Michele Hewitson interview: Ian Singleton

By Michele Hewitson

Football-loving Yorkshireman, pet newt-owner and orang-utan expert, would rather be in the jungle but instead travels the world to raise funds for a conservation centre in Sumatra

Dr Ian Singleton, world-renowned orang-utan expert and conservationist, was in Auckland this week to promote the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Dr Ian Singleton, world-renowned orang-utan expert and conservationist, was in Auckland this week to promote the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Dr Ian Singleton, the British conservationist, world-renowned orang-utan expert and director of the Sumatran Orang-utan Conservation Programme was hanging out at the Auckland Zoo this week. On Tuesday night he gave a talk at the Bruce Mason Centre to attempt to drum up funds for an orang-utan haven and education centre in North Sumatra.

After that he was off to do the same thing in Australia. He has just come down from Kilimanjaro, which he climbed as yet another fundraising activity. He had a bit of time off, so he went on a safari - which sounds like a bushman's holiday, but he said, reasonably, that you can't go to Tanzania and not go on a safari.

His life sounds awfully exotic. He makes it sounds awfully boring. He's from Yorkshire and is accomplished at the art of understatement. He said: "I don't get out much." His life was like this, he said: "Hot. Cold. Hot. Cold."

He meant extremes of temperature, not measures of excitement. I thought he'd be an excitable character. The only other famous ape person I know about is Jane Goodall and she does a very funny ape impersonation. She makes an ape sound - ooh, ooh, ooh and then says: "Me Jane." She's funny, I said, and did the ape sound. He gave me a look which, if you saw it in an orang-utan, would leave you in no doubt that it thought you a right fool. He said, about my impersonation of Jane Goodall impersonating an ape: "She does it better." He's funny. He said about Auckland, on Tuesday: "Your weather's crap." This was fair enough. It was pouring with rain.

We had taken him out in it to get his photograph taken. Of course we went to the orang-utan enclosure, which of course was empty. It was pouring with rain and orang-utans aren't stupid. We found a mother and "sub-adult", Madju, the zoo's youngest male, who is, at 8, still a kid, in their inside digs. Why was there an empty tin on the floor? That, said the expert, was where he kept his roll-your-own tobacco. There were climbing nets. He said. "They like football too." The sign outside said: 97 per cent like you. In his case it might be 99.9 per cent like him. He likes football (Manchester United and Hull City). He sometimes chain-smokes but "I'm not chain-smoking now," he said, meaning, presumably, at this precise moment. He claimed Madju had a pet newt. He has a pet newt, called Neville. I said a newt wasn't a pet but you really shouldn't argue with an expert. He is very fond of Neville and feeds him mosquitoes and worms he breeds in a plastic worm farm he bought at a Bunnings in Australia (sans worms) and took home to Medan in Indonesia which is where he and Neville live. He also has a family but asked that I didn't give any details about them because he is constantly at war with nasty types and so doesn't like to draw any attention to his private life. We had quite a long chat about Neville, who he has had for about 11 years. He claims it is the "one big regret of my life" that he didn't buy Neville's brother or possibly sister or possibly some entirely unrelated newt when he saw the pair of them at the market. He has doomed Neville to a lonely, celibate life. Is he lonely? "Yeah." How does he know? "Because he doesn't talk. He doesn't write." Poor Neville. Is he nice? "He's all right."

But that is quite enough monkey business. We had better get on to orang-utans. When you are lucky enough to meet an orang-utan in the company of a world-renowned orang-utan expert, it behoves one to ask intelligent questions. Madju was banging on the glass. What was he doing? "He's banging. He's trying to bang some sense into you." He had rushed over to the glass as soon as the expert had arrived. Does he know you? "He saw me yesterday." This may have been another of his jokes but it was hard to be certain. As previously mentioned, he's from Yorkshire.

He said: "You can see it's not a chicken. There's something going on behind those eyes, isn't there?" To which I said: "Don't go all soppy on me, Ian." Because he really is a very unlikely character to be a PR man for orang-utans, or indeed a PR man for anything. He is blunt, for one thing, and terrible at talking things up.

So he is leading a very strange life as an unlikely PR man, flying about the world, when he does get out, drumming up dosh and awareness for apes. In other words, his job is now - or so you'd imagine, although I couldn't - schmoozing and charming. A strange life? He once did a cocktail party, in Australia, at the Hairy Hounds playground. He lives in a city. He doesn't like cities. He lives in Indonesia, which he doesn't love. It is corrupt and polluted, he said. He spends most of his working life now in an office, managing funds and people. He doesn't like offices and he prefers orang-utans to people. I made a reference to "your orangs" and then said I supposed he'd tick me off for it, meaning for the "your". He said, well, orangs would be wrong because in Indonesian it means people. "But I wouldn't mind if you called the orang-utans my people, because they are people." They're not actually people, are they? "Well, they're anthropoid apes. So you have to regard them as human."

