The Secrets of Sabah

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The Man of the Forest

Literally meaning ‘The man of the forest’ (Orang= Man; Hutan= Forest), the Orangutan is the closest animal to a human being with a 98% DNA match. In fact, it is probably the only mammal to get blood transfusion from a human. But the similarity stops at that though they are quite intelligent and meticulous by ‘wild’ standards.

Our search for these lovely animals took us to Sepilok in the Sabah region in Malaysia where the Orangutan sanctuary is the main attraction. From India you can fly to Singapore, Bangkok or Kuala-Lampur and take a connecting flight to Sandakan. The sanctuary is just a half an hour’s drive from there.

In Sepilok, the Orangutans are rescued and trained by the human officials and volunteers and once they are capable, released in the forest. The nursery is in open-air and has facilities for the babies to play around while their trained and masked tutors take good care of them.

A baby is reared by its mother for 7 years and taught all the skills of the forest, making it the only species to protect its young ones for so long. But I guess they need it; after all they are loners in the forest. They build their ‘nests’ on tall tree branches atleast twice a day and it takes them just about 5 minutes to do so! They sleep, poo and pee in this nest and then go on to the next. Once the males grow up they live alone and fend for themselves, marking their territories and only allowing the female species to break the rule and come anywhere near them. They are strong and can unpeel a raw coconut with their bare hands and teeth.

The sanctuary has feeding timings at 10 AM and 3 PM daily and it’s a good place to see some of their behavior. We saw a mother Orangutan feed herself and her baby, keeping other monkeys at bay till they were both satisfied. The ropes tied to the trees help them to descend surreptitiously to the feeding area and devour all signs of bananas and papayas fed to them. Names of the apes and their personalities are described interestingly in the lounge. While I had a close face to face encounter with Mimi—a female Orangutan, we saw another one lying lazily outside the office in the late evenings during our night walk.

While the ‘Man of the forest’ sleeps a well-earned early slumber every night, his nocturnal friends show up to light up the forest. In the night, we could see flying squirrels popping out of their boroughs and gliding gracefully between the trees, while the vipers hissed and the stick insects kissed. The jungle became calmer as the sun settled below the horizon and an eerie but musical symphony of crickets and insects filled the horizon as if the trees were talking to each other in a foreign language.

The Pygmy Giants

A 2-hour bus ride from Sepilok got us to the pristine forests of Kotakinabatangan. Not to be mistaken with another tongue twister – its mountainous counterpart Kotakinabalu—this is where the river of the same name flows with rapid currents amidst dense forests. Though a bit murky and vegetated, this river supports a whole ecosystem of some unique animals and birds. Pygmy elephants, Civet cats, Kingfishers, Orangutans, Pythons are just some of the fauna that are often spotted here.

There are usually 3 rides by the river—one in the early morning, another in the late afternoon followed by one in the night. The night ride on the first day drew a naught as it was marred by a consistent drizzle and cloudy skies. Though the noises led us to expect a lot, it only turned out to be a damp squib. We didn’t bother to go for the night ride that day as the rains had already made us feel cold and frigid.

The next morning was sunny and the hunt for the pygmies began. Though we bumped in to several orangutans lazing on the high perched branches of the rain forest trees and encountered some smaller animals during our trek, only the dung of the elephants left a trail that they had been there. Repeated attempts by our guide were futile in spotting the magnificent tuskers.

Thus we set sail for the last of our boat tours in the evening. A few minutes in the boat got us to a canal. While we stood there for sometimes clicking pictures, a rustle in the bushes caught our attention and almost out of nowhere sprung a pygmy elephant. Excited, we started clicking away to glory, ensuring that we kept a safe distance. Within minutes the whole herd was there rummaging through the trees and pulling berries. When one of them got in to the canal and started walking towards us, we reversed our boat and made it more comfortable. The crown and the sharp eyes were the only things visible from the boat. The whole drama lasted for over 10 minutes. By this time several other boats had come there and we returned back to our resort—as satisfied as a predator is after spotting its prey.

The night tour was amazing. The guide was able to show us many birds, reptiles and the civet cat with a powerful torch, almost as if they were posing and waiting for him all the time.

The tourists identify Malaysia with the more popular destinations like Langkawi and KL. But exploring these hidden gems in the wilderness is a dream come true for the urban hippies who rarely get more than a few whiffs of pure oxygen to breathe.

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