabah, costs $16 (Dh59) per person, meals included), booked via Balai Kito Homestay (www.sukauhomestay.com; 00 6089 568 472). Balai Kito also offers a three-day, two-night guided tour package for a minimum of four people, including accommodation, meals, four boat cruises along the Kinabatangan, a visit to the Gomantong caves and transportation to and from Sandakan for $208 (Dh763) per person
The tours Uncle Tan Wildlife Adventures (www.uncletan.com; 00 60 89 535 784) offers a three-day, two-night wildlife tour at a jungle camp on the Kinabatangan River for $121 (Dh444) per person, including a cabin at the camp, meals and transport to and from Uncle Tan’s bed and breakfast near Sepilok (see above). Red Ape Encounters (www.redapeencounters.com; 00 60 89 230 268) offers a variety of packages, starting at $90 (Dh330) for a four-hour Orangutan Encounter walk.