Sepilok Liaison Officer’s Report 2014

To be honest, growing up in a city, the closest I got to the great outdoors and wildlife encounters had been on screen. I loved watching wildlife documentaries and marvelling at the world’s strange and exotic creatures, not really believing that I would ever get to meet them!

I’m lucky in that I’m quite well travelled. I’d been to the Amazon rainforest, which was amazing but not very successful in terms of wildlife spotting. So when Sue offered me the chance to work as Liaison Officer at Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, I knew it would be a golden opportunity to see some of my favourite mammals up close!

So far the experience has been even better than I’d hoped! First there’s the forest itself; so green and lush, it stirs up recollections of Tolkien’s elf kingdoms. And so alive, too! There’s exotic birdsong during the day, the bizarre croaking of the frogs at night, and the constant buzzing of thousands of insects. One of my favourite sounds here is the dinosaur-esque cry of the hornbills; a squawk that surely belongs in another era.

On my days off I usually opt to go on a long trek through the Kabili Reserve, an area of primary rainforest which is home to an abundance of different species. I’ve been lucky enough to spot gibbons swinging through the treetops at an incredible speed, whooping at dawn.

The diversity is incredible and the variation between animals of the same family is immense.

Thankfully, as I’m working on the edge of the reserve, I get to check out the local wildlife constantly. Sitting in the Sepilok reception, I often see the pig-tailed macaques causing trouble outside, and there’s a resident slow loris that can be seen at night in the car park. Once we had a visit from a red leaf monkey, a langur with fiery red hair which lit up in the afternoon sun.

But of course, it’s the almighty orangutan that really brought me to Sepilok. And what incredible creatures they are! The more I see of and learn about them, the more I’m amazed by how much we have in common, and the more I realise how lucky I am to be here.

I have a particular soft spot for some of the more mischievous ones, like C.T. who seems desperate to get her hands on a T-shirt. Once she tried to steal a staff polo shirt from the café and when that failed, she raided my stall! Sen is just as cheeky. Several times I’ve seen him sitting on the roof of the café drinking an ice-cold beverage, seized from an unsuspecting visitor.

Every day I accompany tourists to a viewing platform to watch the orangutans feeding and socialising and you never know who you might see there. We’ve had a few visits from wild males who come for the females! A male orangutan will normally travel with a female, mating with her until he thinks she’s pregnant then he scarpers. Not exactly romantic, but interesting
to observe!

Most people, when picturing an adult male orangutan, will imagine a dominant (‘flanged’) male – cheek pads, throat pouch and a big hunky body! However, lots of males won’t actually reach this stage of maturity but are fully capable of reproducing yet look similar to adult females. It’s these ‘unflanged’ males that we usually see at the feeding platform, as they roam far and wide to find a mate. A male will only start to develop flanges if the social conditions are right, and the change can happen very quickly, in just a few months!

I was lucky enough to see Yokmel, who has very recently become a flanged male. And what a magnificent sight! He’s much bigger than any of the other orangutans, and his cheek pads form a dramatic frame around his face. His hair is very long and he has an enormous throat sack under his chin. He came to the platform when there were no females in sight which makes me wonder whether he’s started using a longcall. A flanged male has it easy when it comes to mating. All he has to do is sit back, long-call away, and wait for a female to seek him out!

Life at Sepilok is great and I’m even starting to envy the orangutans. They live such a peaceful existence, gradually making their way between the tree-tops, observing the world below.

If only I had hands instead of feet!

Saph Gordon