By JAMES RITCHIE
IN the still of the night, the headhunters sneaked up to the longhouse and prepared to attack.
Suddenly a troop of massive primates came out of the forests and headed towards the invaders.
Instead of standing their ground, the warriors fled, mistaking the lumbering creatures for “bearded soldiers” and the village was saved.
This story has been retold many times by the Iban of Banting who have since been sworn friends of the “Man of the Forest
” – Sarawak’s orang utan.
But not all of Borneo has been sympathetic to the orang utan's (Pongo Pygmaeus) cause.
Despite their loyalty to humankind, the orang utan soon found their distant cousins were more a foe than a friend.
Excited by the discovery of the “Ape Man” species, anthropologists and scientists went to study the primates estimated to be several-hundred-thousand strong on the island of Borneo, and in the process, thousands of animals were captured or shot.
In 2002, when Wilfred Landong, a descendant of the people of Banting, was appointed general manager of Protected Areas and Biodiversity Conservation of Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC), he was appalled by the fact that the orang utan population in Sarawak had fallen to about 2,000 animals.
“I was three months on the job and on an assignment to Batang Ai when I came across the carcass of a female orang utan beside a river bank. It was a shock for me.
“Apparently, the helpless animal had been shot by poachers.
“It had managed to get away from its assailant and managed to crawl to the riverbank before it died,” he recalled.
From that day on, Wilfred promised himself he would do everything to protect the orang utan and its habitat.
Thanks to the concern of others in authority such as the Sarawak government, the Batang Ai National Park
and its adjoining Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Reserve
have been set aside for this fast disappearing anthropoid.
“Fortunately, the orang utan incident in Batang Ai was a rare case of illegal hunting. From our investigations, the locals (Iban) revere the orang utan and would not have been involved in the killing. We suspect the perpetrators had come from the other side of the border,” said Wilfred.
A century ago, Sarawak’s orang utan roamed the forests and foraged in the lowlands. But when man intruded into his territory, the conflict started. For subsistence, the natives cleared large tracts of land by felling the primary forests. The fallen trees were in turn burnt to enable the people to plant padi and other crops.
Over the last 100 years, maybe a quarter of the 12 million hectares of forests in Sarawak had gone under the axe and “slash and burn” farming leaving very little tracts of virgin jungle.
With the destruction of the forests, the orang utan left for other regions where there were other sources of food.
Italian naturalist Odoardo Beccari in the book Wanderings in the Great Forests of Borneo wrote:
“Usually arboreal, they descend at such times to the ground, and, on reaching the padi fields, collect a big sheaf of rice with heavy ripe ears, and holding it under their arms, they get back up on their trees and enjoy their plunder in peace and comfort.
“They do much injury to fruit trees and are especially fond of durians, committing great ravage to the fruits even when unripe. The Dayaks were, therefore, much delighted when we killed them.”
Beccari’s studies found that even in the late 1800s, the majority of the orang utan were found along the Sadong (Ulu Sebuyau) and Batang Lupar (Sri Aman Division) rivers which flow across their sanctuaries. There were also found along the Sarawak River, Bengoh Hills (in the Penrissen mountains) and even in Limbang.
Over the years, man forced the orang utan out of its habitat, and with illegal wildlife trade reaping millions of dollars, the population of the primates began to shrink. Over the last 50 years, logging, agricultural activities and other forms of development have taken their toll.
However, unlike other states in Malaysia, large-scale oil palm estates were opened in Sarawak only recently. Most of the areas cleared for oil palm were native land (land cleared for agricultural purposes for several generations) devoid of the great apes.
Wilfred said: “As far as we know, there are no reports of orang utan found in oil palm estates. In any case, the plantations have never been the natural habitat of the primates.”
He said that Iban folk from Lanjak Entimau and Batang Ai have become protectors of the orang utan.
“For them, it is taboo to capture or kill the orang utan.”
In fact, orang utan in the protected forests of Batang Ai could be increasing in population with the protection accorded to them.
Sarawak has established a legal framework for wildlife protection with the introduction of the Wildlife and Protection Ordinance of 1998. Highly viable areas of orang utan are totally protected.
