Dear Readers, my trip to Borneo feels as if it was about a thousand years ago, what with everything that’s happened since I got home. But it was such a special time that I thought I’d carry on sharing it with you, especially as it might be quite a while before any of us can go anywhere exciting again. The natural world is still out there, making babies and eating and sleeping and getting on quite nicely without us, thank you very much.
We were miles away from this orangutan, sitting in a boat watching some macaques, when our guide got a call that the mother and baby had been spotted.
‘She’s about 25 minutes away, and she might move on. What do you want to do?’ our guide Hazwan asked us.
Well, you can imagine the answer to that question. The boat did a U-turn and off we went up the main channel, holding onto our hats and keeping our fingers crossed. When we turned a bend on the river, Hazwan breathed an audible sigh of relief.
‘She’s still there’, he said. And there, in the tree in front of us, sat a mother orangutan, calmly plucking the leaves from a nearby tree and watching us with an expression of mild interest.
Since we were in Sepilok we had only seen one orangutan, in a tree in the distance. As there were so few other tourists we could sit there in our boat, engine off, and enjoy watching this one going about her business.
As you can imagine, the whole question of parents and children is particularly sensitive for me at the moment, but looking at these photos, taken by some of my fellow travellers, I love the way that the mother is so matter-of-fact, dangling from the trees and trusting that her baby will hang on. She is both tender and pragmatic, and she has the confidence of someone who has maybe done this before, or who had a good mother herself. So many of the babies that we saw at Sepilok were literally ripped from their mothers breasts. They have lost everything, and will have to learn all that they need to know from peers and from humans.
Mother orangutans have only one baby every 8-9 years – the longest birth interval of any mammal. The babies are in constant physical contact with their mother’s body for the first five years of their lives. When mother orangutans wander into palm oil plantations, they are often targeted for their babies which fetch a high price on the lucrative international pet market. A mother orangutan will fight to the death to protect her baby. It’s no wonder that these extraordinary creatures are on the critically-endangered list.
Female orangutans are much smaller than males, and can therefore access food on the spindlier branches of the trees. They also require less food, even when lactating. Males, on the other hand, can use their strong jaws to crack into sturdier fruits such as those of the Mezzetia tree, the seeds of which require a pressure of 6000 newtons to break them (this is equivalent to the weight of about six humans).
For preference, orangutans eat fruit – it seems that the energy content of the food, in the form of sugar, is more important than the protein content. The next favourite food is unripe seeds, which is unfortunate for the plant: ripe seeds pass through the body of the orangutan and are dispersed, but unripe seeds will not germinate. We have already noted several times that the fruiting of trees in the dipterocarp forest occurs only for a three-month period every three to four years, and during the rest of the time animals must make do with whatever is available. Our mother orangutan was eating the youngest leaves that she could find, probably because the older leaves have a higher tannin and toxin content. Figs, bark, palm hearts (which obviously increases conflict with humans) and even flowers are also eaten, plus orangutans have been seen to munch on the occasional slow-moving small mammal such as the appropriately named slow loris.
Orangutans are extremely intelligent animals: I remember seeing a captive orangutan pick up a traffic cone, walk over to the moat of their enclosure, fill the traffic cone with water and drink from it. Clearly, tool use comes naturally to these animals, and in the wild they have been seen using twigs to extract the seeds from the fruit of the Neesia synandra tree. These seeds have evolved to be dispersed by hornbills, and the fruit is covered with irritant hairs, which the orangutan can avoid by poking them out with a twig.
Watching this mother as she plucked each leaf from the tree, inspected it closely and then popped it into her mouth felt like such a privilege. When she moved from one tree to another she would sway the tree that she was in until it was near enough for her to grab the one next to it, and then gradually ease herself onto it. Orangutans are not as agile as gibbons or as graceful as langurs, but they have a kind of purposefulness that is intriguing to watch. I felt as if an orangutan would never do anything accidentally – they are at home in the trees, but they know their limitations.
There are less than 62,000 orang utans left in Borneo, and there is such pressure on their habitat that it is very difficult to find suitable places to release those who are being rehabilitated. It is true that you can buy ‘sustainable palm oil’, but most conservationists believe that there is no such thing, because the stuff is basically untraceable. I am not sure what the answer is, but I do know that I check packaging obsessively to see if what I’m buying contains palm oil, and if it does I put it back on the shelf. Maybe the answer is for people in the West to buy tracts of land and pay people to preserve it, as has been tried in places like Ecuador. All I do know is that if these animals are allowed to vanish from the earth, we will have lost something precious and rare, a window into another way of being.