Why I Love This Photo

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.

This poor guy was tied in one spot on someone front lawn as nothing more than a live ornament

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.

Aman wants us to get his best side of him in his leaf hat

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. 

You might not be able to see the orangutan in this picture but its perfect just the way it is as its the moment we first saw mother and baby in the wild

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.

Alvin giving us one of his informative lectures on wildlife conservation

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.

It’s ok George, you’ll get your coconut soon!

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My Epic South East Asia Trip

Ever since my 7 week gap year trip around Australia and New Zealand I have been dying to  go on a bigger, longer, even more awesome trip. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every second of my gap year trip but when I kept running into people who were travelling for three months minimum I started to feel like mine was a little more like an extended holiday. I shouldn’t have put myself down so much because I’ve come to realise it doesn’t matter the length of the trip but the experiences you have along the way. I crammed a lot into Australia and New Zealand and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. That being said, I’ve still always wanted to go on a longer trip for the simple reason that I can fit in even more great experiences!

One day I drop into an STA travel shop and tell them my budget and my ideas, now a couple of months on I have an epic itinerary planned! STA have been so helpful with putting together something really cool and also kind of complicated; I’d definitely recommend using them. Asian culture is so different from anything I have ever experienced before so it’s been a long time dream to visit Thailand and we built the trip from there. In the end I booked a 5 month trip around South East Asia!

My big trip starts ten days after my last MA assignment and I can’t wait. Here it is:

10th Oct – I’ll fly to Dubai to catch up with my friend Taylor. I’ll be spending four days here with Taylor showing me the best local places, doing some shopping (well maybe window shopping – I have got to save some money for the rest of my trip) and visiting swanky bars.

14th Oct – After this short stop over I’ll be heading to Sri Lanka for a week. I don’t know what I’ll be getting up to in Sri Lanka yet but I’m excited to start planning!da7bcabad41cdf7778311fbaf44d70f8

21st Oct – Next up is India. I’ll be on the Uncover India tour which will take me from Dehli
to Goa. Along the way I’ll be checking out the Taj Mahal, learning henna painting, bathing in Pushkar lake and visiting many temples.

6th Nov – Once I’ve lazed around on the beach in Goa for a few days I’ll be flying to Singapore where I’ll make my own way to Kuala Lumpa. I’m looking forward to this bit; a little taste of freedom to travel where I want, when I want and some independance to figure out how I’m actually going to do that!

16th Nov – I’ll be flying to Manila to explore the Philippines next. This is another leg of the journey I’m doing solo and also where I’ll be celebrating my birthday! I’m hoping here I’ll be able to do some diving as I island hop around Philippines’ 7,000+ islands! Swimming with whale sharks, visiting the chocolate mountains and the hanging tombs are also on my list of things to do.

28th Nov – From there I head over to Borneo for almost three weeks. I’ll fly into Kota Kinabalu and have five days to explore there, perhaps hiking Mount Kinabalu and visiting Turtle Island. Then it’s on to Kuching and my first volunteering experience: Orangutang conservation. I’m sure it will involve some hard work at times but will also be a lot of fun and gives me a chance to explore the rainforest and even stay in a traditional longhouse.

16th Dec – Finally it will be time to head over to the long-awaited Thailand. For this section of the trip I’ll be meeting up with my travel buddy Joey. You’ll hear more about a previous trip we’ve been on together in the next post but in the meantime check out his blog https://themichaeljoseph.com. We’ll spend a day or two in Bangkok before heading up to Chaing Mai where we will do one week of elephant conservation. Elephants are my favourite animal and one I’m currently writing my novel about so I’m really looking forward to this part of the trip. Being up close and personal to an elephant will be a dream come true! We finish just in time for Christmas and hopefully for a couple of other friends to come and join us; Ed and his girlfriend Becky. From there the four of us will head South to explore Thailand’s islands and celebrate the New Year.

IMG_23289 Jan – After I’ve said goodbye to my friends I’ll be joining the Stray Asia bus. This is a flexible hop-on hop-off service that will take me through Laos, Cambodia and end my trip in Vietnam. I chose to travel this way because I did a similar pass with the Oz Experience and New Zealand Experience, both of which were great. It’s a fun way to meet new people and do a wide range of activities with the ease of having a tour guide to help book them for you. They also offer unique experiences like remote homestays I might not otherwise be able to do if I were organising it on my own. This will be the most flexible part of my trip and I’ll be able move on when I like or stick around for a few extra days somewhere if I feel like it- as long as I’m back in Bangkok to catch my flight home on the 1st March that is!

So that’s it! This is my epic jam-packed trip and everything I’ll be doing along the way – or at least what I have planned so far. This will be the longest I’ve ever been away from home and the first time I’ll be travelling completely on my own. I am equal parts terrified and excited. Bring on October. Bring on South East Asia!