There is now a centre of excellence for orang utan research at Nanga Delok (Batang Ai) where local and foreign scientists and experts are working closely and exchanging notes to protect the primate.
Wilfred’s deputy, Dick Cotter, said that SFC was making an inventory of orang utan in the 27,275ha proposed Ulu Sebuyau national park.
He said that together with Lanjak Entimau, Batang Ai and Ulu Sebuyau, the orang utans will have a total area of almost 250,000ha to forage in.
“We don’t know what to expect in Ulu Sebuyau. We could find a few orang utan or a few dozen. But we’d be happy if there were more. After all, they are among Malaysia's important mascots,” he said.
Apart from seeking wild orang utans, the corporation's officials take pride in their wildlife sanctuaries of Semenggok and Matang, not far from Kuching.
Semenggok has been rehabilitating and relocating the primates for many years and its current population stands at 32.
The “star” attraction at Semenggok is Ritchie, a 1.37m tall and 90kg male orang utan named after a reporter who “rescued” the six-month-old from an illegal wildlife trader in Batang Ai in 1989.
The young primate (about 45.72cm tall at that time) had been squeezed into a small square cage and hardly had room to move. Apparently, it was on its way to the home of an animal enthusiast.
The has seven animals, either rescued from captivity or hurt, which are undergoing serious rehabilitation. About a dozen animals from the centre have been released into the adjoining Kubah National Park.
Sundai anak Silang, an Iban Master of Science (Wildlife Management) graduate specialising in research, wildlife survey, monitoring and primate study, said in the early 1900s, there was an estimated 200,000 orang utan in Borneo and Sumatra. Now, there is an estimated 27,000 in Borneo (5,000 of the Pongo Abelii species in Sumatra) with about 2,000 in Sarawak.
“They are very shy, elusive and arboreal and spend most of the time in trees. They build four to five nests a day where they rest and their home range is sometimes 1,000ha for the male or from 50ha to 300ha for the female. They mainly eat fruits, insects and occasionally eggs and small vertebrate.”
The orang utan in Ulu Sebuyau thrive in fresh water and peat swamps while others do well in the hill dipterocarp forests of Batang Ai and Lanjak Entimau.
Sundai, also the corporation’s primate expert from Simunjan, said the quest to locate the odd orang utan roaming the vast forests is a continuing effort. He said that protection was a huge challenge because they were highly mobile animals and have a massive home range.
“The home range for a male orang utan is sometimes up to 10 square km while for the female it is smaller between 0.3 to three square km. In the wild, when fruits are abundant, orang utan will stay at the same site until all the fruits are gone. Sometimes they build nests on the fruit trees,” he said.
Sundai has been involved in orang utan research since 2002 with continuous research done in Batang Aia and Lanjak Entimau. The last expedition was during the International Media and Environment Summit in Kuching in November last year.
He added: “What I hope to achieve for the primate is that they continue to exist in their natrural habitat and are well protected. So, everybody should work together to ensure the orang utan will be there for future generations.”
On Dec 27 last year, the corporation's officials were thrilled when they found a huge male orang utan and its pregnant partner near its nest, barely 30m from the Nanga Delok ranger station.
It was an auspicious omen because of the corporation hope that the primate population will increase over the coming years. Orang utan females produce between four to five babies per lifetime (about 40 years in the wild).
It was timely because Geoff Vincent (an Australian who had accompanied Wilfred and other corporation members on official duty) was able to see for himself that the corporation was gaining ground in the battle to save the primates – at least in Sarawak.
“Vincent’s assignment in Nanga Delok was very important – to determine whether Sarawak’s 190,000ha Batang Ai-Lanjak Entimau and Indonesia’s 800,000ha Betung Karihun National Park could be accorded the status of a “Trans-Boundary World Heritage Site” – the first of its kind in the Asia-Pacific region,” said Wilfred.
Vincent was the lead evaluator of a mission on the final assessment of nomination made in 2002.
“We are keeping our fingers crossed. If Lanjak Entimau (and Batang Ai) and Betung Karihun are recognised as a world heritage site, the orang utan will have a place where they will be safe from harm.”
Hopefully, with Sarawak’s efforts, the orang utan will finally have a permanent Shangrila.Source: The Star