Borneo: In the forest, Mum knows best

By Diana Balham

Endangered orang-utans relearn how to live in the wild, writes Diana Balham.

Staying close to Mum is rule No. 1 for orang-utans in the forest. Photo / Getty Images
Staying close to Mum is rule No. 1 for orang-utans in the forest. Photo / Getty Images

She's a big, bonny girl all right, her bright orange hair slicked down on her head like an ill-fitting toupee. One minute she's up a tree and the next she's down here among us, striding purposefully in the other direction.

We're told to move back and let her pass. But she's left her baby behind and it cries out in distress, squeaking inconsolably at the separation. This little one is lucky - Mum comes lumbering back and peace returns to the rainforest.

It's said that a male orang-utan is 10 times stronger than a human and a female seven times stronger. And yet it's a shameful fact that these gentle forest dwellers have always been in danger from humans: from encounters that leave them injured or orphaned, from loss of habitat through deforestation and fires, and from traffickers who wrench babes-in-arms from their mothers and sell them on the black market. Their fate? Often it's city living as inappropriate pets in another country. The mothers don't have time to grieve. Wild and untrainable, they are usually dealt with swiftly.

Today, poaching in Malaysian Borneo is rare as the Government is putting a great deal of effort into conservation, and the forestry industry is heading towards sustainability - but exposure to human greed is an inescapable danger.

Young orang-utans stay with their mothers for five years or more and - if they survive the trauma of capture - can morph from adorable infants into adults weighing 100kg. Suddenly, a handbag dog seems like a much better option.

But these stories can have happy endings and it is here at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, 24km from the Sarawak state capital of Kuching, that graduates of a very successful rehabilitation programme have learned to be apes again and not cake-eating playthings.

There are 27 semi-wild orangs in this 652ha reserve, established in 1975 to care for animals that had been orphaned, injured or kept illegally. Although they are less celebrated than the charismatic red apes, other species such as gibbons, porcupines, hornbills, crocodiles and terrapins have also found a peaceful haven here.

And now, like the orang-utans, Semenggoh has graduated from a rehabilitation centre to a wildlife reserve where animal behaviour and biology are studied. Vulnerable individuals are taken to the nearby Matang Wildlife Centre.

We move quietly through the rainforest to a feeding station. The orangs are free to come and go as they please but it seems there is such a thing as a free lunch, which is proved over and over again as individuals arrive, swinging casually arm over arm through the trees. The rangers present a smorgasbord of goodies and they reach down with their impossibly long arms and gently pluck bananas, pineapples and other delicacies.

Four are mothers with infants tightly attached. The mothers' tenderness masks their awesome strength: one with a kid on board holds a coconut in one foot while climbing a tree with her three free limbs. A single thwack against the trunk and the coconut explodes. She carefully feeds pieces to her wee round-eyed baby.

A mum trumps a juvenile any day: there are shocking displays of daylight robbery as the older females shinny down the trees and steal from the teenagers, who meekly accept that mothers know best.

Orang-utans swing along one of the rope lines at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. Photo / Diana Balham
Orang-utans swing along one of the rope lines at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre. Photo / Diana Balham

In all, we see 12 orang-utans: four mothers with babies and four young males. At one point a quartet of acrobats is strung out along one of the rope lines that form express highways for the orangs to get to the outdoor cafeteria.

They look as if they are spelling out a word. Could that be an "H"? Is that a "Y"? I like to think they are forming themselves into a big, hairy orange "happy".


Getting there: Malaysia Airlines flies from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur six times a week.

Further information: See and

Diana Balham travelled to Borneo as a guest of Tourism Malaysia and Malaysia Airlines.

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