At first glance all you can see in this photo is an orangutan trapped behind bars looking miserable. His hands grasp the bars and his face, so human in its expressions, tells of an animal who is fed up and depressed. These things are true to a certain degree but although a picture speaks a thousand words, they might not be the words you were first expecting.
This is George, a rescued orangutan at Matang Wildlife Centre in Kuching, Borneo and he is sulking because his neighbour, Peter, has received an enrichment toy and is happily peeling apart a coconut with his teeth as if it were a banana while George goes without. He will get his turn but he doesn’t know that yet; the point is that when it comes to wildlife conservation there is more to the picture than meets the eye.
I spent two weeks on a volunteering tour with The Great Projects that began with a short stay at Matang. Straight away it was a real eye opener. One of the permanent volunteers working there told us frankly that what we would see at the centre we woudn’t be happy with and neither were they. The fact is the place is underfunded, understaffed and overcrowded. Animals are in enclosures too small for them or share them with too many other animals but the fact is, these animals are still in much better conditions than they were when they were rescued. On our first day we were taken on a tour around the centre and saw a crane who was tied to the same spot on someone’s front lawn as an ornament. Many other animals, from clouded leopards to song birds, were kept as exotic trophy animals, abused and mistreated by owners who didn’t know how to look after them and didn’t care.
Orangutans are no exception either. They are tied to porches, kept in tiny cages with little food and made to dress up and take photos with tourists or perform in shows. Yet many at Matang will never be released into the wild again, either because of the red tape the government puts up when finding a suitable place to release them, or because there is little suitable habitat left or even because they have become too damaged, too habituated to humans to ever survive in the wild again. As saddened as we were to see that such incredible creatures kept in such small encloures, we knew that they were better off at Matang than anywhere else.
We were there to help though and eager to know how to do that. To begin with we felt like we were getting an easy ride on the volunteering front. We got to relax on the beach, drink too much rice whiskey with locals in their bamboo longhouse and raft down the river on their bamboo rafts, yet what we were doing all the time was gathering an awareness about the situation in Borneo.
From the beginning we knew that there would be no touching or holding of the orangutans even though several centres in Borneo still offer this but it was only after we arrived at Matang that it was fully explained why this doesn’t happen. For starters a staggering amount of baby orangutans will die from exposure to human diseases. It might seem cute to have those long arms wrapped around your neck but while you are back home showing off your pictures to friends and family that baby could be dying from a disease you inadvertently gave to them. Apes and humans have a lot in common and unfortunatly that includes some of the same health risks. Sometimes it is impossible to release an orangutan (the same applies to many other animals too) into the wild because they have become too habituated to humans, relying on them for food meaning they can’t take care of themselves in the wild. With this in mind you’ve got to remember that the aim for these babies is to release them into the wild and the less human contact they have the better.
It has definitely made me question every animal experience I have had; even my recent experience swimming with whale sharks in Oslob, Philippines. Online there are people clammering to find oppportunities to do volunteer projects that will allow them to hold orangutans and the majority of these people are clearly animal lovers and only wanting to do the best or a species they feel passionate about, but the best thing you can do if this is true is to educate yourself. Question whether what you are doing is actually what is best for the animal rather than what is best for your instagram account. I would recommend swimming with whale sharks because being so close to these huge gentle creatures was incredible but would I recommend swimming with them in Oslob? No. Half an hour in water crowded with other tourists where the whale sharks are encouraged to stay in the area rather than follow their natural migration patterns was not worth it. There are tours where you spend half a day tracking down whale sharks in the wild and swimming besides them for as long as they will allow. To me, that sounds like a much more authentic experience and I wish I had done it on this trip but unfortunatly I fell into the trap of doing what was easiest for me not what benefitted the whale sharks the most.
The same desire for an authentic experience applies to my time with The Great Projects. At the end of the two weeks we spent several days in Batang Ai national park, a place where orangutans still roam free. It is rare to get the opportunity to see them though and permanant volunteers told us they had either never seen one in the wild or it had taken months or years to get the chance. We kept our expectations low and reminded ourselves that we would certainly see evidence of them, that seeing their nests and food they had eaten would be enough, just to know that they are out there, enjoying their freedom. On the first day we saw these signs and our guide, Alvin, told us there was likely a mother and a baby in the area but she was obviously being cautious and staying out of sight. The second day we began our trek, enjoying clambering over tree roots and through dense foliage, keeping our eyes peeled for movement but not expecting much. We stopped to take a break and Alex, a woman on the tour, noticed the distinctive swaying of an orangutan swinging from tree to tree, rather than branch to branch like other monkeys. We all gathered around and then we saw her silhouette amongst the branches, pulling leaves down to eat, seemingly unaware of us looking on.
Then she moved. We followed her up and down through the jungle and finally perched on a hill to watch her. We could only catch glimpses of her through the trees but there was one magical moment when she looked directly at us, her baby close to her side. A wild animal watching us, watching them.
This is why you should volunteer, to capture these rare moments and know that the process is slow and hard but worth it for every animal that makes it back or remains in the wild. It is why I love this photo; it is a reminder that wildlife conservation isn’t how it should be but that there is still hope. There are people at Matang (the “hippies” as Alvin would call them) who are working tirelessly, giving up months and years of their lives to work for free because they believe in the cause. They are up against a lot, from the government to oil palm industries, the exotic pet trade to killings for nonsense medicinal remedies, habitat destruction and more. The list goes on. But they won’t give up and neither should you.
Supporting causes, especially small locally run ones like The Great Projects offer, is a very real way you can help. Taking the information they give you and using it to educate others is important too. We should all be asking questions about animal encounters, even if they are difficult questions to ask. We should all begin to trust our gut instinct when we feel that something is wrong. Don’t think about how many likes your photo will get on facebook, think about what that animal has been through to get there beside you. Think about George and how he might be happily tearing into his enrichment toy, living a much better life at Matang than he was before, but also how he shouldn’t be there in the first place. It might be too late for George, but I love this photo because maybe, with people like the volunteers I met on my Great Projects tour, it might not be too late for others.