Borneo: a completely wild, beautiful, tropical, exotic,
jungle paradise; it's like living inside a zoo
Our days in Sepilok, a small rainforest town on the eastern side of Malaysian Borneo, were few but crammed with vivid, spectacular, and especially lucky moments. Sepilok is best known for the Orangutan rescue and rehabilitation center. Orangutans are famously endangered and naturally only live two places on earth: Borneo and Sumatra. Years of deforestation have, among other things, ruined their habitat and caused their numbers to dwindle dangerously low. It's an uncomfortable and omnipresent reality even if you've only seen part of the Malaysian landscape. Almost every available inch of the country is covered in palm plantations, trees in neat little rows, lining right up to the borders of the national parks, protected areas, and the land set aside for the Orangutans. Side rant: at the rescue center shop they sell all kinds of palm products like palm oil and soaps and give a portion of the proceeds to protecting the Orangutans. Isn't supporting this industry that's caused deforestation and species displacement plaguing this country the opposite of protecting these animals? I digress...
The center itself is doing some good work and seems to have the animals' best interests at heart. Guests must remain silent and cannot bring in any food, water, or even bags because they make the animals infinitely more curious and more likely to approach you and perhaps harm themselves. One of the guides told me I should wear a hat because they rarely see blonde hair and might come touch it! They have a nursery for young orphaned Orangutans, which is the only part that looks like a zoo with a man-made jungle gym (ha) and glass behind which humans can observe. The rest of the animals you see are wild. In the video above, you'll see a wild orangutan, some shots of the goofy babies in the nursery, and an elephant spotting that I'll discuss in a bit.
No monkeys came for the feeding time at 10am but we spotted two wild Orangutans swinging from the trees with their long arms and burgundy fur. They sound like obvious targets but they're actually very hard to spot and sighting outside of the center are rare. Orangutans can smell you from miles away and their first instinct is to stand very still and hide. They also travel solo so there won't be a telltale cluster of trees swaying to draw your eye.
Seeing these beautiful creatures reminded me why I came on this trip: to see things I could never hope to see back home. On one hand, I'm ecstatic that on this remote and fairly undeveloped island shared by Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia standing in a tropical rainforest mere feet away from some of the rarest and most awe-inspiring creatures on Earth. On the other, a sickening pit swells in my stomach as I realize I'm confronting a very serious problem and in my lifetime Orangutans could go extinct. Part of the reason I'm here is to see them in the wild before they're gone, and it makes me feel very fortunate to have the opportunity but the experience is definitely tainted with despondence.
Okay, back to some happier news. We saw so many animals! Most of these sightings were through a multi-day river cruise, which I am normally wary of because most of them are expensive tourist traps. Some locals we met encouraged us to do the tour because of what I mentioned before: the animals can smell you trekking through the forest and will scatter, so you don't see much that way. On a boat, you approach quickly and observe from a non-threatening distance so if the animals do see or smell you, you'll get a good look at them before they leave. Below, you'll see a Stork-Billed Kingfisher, a Yellow Ringed Cat Snake, another kind of kingfisher in the tree, and a sleeping Bornean Branded Kingfisher.
Most of the time, we spotted monkeys. We must have seen hundreds of them, mostly Macaques (the monkeys all over the cities, parks, and temples across Asia) and Proboscis, which are really interesting creatures. They're endemic to Borneo and have a peculiar appearance: the males have big round bellies and long bulbous noses, the females have pointed upward-turned noses. It's said that when the Dutch first came to Malaysia, the native people started calling them Proboscis because they thought they looked so much alike! When you see the monkeys, you'll know it's not exactly a compliment. They were very easy to spot compared to the Orangutans because they travel in large groups and more playful and active. We saw tons of Proboscis families throughout our trips along the river.
One of the coolest sightings of the trip happened during a relatively uneventful sunrise cruise. We hadn't seen much other than Macaques (nature's performers) and were turning around to go back to the lodge for breakfast. Suddenly our guide stops and stares at a bunch of logs floating in the water, and it took us a while to realize that among the logs were two floppy ears and a trunk spouting water. We had come across a pygmy elephant swimming (walking) across the river! Pygmy elephants are only found in this specific forest in Borneo and they're the smallest elephant in the world. The palm plantations encroach on their habitat too and these once common animals are only sighted once every couple of months. You know it's a lucky day when even the guide is taking pictures. We watched the young bull, tusks barely coming in, lumber across the river using his tusk as a snorkel and emerge on the muddy banks with surprising ease. You'll see in the video that our boat gets a little close and he's not too happy about it.