The small crowd gathered for the afternoon feeding at Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Serawak in Malaysian Borneo was suddenly hushed. Expectant, as transparently eager as children on birthday or Christmas mornings.
Even the two young ones present—one a toddler and the other around five or six—seemed to glean the almost reverent mood of the group, which was perched at the edge of the steamy and verdant jungle. A jungle with flora in every shade of emerald, jade, and crimson highlighted with the subtle shimmer from a rain shower that had recently passed over.
A rustle in the foliage about 60 feet away immediately caught our already-rapt attention, an almost-parting of the thick overlay of leaves and palm fronds akin to an unseen actor in a Broadway production tugging tentatively at the stage curtain to assess the waiting audience.And then we saw his body emerge from that endless sea of rippling green. Muscular, broad-shouldered, and with a luxuriant mane of flowing coppery fur.
Ritchie, the Orangutan
Ritchie, the center's alpha male orangutan descended slowly and gracefully from the treetops, maneuvering one powerful and incredibly human-like appendage after another down a rope strung through the thick forest. Once grounded he still moved slowly, with solemn intention and giant knuckles gently scraping the forest floor as he ambled calmly toward the semi-mountain of bananas, sweet potatoes and mangoes awaiting his arrival.
Cameras clicked and breaths swished in audibly amongst the 8-to-10 visitors as Ritchie reached for a banana from the pile, deftly peeling it in mere seconds and making short work of the ripe fruit within.
Respect, reverence at Semenggoh Wildlife Centre
No words were spoken amongst the spectators. We chose the Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre over other sanctuaries due to a reputation for enforcing the utmost respect for the animals in the semi-wild setting; this was no zoo and that was apparent immediately. The rangers were careful to uphold that standard of respect, and yes, even reverence, for these beautiful creatures living in the facility.
They prepped the visitors with a stern discourse on propriety during the animals' feeding time. No speaking above a whisper. No trying to approach the animals. Children (and the guide looked directly at the parents of the two young ones present) must keep their voices down also or it will be the parents’ responsibility to remove them.
Opened in 1975 to rehabilitate injured and orphaned orangutans, Semenggoh is the biggest rehabilitation facility in Serawak. It’s important to be aware that although the experience of observing these amazing animals in a semi-wild environment is one a visitor will never forget, the reserve is just that, a reserve. Its intention is to preserve, rehabilitate, return animals to the wild, and educate visitors—its draw as a tourist attraction is tertiary, not its reason for existence.
Along these lines visitors should be aware that there is never a guarantee of an orangutan sighting; in fact, if the animals fail to appear at feeding time it’s actually a positive sign that they’ve made strides to acclimate back into the natural environment and have a lesser need for the help of the facility—which is, after all, the ultimate goal.
Due to the success of the rangers' efforts over the last three decades, the forest surrounding the Semenggoh Nature Reserve is now home to a healthy and burgeoning population of orangutans. There are currently 26 semi-wild orangutans roaming the 1,800 acres of lush reserve, along with flourishing populations of exotic (and amusingly named) birds like the Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker, Red-bearded Bee-eater and the Sunda Frogmouth.
Semenggoh is easily accessible from the nearby city of Kuching by taxi or public bus with no need for a private tour. From the main bus terminal in Kuching one can catch Bus #6, 6A, 6B, or 6C to Semenggoh; the ride takes 30-45 minutes and it is absolutely worth timing your visit to coincide with the morning feeding at 9AM or the afternoon feeding at 3PM.
Semenggoh Wildlife Centre's stated goal is: “To rehabilitate confiscated wildlife that have been incapacitated or handicapped due to prolonged activity by humans with the objective of releasing them to the forests eventually.” Your small price of admission helps contribute to this goal, and even a chance to observe a creature as majestic as Ritchie in his jungle home is well worth the trip from Kuching.
After 30 or 40 minutes of watching Ritchie plow through the pile of fruit, crunching sweet potatoes in his powerful jaws and tossing countless banana peels aside as he reached for piece after piece of tropical fruit, some of the crowd grew antsy. The youngest child began to cry over an imagined slight or his own hunger and was gently carried away by his mother toward the bus stop. An older couple wandered into the gift shop to peruse mugs and t-shirts emblazoned with screen prints of baby orangutans clinging to their mothers.
But still I watched on. The juxtaposition of Ritchie’s placid, doe-like eyes peering out from his powerful, confident body, all at once graceful, clumsy, and appealingly humanoid—it was all a little too fascinating to look away. The animal I’ve identified myself in most has been (thousands of miles away in Alaska) the baby moose: awkward, gangly, maybe not the most comfortable in its own skin, but gentle and well-meaning enough. In Ritchie I could see all of humanity, and man, did I want him to stay safe and well-fed.
Getting there: To visit Semenggoh, we recommend finding accommodation in Kuching, located in Borneo, Malaysia. No overnight stays are allowed in Semenggoh Nature Reserve. To learn more information, contact the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre at +6082 618325 or +6082 618324.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.