Sabah: Animal Welfare

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The bus ride from KK to Sandakan is not far in kilometres, but takes hours as we wind up and down the mountainous terrain. Borneo is gorgeous country. As the bus drives along a ridge, the land falls away on both sides into deep valleys, only to rise again in big plates of rock. Homesteads and mansions perch on the tips of the hills, permanently enjoying the spectacular Swiss-like views.

For us, though, the vistas are temporary, and as we fall to the coast the mixed farms and terraces give way to palm oil plantations. For kilometre after kilometre, rows of stubby, thick-trunked palms, carefully placed in geometric perfection, move off into the distance.

I’ve mentioned before the effect is like a Photoshop clone-stamp; it looks like a lazy game designer quickly pasted the backgrounds of Donkey Kong Country into the landscape.

Unfortunately, the parallel doesn’t end there. For real-world monkeys, the geometric landscape is dangerous and threatens their existence.
An orangutan hears the dinner bells.
The monoculture forests have brought great wealth to one ape- us- but impoverished all our distant cousins who’ve lived here for millions of years. Oranguatans, macacques, proboscis monkeys, and a half-dozen others have seen their natural orchards bulldozed and burned, wiped out for inedible palm fruit. Even if they could eat it, it’s doubtful humans would let them. So they starve, if not shot or poisoned.

We visit two sanctuaries for the simians. One, the Sepilok Orangutan Centre, is supported by government and NGO programs. It was opened in the 1960s, and has decades of experience in professional animal care and management. The brown-orange apes, when found orphaned, sick or in captivity, are brought here for rehabilitation. A video show at the centre informs us this can take years, or even decades; some never leave at all.

The well-funded centre holds carefully-orchestrated public feeding shows for visitors. For about ten dollars, we’re let onto a walkway that skirts the edge of the 5500-hectare rain forest preserve.

We are asked to be quiet, and the elevated wooden path opens up to a platform for viewing. A few metres away, ropes in the trees lead to a series of wooden platforms. The morning crowd of about 200 is hushed and expectant. It’s all very respectful, very dignified.

Orangutans are solitary creatures, but will come together for feeding events. This is one of them. Soon a quiet murmur runs through the crowd, people pointing and the click of cameras. Children squeal in delight and are shushed. Silently, gracefully, the apes swing down the ropes to the stations.

Two professional but slightly bored-looking attendants step up onto the platforms and pour out melon rinds and bananas. Fruit is the orang’s natural diet. There’s no rush, no scramble, among the orangutans. Small young females and larger mothers carefully climb over and around each other to pick up fruit to eat. The only chaos comes from the smaller, more hyper macacques, grabbing, fighting, and hissing over the pieces they steal from the mellow  orangutans.
An older park ranger comes up and points to the trees behind us. “There’s a male, a wild one,” he says. “Not from the park.” Half-hidden, three stories up in the canopy we glimpse the wide, grey head of an adult male. “He’s here for the females,” the ranger smiles.

There are less than 10,000 orangutans left in the world, and it’s thought they could be gone in a decade. This preserve will be one of the last stands. The orangs we see today will slowly be weaned off human feeding, taken to more distant points in the preserve, hopefully to return to more wild behaviour. Maybe to mate with the male just up in the trees here today.

We feel privileged to have caught a glimpse of a wild male. So few left. Such need.

The next day we’re taken through more plantations, and past giant artificial ponds for growing shrimp, a half-hour from Sandakan, closer to the coast. We’re here to see the proboscis monkeys of Sabah.
The proboscis, from its name, has a large, flappy brownish-pink nose. It sort of looks like a caricature of Jimmy Durante, made even more humourous with the addition of a good-old boy pot belly.
You can get close enough to touch them.
The orangutan centre was a scientific and professional animal management facility; the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is different. It was set up by the owners of the company whose palm-oil plantations have helped wipe out most of the monkey’s habitat. A video about the monkeys (viewed during the tour) informs us the owners, two brothers, saw a troupe of the animals after they tore apart a worker’s shack. They took pity on them. They decided not to wipe out the scraps of mangrove forest remaining to eke out a few more ringit from the swampy land. They left it for the monkeys.

A noble deed, but so much of the monkey’s habitat has been wiped out there’s little hope they could survive for long unaided in the area. Thus, twice daily, troupes of the orange-brown monkeys come down from the trees to feeding platforms. Sanctuary workers and tour guides call out to the monkeys and spread food out. It’s all pretty casual. Walkways allow groups of tourists like us to watch.

It’s an amazing sight, I have to admit. The proboscis is a big ape, the largest ones the size of a 10 year old. It has a leaping gait, throwing itself forward as it moves. Its huge fangs belie the fact it’s a herbivore. Mangrove leaves are its food. It has to eat a lot of them, thus the huge pot bellies of the classic healthy proboscis.

These monkeys are acclimatized to tourists. They leap onto the platform as human guides call them. They wander within arm’s distance of me, watchful but calm. It’s an absolutely thrilling, unique experience. And sort of sad.

I notice these monkeys don’t seem that fat. The company handlers are feeding the proboscis melon rinds and bread. They fight the most over the bread scraps.

These monkeys are being fed the equivalent of junk food, juicy, soft fruit and bread instead of the tough mangrove leaves of their natural diet. The better to attract them to the cameras, I guess. They take the food out of tourists’ hands as we pose beside them.

These wild animals have been acclimatized in a way that would make any good Yukon park ranger cringe. A fed bear is a dead bear, we say in the territory. A fed monkey…?

The video about the monkeys says the company has pledged to restore more habitat for the proboscis to survive. I wonder if those good intentions will last through the company’s next hard times, or the next corporate owners. It all seems a little too little, too casual, too late.

And I watch the little proboscis babies, clinging to their mother’s fur. Will they even have a taste for mangrove leaves, after a lifetime diet of fruit and bread?

For the welfare of these monkeys, we’ll have to get them off human welfare.
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