When our friend Brandon started planning his trip to Malaysian Borneo and Indonesia to meet us, I asked him what his priority was – what did he want to get out of this trip? Was it culinary tourism? Culture and architecture? Ruins and beaches? “Monkeys” was his answer. “Lots of monkeys.” We decided to visit two wildlife reserves in order to see as many different kinds as we could.
Brandon joins our crew - them's be Orang Utans back thar.
After a few days in Kota Kinabalu we headed to Sepilok, home of one of the five Orang Utan rehabilitation centres in the world. The centre is a located on a large chunk of protected jungle and is home to over 20 of the lovable red guys who have been abused, injured or rescued from bad zoos and irresponsible owners.
The Centre is famous for its feeding times – at 10 am and 3pm hundreds of people crowd onto raised wooden platforms to watch the handlers dole out bananas. We arrived to the platform half an hour early to watch the daring long tailed macaques lunge and steal handfuls of the fruit, growing in numbers from one brave monkey to over a dozen.
One of the handlers approached the feeding station and held up a small sign that read “Silence.” Within moments a collective gasp escaped from the crowd - my own lungs included. An Orang Utan, hairy and muscled with long arms, big round head and long jointy arms swung into sight and snatched a bunch of the bananas. With big sad human eyes and and a sweet demeanour he ambled over in his strange Frankenstein way to crouch next to the blue bucket, surrounded by grabby macaques.
Over the next thirty minutes four more “Jungle Men” (the Bahasa translation) came into view to collect bananas, including one mother and baby. She tried to teach her funny little babe how to swing on the rope using just his arms, but he seemed to be afraid and insisted on using his feet to help his balance.
It was an amazing experience to sit and watch the bizarre mythic primates just hang out, play and nosh, knowing that unlike a zoo, they were free to leave and go back to their business (ha! Monkey business!) at any time.
My awe and magical feelings dissipated only for a short time, when one of the big boys decided to swing his way over to the viewing platform right next to all of us tourists and our unrelenting cameras. Despite stern warnings from the British handler, her calls of “No Flash. Do Not Crowd. No Flash!” were ignored as moronic photo-hungry families surged forward and shoved flashing bulbs in the Orang Utan's face.
That moment made me scared. Are we all just heading toward a planet of these small conservation pockets, places that seem like a good idea to visit until you get there and realize that all of these other people with poor intentions are also there? People so desperate for a snap of the perfect vacation memory that they think that using flash photography in an animal sanctuary is okay?
My greatest fears in fourth grade, when I wrote a little speech about the destruction of the rain forest, have been realized. We have so few of the big fascinating mammals left that even when they are ostensibly in the 'wild' we still crowd around them, desperate to get our moment with them before they are all gone, killed off by poaching and slowly starved by deforestation. And the desperation, the crazed attitude that they are first and foremost a tourist attraction and secondarily creatures with as much right to this land as we have (alright, I'll stop just shy of an “Oh Gaia Mother Earth” hippie sentiment because as we all know – I hate hippies) drives people to do stupid things.
I'm comin to get ya!
When I was in Nepal's Chitwan National Park, I witnessed a group of tourists feeding a baby elephant Oreos, waving the cookies around to lure him closer in order to take photos with him. The mahout's (elephant dude) back was turned, and I caught his attention and tattled on the group (I had already asked them to stop but they looked at me blankly and kept flinging treats) The mahout repeated the sentiment, watching them with a hairy eyeball, but the moment his back was turned they resumed feeding him Oreos, and also some Lay's potato chips, snapping away with flash the whole time.
While this made me seethe, this ignorant behaviour pales in comparison when I think about animal poaching. While I understand the economic factors that drive people to murder endangered species, this understanding does nothing to diminish the near violent rage I feel when I think about the people responsible for a) driving the market with demand (“ooooh, honey look! Rhino Horn tea! I know that there are only 200 left in Borneo, but my wang-o sure is lacklustre lately!”) and b) doing the hunting. My little fists ball up and I my face heats up and I wanna go out there and find the monsters myself.
Yes, it is a few steps from feeding elephants cookies and flashing cameras in monkey's faces to poaching – but there seems to be the same sort of disassociation between right and wrong and the same desperate urge to exploit the animal for your own selfish reasons.
I was naïve and thought that no one would kill threatened animals in this day and age– no one would dare even think about harming an elephant, a monkey, a sun bear. As a child (and even up to a few years ago) a poacher to me was a nameless, faceless monster who lurked only in news stories and my imagination. But now I have been to too many places affected by rampant killing to try to see the good in people and earnestly believe that it will stop.
Orang Utans are being poached to snag the babies to keep as pets, and to fill the market for so called 'bush meat' – the consumption of large primates and other endangered species. I have seen them up close. They look like us, and I'm just gonna put this out there: if you eat the great primates (gorillas, chimps, baboons) you are a bad person. I'm not even putting in a qualifier like “unless you are starving.” Nope.
As long as poachers exist, sanctuaries like the one at Sepilok are necessary and the people that keep them running are practically saints. But.... while the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre was amazing and interesting and a really good cause, maybe they could enforce a mandatory sitting-only policy? A no-camera policy? They could sell video and stills from the feeding time that you attended and make even more moolah for the centre.... They could also employ me (and let me hug the Orangs all I want to) to stand and look disapprovingly at the crowd.
I have a very effective stern look......
Just let me at the poachers with it.