Katie Losey discusses the most stunning virgin on earth, the world’s most adorable redhead, and why meeting orangutans in their forest home is possibly the best way to save them.
It’s possible I held my breath through the entire 28 minutes of The Orphaned Orangutan and Green the Film at last year’s Wildlife Conservation Film Festivals. After I pulled myself together, I knew meeting these ginger gentlemen in person would ignite my spirit at the core. I walked in my apartment that night and watched this 2-minute clip from the film and just like that—my future plans for convertibles and carafes in Croatia flipped to Borneo and its 130 million year-old virgin rainforest with these magnetic little residents.
My Birds-Eye View of Borneo
Even before we landed, reality set in. My window seat revealed Borneo’s legendary rainforests carved up by tidy rows of seemingly endless palm plantations and logging rigs. I looked down at busy roads leading trucks through once inaccessible forests; a particularly difficult sight since not long ago, orangutans could swing branch by branch across Borneo’s treetops. No more.
Palm oil, logging, mining, forest fires, and the illegal pet trade are some of the biggest culprits. The oil from the palm oil tree’s red prickly fruit is in everything from chocolate and shampoo to lipstick and biofuel, and the timber industry supplies exotic wood for anything from furniture to loose-leaf paper and knickknacks. The illegal pet trade flourishes in these conditions; mothers are killed and their babies kept as pets or sold in the local markets. The result—overnight, million year-old forest and their skyscraping trees are plummeting to the ground, their unrivaled biodiversity crashing with it.
The Most Unique Orphanage on Earth
We grabbed our Patagonia bags in Sandakan’s tiny airport and took off for the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Center, easily the most adorable orphanage on earth. While every orangutan at the center’s story is unique, there’s obvious common ground: his or her life in the wild came to a jolting halt. Since 1964, the Center has rehabilitated orphaned orangutans with the hopes of transitioning them back into the wild, so one day, they can come and go as they please. Simple in theory, but it’s complicated. The orphans’ needs are physical, psychological and emotional.
Our wonderful guide had the one-in-a-million job of standing in as a surrogate mother to various orphans over the decades. A guide by day, a parent by night. He explained his duties for one recent infant: changing her diaper, bottle-feeding her all hours of the evening and providing the tenderness and love she craved when she was awake. I wanted to sign up then and there.
With a nearly 97% DNA match, we have a lot in common. Orangutans feel emotions just as we do. They whine when they’re grumpy, goof around when they’re upbeat, and cry when they’re sad. They even get the giggles! But very much unlike us, their populations are dwindling.
Due to the potential for disease to spread between humans and apes, we did not meet the infants in quarantine during our visit (good news for future visitors—a new visible nursery is currently being built to get around this!). But, observing the morning feeding for the more independent adults offered a snapshot of how goofy these scruffy redheads really are. We watched as they showed off their acrobatic skills, hung out with their friends (literally) and guzzled as many buckets of milk and bananas as their little round tummies could handle.
Sepilok’s Bumping Nightlife
Although orangutans were the initial draw, even Sepilok’s bite-sized residents were worth writing home about. Oddly there was no better way to see them than in the pitch black. After the mid-day heat died down, the wildlife came alive. We felt like legit rangers as we carved our way along the forest floor; we watched flying squirrels launch across the sky at dusk; we locked eyes with a slow loris; we dodged hungry leeches (actually kinda fun); we listened as tree frogs used empty trees as megaphones to amplify their mating calls; we even observed a tiny snake curled up on a leaf, fast asleep (adorable!).
130 Million Year-Old Rainforest
After two days of cruising along the Kinabatangan River and its smaller tributaries, where howling gibbons replaced honking horns and spotting monitor lizards and proboscis monkeys was swapped for our usual people watching, we headed to our final stop: Danum Valley. A dirt road led us there, the first sign that whatever awaited us was worth it. Second sign: the pygmy elephant droppings spotted along the way.
We settled into the Borneo Rainforest Lodge, one of the most impressive eco-lodges I’ve ever stayed in—in any country—to the point that we weren’t phased to hear that we were in the same villa that Prince William and Kate stayed in during their stay. Borneo Rainforest Lodge is equipped with gorgeous views, outdoor hot tubs, dedicated intelligent guides, and a brilliant concept—preserve Malaysia’s most valuable natural resource while providing jobs, educating locals and visitors about the region, and making money in the process. Smart! Then there’s the food. After fourths, we were ready for our first hike.
After thirty minutes beneath the canopy of eight-hundred year old trees, our guide alerted us we were making a detour—his walkie talkie informed him a mother and her baby were spotted nearby! We worked our way through the forest floor and there they were, propped up in the treetops. No binoculars necessary. I watched them as they prepped their nest for the night. The mother grabbed twigs, slowly adding them to the base, while her backpack-sized sidekick ventured just an arm-length to practice gathering, too. She emulated everything her mama did, and I thought how challenging it would be for a human to attempt to fill in this role. Before I could finish my thought, they both peered down at me. My heart skipped a beat—then the little one hopped back onto her mom and tucked herself into the security of her red scruffy hair.
Experiencing this in the wild filled me with so much happiness. The Danum Valley fulfilled all of my yearnings for discovery and adventure that I have had since I was a little girl. I write this in hopes to inspire others to live out their impulse and to witness this small corner of idyllic Borneo for themselves.
I’ve tried to describe how brilliant this virgin rainforest really is, but I don’t do it justice. For me, it was a place that typifies the true magnificence of nature. Everyday the residents of Danum Valley continue on: the centuries-old trees soar above the clouds and an orchestra of cicadas intermittent with honking hornbills and countless other exquisite birds sing along.
This is a forest that does not know bulldozers or chainsaws—it marches on just as it was intended. And although sun bears, rhinos, pygmy elephants, and thousands of other species (new species are discovered every day) live here, the future of this fabled forest largely rests on the shoulders of its most photogenic resident: the orangutan.
I hope that before it’s too late, and neat plantations of palm replace unruly forests, our visits will speak for themselves. Our choice to vacation in what’s left of Borneo’s wild land for the chance to witness an orangutan swing from the treetops with her baby, or to snap a National Geographic caliber photo of a proboscis monkey crossing the river, or to listen to the chatter of endemic birdlife—will provide a different type of hope and livelihood for the local people. I believe it already is. Our presence proved the orangutan is more valuable left in the treetops, the jungles more valuable left alone.
I believe meeting orangutans in their forest home is the best way to save them.
If you’re interested in learning more about our private trips to Borneo and exploring these legendary forests, please visit our journeys to Malaysia and Indonesia. The region couples well with other destinations in Asia including Peninsular Malaysia, Bali, Hong Kong, and Singapore. In the past year, Katie visited Malaysian Borneo and Matt LaPolice Indonesian Borneo; they are both more than happy to discuss their adventures with you. Katie highly recommends watching The Orphaned Orang-Utan and Green The Film for a comprehensive look at the plight of these amazing animals from home.