Seeing Red: Sarawak’s Orangutans

Orangutan (or Orang Utan) literally translates as “person of the forest” in the Malay language; and it isn’t too far off the mark, with it being the species sharing 97% of their DNA with humans, making them mankind’s cousin, of sorts.


There are two species of orangutans, namely the Bornean and the Sumatran Orangutan. The Bornean Orangutans are further divided into three sub-species, which are the Southwest Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus wurmbii) native to Western and Central Kalimantan and the Northeast Bornean Orangutan (pongo pygmaeus morio) native to the state of Sabah, Malaysia, and East Kalimantan. And then there’s the Northwest Bornean Orangutan or pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus, native to the state of Sarawak in Malaysia and the province of West Kalimantan in Indonesia. The orangutans are exceedingly dependent animals: dependent on tall prime rainforest as their habitat and dependent on their mothers for six or seven years during infant development. Couple this dependence with an average birth rate of one birth per eight years for every female orangutan and human nature, and you have the inevitable.

The Bornean Orangutan has officially been declared as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of
Nature (IUCN). With an estimated number of 54,000 Northwest Bornean Orangutans spread across the Sarawak and West Kalimantan rainforests, the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) as the custodians of
Sarawak’s forests, has been fighting a losing battle for half a century, with the orangutan numbers declining steadily due to illegal poaching as well as habitat loss from excessive timber logging and oil palm plantation planting.
But there has been a shift in the battlefield of orangutan conservation.


Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo, has been guilty of aggressively opening oil palm plantations, with a growth rate of 7.7% over the past five years alone, until the state’s Chief Minister, Tan Sri Adenan Satem, announced that no more state land would be awarded or sold for the planting of oil palm, for the foreseeable future. With this announcement came a rallying cry to snuff out illegal logging, with nearly 50% of logging permits being cancelled outright. While orangutans are currently restricted to remote or less accessible areas, oftentimes to their detriment as it becomes a game of cat and mouse between the growing efficiency of poachers and the determination of the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), the horizon is looking bright. The Ulu Menyang region is being gazetted as a National Park after the presence of some 200 wild orangutans were discovered, adding it to the growing ranks of other Totally Protected Areas instrumental in orangutan conservation.

Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary, Gunong Lesong National Park, Ulu Sebuyau National Park, Sedilu National Park and Batang Ai National Park are totally protected areas in which wild orangutans can live free, while Semenggoh Nature Reserve and Matang Wildlife Centre are determined to rehabilitate orangutans affected by human interference. Factor in two unexpected births among the 14 female orangutans in Semenggoh Nature Reserve’s Orangutan rehabilitation program, and you have what looks like an uptick in conservation results.


The establishment of 1.2 million hectares of Totally Protected Areas for the
orangutans has taken priority for the Sarawak Forestry Corporation and has begun to bear fruit. Now, the SFC aims to rehabilitate orphaned, surrendered or confiscated orangutans while encouraging public engagement, to the highest possible degree.

The Semenggoh Nature Reserve’s rehabilitation program has various volunteer programs available for the local and international public, the first being the Heart 2 Heart with Orangutans program, where the public can volunteer for any amount of time from one day to two weeks at the Nature Reserve, or the Matang Wildlife Center. The work includes the care of semi-wild orphaned orangutans, or in more extreme cases, the complete care of those that are unfit for release.

For more in depth involvement in the conservation of wild orangutans, one
can volunteer under the Honorary Wildlife Rangers. The Honorary Wildlife Rangers are tasked with having a deep understanding of wildlife and the responsibility of disseminating the meaning of protection and conservation of wildlife to the public, usually going deep into the interior of Sarawak and educating the local communities who are often approached and persuaded into hunting illegally for a quick profit by poachers and outside buyers.

While becoming an Honorary Wildlife Ranger is exceedingly difficult as one
must undergo training in biodiversity and wildlife conservation, volunteering to assist Honorary Wildlife Rangers is by far one of the more rewarding volunteer programs, as one gets to the nitty gritty of it and participates in wildlife protection and conservation, and success is measured by creating a sense of environmental stewardship in the daily lives of local communities.

The Orangutan Adoption Program was also created to raise funds for the rehabilitation of the displaced orangutans by extending ownership of the program to anyone and everyone in the world. It allows public involvement with the rehabilitation program, where you can adopt and sponsor an orangutan through its rehabilitation.

Ultimately, one of the best way to help with the orangutan conservation is to frequent the National Parks, proving that a civilisation doesn’t need to destroy its land to sustain its economy. While the fight for the orangutans is ongoing, the end goal is clearer than ever before; that one day one can trek through the national parks of Sarawak and spot a group of these orange-haired primates nesting peacefully in the treetops, unthreatened and thriving.

Images by Sarawak Forestry Corporation

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