Jim Eagles keeps watch as Borneo's dexterous orangutans get stuck into their tucker.

Around the corner of the jungle track we came... and there was Minah hanging high above by one powerful, red, hairy limb, another limb was holding baby Anoi, who was using her mother as a climbing frame, while the digits at the end of the remaining limbs - it was hard to tell if they were hands or feet - were clutching a pile of bananas and a coconut.

As we watched, she carefully peeled each of the bananas, dropped the skins on to the jungle floor, pushed away the inquisitive Anoi and enjoyed a pleasant breakfast.

When the bananas were finished, she tore the covering off the coconut, whacked it hard against a tree trunk, broke it open and devoured the tasty white flesh.


Now and again she gave Anoi a titbit but mostly the baby was left to her own devices to snooze, climb or pull sad faces.

Watching this hairy mother and child it was pretty easy to believe that humans and orangutans share 97 per cent of their DNA.

We were at the Semenggoh Orangutan Centre where the orangutans live in the wild except that twice a day some supplementary food - bananas, sweet potatoes, occasionally mangoes and coconuts - are put out for those who want it.

Our expedition ship Orion II, which was cruising around the island of Borneo, had berthed that morning in the Malaysian city of Kuching and the prospect of seeing orangutans had everyone off the ship in record time.

During the bus trip from the wharf to the centre, guide Joe told us there were 26 adult orangutans and 15 babies living in Semenggoh but the number turning up for a feeding session varied widely.

"If none turn up that is the best thing because it means they are surviving on their own in the wild," he said. "It is not so good for the tourists but it is good for the orangutans."

Joe also told us a few scary stories about orangutans, designed to ensure we listened to any instructions from him and the other guides.

We should, he said, be particularly careful if Ritchie, the alpha male at Semenggoh, should happen to turn up, because he was extremely powerful, probably weighed in at 140kg, and could be very aggressive.

"Three days ago," he said, "Ritchie got mad. We don't know why. You know what an air-conditioning unit looks like? Ritchie just tore it off the office here. They had to use a fire extinguisher to persuade him to go away."

Another one to watch, according to Joe, was Delima - otherwise known as Hot Mamma - the sexiest and most forceful of the females, who over the years had bitten a few tourists who got too close to her offspring.

"Make sure you don't carry any food and keep your water bottles inside your backpacks so they can't be seen. If Hot Mamma sees you have a water bottle, she may try to take it and she is very strong."

Overall, he said, we should not get close to any orangutans, avoid firing off camera flashes in their faces "and if they do come up to you and want something... give it to them.

"A while ago there was a German tourist who got too close, taking photos of a female and her child, and the mother became angry.

"She went up and took his sunglasses, climbed into a tree and put the sunglasses on upside down, then took them off and broke them into pieces. But at least he wasn't hurt.

"Another time we had a backpacker who was chewing gum and one of the orangutans tried to see what he was eating. It tried to put its fingers into his mouth so the backpacker closed his lips very tightly.

Feeding time at Semenggoh. Photo / Chang'r
Feeding time at Semenggoh. Photo / Chang'r

"So what do you think the orangutan did? It kissed the backpacker on the lips. They are very clever."

Obviously no one was keen on an orangutan kiss because we were very well behaved when we reached the centre and made the 1.5km walk through the jungle to the feeding area.

Along the way, Joe pointed out several orangutan nests high in the treetops to keep their occupants safe from leopards and pythons. "They build a new nest every day unless there is a lot of fruit when they might stay two or three days."

Now and again we heard a "woop woop woop" cry from the trees. "That," said Joe, "is the Borneo gibbon."

When we reached the headquarters, there was a row of cages so I went to see what was inside. To my surprise they each contained a large crocodile, including one with its jaws wide open. After it had stayed like that for 10 minutes I guessed it might be dead.

When I asked one of the centre staff what the crocodiles were for he just smiled and asked if I had seen the pitcher plants.

I hadn't, so he took me to a bush with several, well, pitchers I guess, hanging off it, with their lids open and a nasty looking liquid inside. "Insects go in to drink," he said, "they can't get out and the enzymes in the liquid digest them and feed the plant."

I had heard there were much larger pitcher plants in this part of the world. "Yes," he said, "but only up in the mountains. They are so big they can catch rats." Goodness.

By now it was feeding time and up at the feeding station there were five orangutans - Minah and Kok plus three young adults - hanging around and grabbing the odd snack.

Unfortunately, there was also a huge crowd of visitors, including a busload of giggling schoolgirls, who between them made rather a lot of noise, which the primates seemed to find a bit disturbing.

Minah got stuck into the food but the others took to the treetops. From time to time we could see them looking down from the foliage but before long they moved away and Minah and her baby followed.

As soon as the orangutans had gone, out popped a bunch of squirrels, attractive creatures with reddish fur and black and white stripes down back and tail, who sidled nervously up to the remaining food, then dived in.

We watched them for a while then, when Joe confirmed that the orangutan show was over for the morning, we headed back to our ship.

Pity we hadn't seen Ritchie, I thought, because the photos I'd seen of his thick fur and massive cheek and throat pads - apparently a sign of his sexual supremacy - looked very impressive.

Mick Fogg, Orion's expedition leader, had told us about the titanic struggle between Ritchie and the previous top male, George, six years ago. "George ended up losing several of his fingers and having half his cheek torn off."

Mick said he had seen George a few weeks previously at the nearby Matang Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre to which he was taken after the fight. "It's very sad. He's lost his mojo."

Without human intervention, Mick said, George would probably have died. "And when you see him you wonder if he mightn't prefer it that way."

Anyway, enough of George, Ritchie is the - 97 per cent - man now and I was sorry not to have seen him.

But when we got back to our cabin after the visit to Semenggoh, we discovered that Orion had taken out sponsorships in the names of each passenger - including us - to support Ritchie for 12 months. That feels rather cool.

When the year runs out I'm tempted to renew the sponsorship. It apparently only costs $95 a year.

And if we support Ritchie, maybe next time we visit Borneo he might turn up to greet us.

There's a 1.5km walk through the jungle to the feeding area.
There's a 1.5km walk through the jungle to the feeding area.


Getting there

For information on expedition cruises

around Borneo, go to