One of the most exciting aspects of our visit to Borneo was the chance to see some incredible and rare primates and monkeys in the wild. As we’ve learned time and again in our travels, seeing animals in person and in the wild is such a precious experience that words can’t really convey. It’s so much more than seeing them on a special on Animal Planet or even in the zoo. Here in this part of Borneo – we would get to see some of the rarest forms on earth. And they are only found here in Southeast Asia.
We stayed in Sandakan. An otherwise missable part of Borneo. Our hostel, the Mayfair Hotel, was a true backpackers’ dream. An ensuite room with air conditioning, huge flat screen TV, 5 free DVDs a day and free WiFi Internet. A steal at just $16 a night!
A trip to the famous Sepilok Rehabilitation Center is a must when visiting Malaysian Borneo. This sanctuary, founded in 1964, was created to save and rehabilitate injured or abandoned orangutans with the hope of later releasing them back into the wild. When we flew into Borneo, from the airplane, we could see what we thought was rainforest. It had to be. But as we got closer and once on land, we realized the forest was actually palm oil plantations. This precious species of orangutans has been pushed to a strip of rainforest reffered to as the Corridor of Life, as the forest has been decimated to make room for the almighty palm oil plantations. It’s utterly disgusting how little regard people can have for such an endangered species when all they focus on is making money off of palm oil.
The sanctuary is definitely a tourist trap, but we couldn’t resist the opportunity to see these wondrous creatures in person. As we arrived for the morning feeding, we saw several mischievous macaques roaming the grounds and searching for food. These guys may look cute, but they are known to be quite aggressive and vicious.
Once we walked through the raised wooden walkways, we’d arrived at the feeding viewing platforms. Throngs of people pushed their way to a front-row spot with unimpeded views of the feeding platforms hoping to get a fantastic shot of these glorious orangutans. As we waited for the feeding time, one by one, these orangutans came from all edges of the forest, grasping from tree to tree, some using the ropes put in place by the rehab center.
It was a thrill to behold. The orangutans are said to be wild, but many have lived there for so long, they’ve grown accustomed to the easy feedings and would never survive in the wild where they would need to search for food on their own.
Orangutans are beautiful and so awe-inspiring. Staring at them, we realized just how similar they are to us and vice versa (humans and orangutans share 97% of the same DNA). Mothers holding their babies, cuddling them, making sure they are safe, swatting them when they are doing something that may bring them harm. Juveniles showing off doing flips on the ropes. Just watching their eyes, their hands – it was mesmerizing.
Interesting fact: Orang Utan is a Malay word. It means “man of the forest.”
There were a few large males, but most of them were mothers and their babies.
On our way out of the sanctuary, we were so lucky to come upon a curious juvenile walking along the handrails right next to us. It was magical to be so close to a wild orangutan. We got some fantastic close-ups and although the little one eventually climbed into a nearby tree, the experience was one in a million.
The other primate we had to see was the strange proboscis monkey. These bizarre reddish-brown creatures (the males) have weird long noses, like nothing I’d ever seen before.
They are endemic to Borneo and are sadly in real danger of extinction. The population has decreased by over 50% in the last 40 years due to habitat loss and even hunting. We journeyed to the Labuk Bay Monkey Sanctuary for a look at these unique monkeys.
As the keepers put the plates of fruit and cucumbers out for them, they came from all around. The males make this strange uh-oh type of honking sigh sound. It’s hard to describe. It was such a rare treat to see these proboscis monkeys up so close in what is left of their habitat. It’s not their fault they are where they are. They, too, have been chased out of their vast natural habitat by the palm oil industry.
It was a truly fantastic experience to see them in all of their natural glory – eating, resting, protecting their babies, fighting and even fornicating right before our eyes. Hey – it’s nature.
Seeing these precious and unique creatures was well worth the trip to Borneo in itself. But, we were eager to venture deeper into the jungle to see what more was in store in this magical place.