I think he really regards them as a notch above humans. They don't talk, for one thing and so don't ask stupid questions - 97 per cent like us. "But smarter and better looking," he said, looking at me.

He was a terrible disappointment. I thought he'd live in a tree hut, in the jungle. He has to live in a city because he has to have Wi-Fi. You can't lobby governments, or deal with taking palm oil companies and poachers to court, and get media attention for the cause, from a jungle. Therein lies the rub, and the trade-off: To save orang-utans he has to live away from orang-utans. "But I'm happiest out in the forest."

His definition of happiness is a bit odd. I thought he'd have exciting, heart-warming stories of being in the forest with the orang-utans. He said: "It's a boring, boring day. Your wild orang-utan's life is pretty dull." When he was doing the field work, for his thesis, which led to him becoming an expert, he'd get up at 4am, trek to where the orang-utans were nesting, wait for them to get up at 6am, the lazy buggers, then watch them go up a tree and eat for three hours, then watch them come down and travel for half a kilometre, then watch them make a new nest and have a lunchtime rest for an hour ... And then they get up and go up another tree and start stuffing themselves again. And there you are, 25 metres below, being bitten to death by bugs. He filled in the time by chain-smoking and telling himself jokes.

He said: "The reason I became a zoo keeper was because I didn't want to work with people. I can't be bothered. It's not my forte." I wondered how he'd ended up in his current situation and he said: "I don't know! Something went wrong somewhere! Something went completely wrong!"

Anyway, he scoffs at the idea of the pursuit of personal happiness. "Because what would make me truly happy would be playing for Manchester United ... and I can't do that so the next best thing is to be working in orang-utan conservation. I'm far from unique. I'm not living out my dream. I'm not a rock star!"

His entire career has been a sort of accident. As a boy he was besotted with reptiles then, as a teenager, he read Gerald Durrell's animal books and decided he wanted to work at Durrell's Jersey Zoo, because of the focus on endangered species. He thought: "Well, what an interesting life ... and I thought, 'well, that's what I want to do'." He hadn't done biology at school, so he enrolled in a polytechnic and got a job at another zoo, near London, and worked with lions and tigers and bears and eventually got offered a job with apes. He still thought he was a reptile man at that stage but when he got the letter offering the apes - he was hosing the Siberian tiger enclosure down at the time, he mentioned, casually - he went, gulp! "Well, it's what every zoo keeper secretly wants."

Then he got obsessed with orang-utans, not least, according to him, because their enclosure was in a far corner of the zoo so he never saw any people.

And eventually he wanted to see the orang-utans in the wild and went to Indonesia and began his boring, boring days alone in the forest with his fags and his notebooks. It was all a terrible mistake, he insists, if less than convincingly. He was "randomly" given work in the African section on a summer job at a zoo.

"And I look back and think, if only they'd said: 'Ian, you go and look after the marine mammals.' I'd have spent the last 20 years in the Hawaiian islands, sitting on a boat, with a gin and tonic and the radio and some students wearing bikinis." Oh what rubbish. He loves orang-utans. "Aah. No. I love wildlife. I love the forest. And I love being able to see new things and learn new things but I wouldn't say I particularly prefer one species over another."

He really is hopeless at PR. He doesn't do those cute pictures with baby orang-utans, saved from poachers or idiotic people who decided they'd make a cute pet until they realised they get big and rip your house apart. He thinks there might be one of these pictures, if you googled him, holding a baby orang-utan, one he hand-reared many years ago at Jersey Zoo after its mother died.

"But I'm very different from many of the people who work in a similar field, who are always covered in baby orang-utans. It's not the impression I want to portray. I want to portray us as a serious organisation, tackling serious issues. We are there to raise funds and support Indonesians to save their own environment and wildlife.

"I'm not a marketing manager and I'm not going to go out there and cry and show you a baby orang-utan. It's not my style and sometimes people criticise me for not being very good at it."

I take it all back. He is very, very good at PR. It's just his own, idiosyncratic brand of PR which is tough and pragmatic and oddly charming, like him. And if I was an endangered orang-utan, I know which sort I'd prefer.

- NZ Herald

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