Gatecrashers! Feeding time at Sepilok

By Margaret Histed

The rope quivers briefly and lies still. The chattering crowd falls silent, all eyes fixed on the point where it disappears into the trees. In the clammy heat of the jungle clearing a baby wails and is hushed. Now the rope is moving again, twitching energetically this time, and the atmosphere is electric with excitement. Something’s coming!

A figure emerges from the foliage and makes its way slowly along the rope, one of half a dozen strung from the surrounding trees and converging on the feeding platform. A rounded body covered with reddish brown hair like a giant coconut, it moves along underneath the rope cable-car fashion, pausing occasionally to release its grip and dangle by three, two, or even one of its elongated limbs. The Man of the Forest, the orang-utan, has come out of hiding.

A loud skittering and several monkeys scamper along another rope and reach the platform before the orang-utan. Some are mothers with tiny babies clinging to their bellies, and they all fall on the heap of fruit, hurriedly stuffing it into their mouths like overexcited children at a birthday party. It’s soon obvious which one is the dominant male, as he takes up a position on the platform and begins to repel all boarders by cuffing them around the head as they approach the food, sending them crashing into the undergrowth. He ignores the orang-utan, who has now joined him and is lazily stretching out one hand to snag some bananas while holding on to the rope above his head with the other, balancing on one leg with the second propped up against a nearby tree trunk in the casual pose of a flexible ballet dancer warming up with the standing splits.

The orang-utan rehabilitation centre at Sepilok in Malaysian Borneo rescues young animals which have been orphaned or captured for pets as the ancient rainforest is cleared to make way for palm oil production. The babies usually spend their first six years with their mothers, learning how to climb, build nests in the trees and find food, so all these skills must be taught to them in the centre before they can be released. Some are never seen again but others visit the feeding platform for years afterwards.

Two more orang-utans have now arrived. Like the first they show little interest in the rapidly disappearing pile of food – a sign that they are at last able to fend for themselves in the wild.  Meanwhile the monkeys are putting on an act worthy of a boy band, screeching non-stop as they race up and down, jumping, twirling and suddenly diving off a rope or tree branch, only to reappear a few moments later and start all over again. They’re playing to the crowd and the visitors clearly love it.

Orang-utans share some 97 per cent of their DNA with us, so it’s tempting to ascribe human feelings to them. Their vaguely human proportions and the way they move, shambling along hunched over like ageing hippies, make this easy to do. So how do they feel about being upstaged by the gatecrashers at their party? The monkeys may have had all the attention so far, but the Man of the Forest has faced much bigger challenges in his life and today he has a surprise up his woolly sleeve.

Having eaten all they can manage, the monkeys have disappeared back into the jungle along with two of the orang-utans, and the third is now slowly exiting the scene via a rope which passes almost directly over the heads of the visitors gathered at the far end of the viewing area. He pauses at the point nearest to his audience and dozens of hands clutching mobile phones and cameras rise up to take advantage of this brilliant photo opportunity. The orang-utan removes one of his own hands from the rope . . . then one foot . . . then the second foot. After hanging like an over-ripe fruit for several moments while the paparazzi snap away, he takes hold of the rope once more and turns to face outwards. This time he arranges his limbs on either side of his trunk in an impossibly double-jointed pose, looking for all the world like a shaggy jumper pegged out on a washing line to dry, before tiring of the game and resuming his progress towards the trees.

The monkeys are now all but forgotten, their antics paling in comparison to the trump card played by the Man of the Forest. The animated buzz of the visitors’ conversation slowly fades as they leave the viewing area, heading for the exit. In the silence of the empty clearing the figure of the orang-utan, a smudge of russet among the endless green, gradually shrinks to a pinpoint and is swallowed up by the jungle, while the rope continues to ripple gently for a few moments before subsiding to a quiver and lying still once more.

Margaret Histed