There is a rustle in the canopy but it is only the forward scouts of a tribe of Macaques approaching, trying to supplement their diet with the fruit left out at feeding stations for the star attractions: the Orang-utans of Malaysian Borneo.
The ranger calls, loudly, and we wait. Then a small, dark red shadow appears high up in the jungle. She swings through the trees playfully, showing off with all sorts of acrobatics. Then the young Orang-utan drops to the ground and walks, on all fours, right up the path between the 20-or-so people standing spellbound on the two viewing platforms. The fruit on the feeding station is devoured with satisfaction and the young Orang-utan glances sideways at us.
There is another rustle and a younger male arrives from the other direction. They feed and play, using a rope and the trees as their jungle gym. We all watch, oohing and laughing at their antics.
Many visitors to the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo make a bee-line for the well-known Orang-utan rehabilitation sanctuary at Sepilok in Sandakan. Fewer people know there is an Orang-utan sanctuary just 45 minutes’ drive from Kota Kinabalu – established by the Shangri-La Rasia Ria Resort and the Sabah Wildlife Department in 2009. This is a fancy beach-side hotel but it is possible to book a visit to see the Orang-utans (and enjoy the restaurant and beach) without staying there.
The Rasia Ria Nature Reserve works in conjunction with the Sepilok Centre, taking in the youngest rescued Orang-utans and helping them through the initial phase of rehabilitation. The team here has seen 29 Orang-utans successfully rehabilitated and there are currently four babies aged between three and six years: Katie, Wulan, Tenten and Itinban.
The stories of these beautiful creatures are all too common; of rescue by workers at the huge oil palm plantations in Tawau. Orphaned and robbed of their habitat they would stand little chance without human intervention.
After watching them for 15 or 20 minutes my four-year-old daughter has come to the end of her attention span and Mr Wandering Kiwi and I descend to the jungle pathway with the intention of doing the canopy walkway further away in the nature reserve.
Suddenly the young female Orang-utan swings down towards the path in front of us, riding a flexible sapling almost to the ground before spring up and hanging upside down only three metres away. We watched enchanted.
Then she actually dropped onto the pathway and walked towards us; she reaches out for Mr Wandering Kiwi’s daypack. Before we know what’s happening her long-fingered hand is encircling my daughter’s forearm. She looks up at us, straight in the eyes.
It was like she was thinking “Here’s a four-year-old girl like me, let’s play!” They are similar height and size … It was a moment that was part fear part thrill. My heart was pounding. Then the ranger had leapt down to shoo her away, laughing nervously.
I have now talked to people who have visited the Orang-utan rehabilitation sanctuaries at both Sepilok and Rasia Ria. The consensus was that while there are more Orang-utans at Sepilok you see them much closer at Rasia Ria. I think I can confirm that even without having visited Sepilok! The other difference is that at Rasia Ria you see babies and youngsters, whereas at Sepilok you will see adults.
So how would you feel if an Orang-utan tried to grab your child?
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to see the Orang-utans in Borneo? What was your experience like?