|Bukit Merah Orangutan Sanctuary - A safe place to grow up.
It seems crazy to think that we lived for 9 months in Borneo, the island of Orangutans and yet never had the chance to see any. To be fair, Miri where we lived, was not the correct area but we had been hoping to drive over to sanctuaries. Sadly we left before we had the chance. I thought we had lost the chance of seeing them in Malaysia so imagine my surprise when I found out that there was an Orangutan sanctuary at Bukit Merah about an hour’s drive from our new home. We had our first non hazy day in months and we decided to make the most of it!
|Walking to the ticket office at the jetty
The Bukit Merah sanctuary is home to just over 20 Bornean Orangutans (there are two subspecies, Bornean and Sumatran), many of whom were born there. They are housed on an island where they have free access to over 15 acres of vegetation. The keepers and other staff at the sanctuary are incredibly knowledgeable and very dedicated. Their aim is to reintroduce as many of the animals back to the wild as they possibly can. One of the ladies was telling us that they hope that it might even be possible to start reintroducing them to the Malaysian peninsula and not just in Borneo.
|The sanctuary is isolated on the lake and the perfect place to
keep the animals safe.
The sanctuary is part of a wider ‘holiday’ complex on a large inland lake somewhat reminiscent of a British seaside town. There are hotels, cafes, food courts, a water park and a small zoo. It was rather noisy and reasonably busy even for the season but the atmosphere was not unpleasant. We walked straight through to the jetty where you can buy tickets for the sanctuary. Boats to the sanctuary island leave every 45 minutes so you never have to wait long. Foreigners pay more than Malaysian citizens but even so the tickets were not expensive, particularly given the work the organisation does.
|Walking through the tunnel. You can see the herb garden
and the feeding tubes on the right. These are used when they
want to limit contact between keepers and animals.
The ride out to the island is not long but it is far enough to ensure that it is a peaceful place, undisturbed by the busy resort on the shore. On arrival we were greeted with cups of fresh, cool mango juice. From there we were able to go through the site. The island is designed a little like an aquarium tunnel. The visitors are kept inside the cage and the animals have free reign. Of course this means that the opportunities for clear photographs are limited but we were there to see the animals and the island is run for their benefit not the tourists which is the way it should be. The cage is only short but the animals are so engaging that we could have spent 2-3 hours there (we had about 45 minutes because it started to rain). Along the tunnel the sanctuary have created a herb garden showcasing some of the major domestic herbs and they have samples for sale.
|Young children playing and sharing fruit
A Japanese tour was sharing the same boat as us. They were very taken with Mini EE who seemed to be the subject of as many photos as the orangutans. They had their own guide which meant that we had the attention of an extremely knowledgeable and friendly lady all to ourselves. She truly made the trip; she knew all the animals and was able to tell us about their life history and background in great detail. She was excellent with the children, particularly Master EE who is fascinated by primates.
|Adam, 12 years old and waiting to be released to the wild in
a few years time.
|Adam watched us quite intently.
Early on we met a trio of very young ‘children’. Aged between 3 and 6 they were obviously having a great time playing in the trees and then popping out to say hello. Near them, but in a separate area, there was the 12 year old Adam. He is already very big but has yet to develop the large cheek pouches that define Bornean male Orangutans. In a few more years when he reaches maturity he will be released to the wild. The guide told us that he has quite an individual personality. While most of the others ignore them he will quite happily share (or allow them to steal without getting angry) fruit with the wild monkeys that live on the island.
|An adolescent male using tools!
A little further on we came across some older juvenile males. Although adult males are solitary this trio obviously enjoyed each other’s company for the time being. I had heard of chimpanzees and gorillas using tools before but with these three we saw the process in action. They had seen something they wanted between the inner and outer fences so proceeded to pick up a twig and use it to manoeuvre it towards them. The guide told us that the animals are very clever and are able to carry out experiments. The inner fences are electric and run on solar power. They know that the current can fail from time to time and they have been known to test to see when it is safe to try to explore beyond the fence.
|Three good friends.
The highlight of the visit was to see a female orangutan, Nicole, with her little baby Cha Cha. Cha Cha is about the same age as Mini EE (and a lot larger) she is still very dependent on her mother. Although she played on the ground nearby when sedentary she is carried everywhere. We were told that Orangutans have a very similar lifecycle to us. Their menstrual cycle is around 30 days, their gestation around 9 months and the babies nurse to around 3 or 4 years old. The mother will typically continue to care for the child until it is about 8 or 9 and not have another in that time. They live around 30 years in the wild and 50 in captivity.
|A beautiful and intelligent lady.
The guide and keepers asked us to stay back behind the tour and then allowed me to enter in between the inner and outer fences to get closer to Nicole and Cha Cha and take some photographs. It was a huge privilege and one I am very grateful for, not only to be able to take the photographs but to have had the opportunity to get within a meter of this beautiful, intelligent animal and her wonderful, precious little baby.
|Soulful, intelligent eyes.
Sadly about the same time it started to rain. The boats cannot run in heavy downpours so they try to get people off the island incase the rain lasts a long time. We had been hoping to spend longer and we will go back if we can. As it turned out leaving was the right decision. There was a lot of thunder on the journey back and, as we were disembarking at the shore it came very close. I noticed a ground spark less than 2m away from me which was unnerving as I was standing on a metal stair case at the time. Mr EE and the rest of the family were, thank goodness) already undercover on the (wooden) jetty although Miss EE was rather unnerved by the very loud thunderclap that ensued.
|One very lucky EE!
The visit was one of the very best days we have spent in Malaysia, not only because we had the opportunity to see the orangutans and learn a little bit more about them but because the sanctuary is so obviously extremely well run. It was an absolute delight and we can’t wait to return.
Posted as part of the weekly Animal Tales linky
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