MONKEYING AROUND IN MALAYSIAStory and Photos by Margaret Deefholts The guy is the epitome of virile machismo. He flexes his muscles, leaps to within twelve feet of me, and then pauses. His dark eyes under heavy brows lock gaze with mine, and for a fleeting moment his lips seems to stretch in a faint smile. And then he bounds away across the grass, his thick, shaggy coat glowing orange in the morning sunlight.
His name is Richie and he is a 27 year-old orangutan at the Semenggoh Rehabilitation Nature Reserve, located 20 km south of the town of Kuching in Borneo. Like the other 23 "residents" at the Reserve, he has been rehabilitated into the wild, but returns to visit from time to time. As is evident from his thick cheek pads and large throat pouch, Richie is very much the dominant male in Semenggoh, and a very sexy dude to his adoring harem.In another area at the Semenggoh Reserve 22 year-old Delima is snacking on fruit. Her 3 year-old daughter, Selina, peeps at me over her Mum's shoulder but her 9 year-old brother is nowhere to be seen-like most kids verging on adolescence he's off somewhere else testing his independence. These two youngsters are among eleven infants born within the Reserve, the youngest of whom is just 7 months old.
Like the Semenggoh Reserve, but much larger and more sophisticated in scope and facilities, The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah covers a 43 square kilometre area of forestland. Orangutans remain on the endangered species list and apart from a hospital and nursery for orphaned-and utterly adorable looking-baby orangutans, the Visitors Centre offers educational videos and slide shows, and a natural history exhibition of Borneo's diverse flora and fauna.Along with a group, I set off on a raised boardwalk to the main event of the afternoon at the orangutan feeding platform. The humid air clings like Saran wrap to my skin, and the jungle around me is alive with the shrill of cicadas; a yellow-beaked Great Hornbill stares down haughtily at us from a creeper covered tree and then takes off with a rush of wings.
At the feeding platform, a tribe of macaques are enjoying life. Babies cling to their mums, siblings play tag and females groom one another. Several adult orangutans swing onto the platform just as the forest rangers arrive with armloads of bananas and buckets of milk. After the feeding frenzy is over, a young orangutan, dawdles over his meal and surveys us with an almost human expression of sardonic amusement. Not sure who is entertaining who here, but he seems to be thinking "What a bunch of nuts! Nothing better to do than stand around and click silly little boxes at us."
It's a long drive out of Sandakan, but little else equals the thrill of catching sight of Borneo's most shy, elusive-and critically endangered-inhabitants. He is the Proboscis monkey, with a Jimmy Durante schnozz. Less than 7,000 of these gentle simians exist today, and unless more rigorous steps are taken to protect their environment, the species is doomed. Due to a finicky digestive system, they are dependent on mangrove vegetation for sustenance, but many of these swamps are being cleared away for palm oil plantations-a multi-million dollar industry.A group of us travel for a several hours to a rustic forest lodge at Sukau, arriving in a tropical thunderstorm with roiling thunder, dramatic lightning and a solid curtain of rain. Early next morning the cotton-wool fog rolls away and we board canoes to travel down the treacle-coloured Kinabatangan River. Our boatman manoeuvres us along narrow canals, gliding under looping vines and dense mangrove jungle.
And then, our guide cuts the outboard motor. As the canoe drifts forward, he whispers…"Look! There he is!" Binoculars glued to eyes, cameras at the ready, we see him amidst the foliage-a funny looking pot-bellied guy with an enormously pendulous snoot. He must be a very attractive catch (the bigger the honker, the more sexy he is to females) as his harem is dotted all over the surrounding trees. The Borneo "Dutchman" (a nickname attributed to his ginger hair, big nose and beer belly!) scratches his armpit reflectively and then freezes as he looks down at us. A couple of minutes later, he and his consorts are off crashing through the forest.
A brief but thrilling encounter-and one worth travelling halfway across the globe for.IF YOU GO: Getting There: Malaysian Airlines operates regular flights between Sandakan and Kota Kinabalu (thence to other domestic city terminals throughout Malaysia). The airline has a well-deserved reputation for friendly, efficient service. See: http://www.malaysiaairlines.com.my/ Where to Stay: The Sabah Hotel (3 stars) in Sandakan offers visitors good value for comfortably appointed rooms, a range of recreational facilities and two restaurants which serve Chinese, Malay, Indian and Continental cuisine. http://www.sabahhotel.com.my/ Other Information:
2. Mother and baby at Semenggoh Nature Reserve
3. People-watching at feeding platform, Sepilok
4. Feeding platform at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
5. Mum and baby macaque on feeding platform, Sepilok
6. Mr. Schnozz (a Proboscis monkey) catches sight of us
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