Borneo expert and MTS guide Charlie Ryan answers our burning questions on where to go to see orangutans in their natural habitat and gives us insider information on his favorite orangutan, Alibaba, who lives in the beautiful Danum Valley. Just look at the size of his cheek pads!
What is it like to encounter an orangutan up close for the first time?
Amazing! Some people have the expectation that it will be just like seeing the mountain gorillas, which it is not. Orangutans are solitary, and they generally keep to themselves. They are the most arboreal great ape, so sometimes when you see them they are over 100 feet above you. If you spend a few days in Danum Valley, you have a very high chance of getting a good close-up view of an orangutan in the wild. The more you walk, the higher your chances are. There is an excitement to the search, walking slowly, listening for sounds of them eating, or the smell of their musk. To finally encounter one is an experience few will ever forget.
Personally I like finding the big males, or mother and baby. The old dominant males are grumpy, and you can see it in their behavior and mannerisms. Their booming long calls, that raises the hair on your neck, the branches they break to show you their dominance; they put on quite the show! And to watch a mother and baby, you can really see just how similar they are to humans. The protective nature of the mom, the kisses she constantly gives the infant, and how they play together in the tree tops.
How endangered are orangutans and how many are left in Borneo?
The population of orangutans is constantly threatened. The fires of 2015 in Indonesia decimated the population of wild orangutans and the IUCN has said they are going to change the classification to Critically Endangered. Sabah is the only region that has a stable population of orangutans on the planet. There are about 10,000 orangutans left in Sabah, and that number is maintaining. There are +- 35,000 orangutans in Indonesian Borneo, but this number is dropping fast. Some estimate that up to 1,000 die per year due to logging, hunting, and plantation conversion.
What are the main threats to orangutans?
Deforestation for palm oil plantations is the main threat to orangutans. The current estimate is that Indonesian Borneo has lost 70-80% of its forests in the past 20 years due to deforestation. Sabah in Malaysian Borneo maintains its forests at 50% forest coverage, and this number is holding stable. There is a lot of oil palm plantations in East Sabah, but the Heart of Borneo still remains beautiful forest.
What is being done to protect them?
The creation of more forest reserves and conservation areas in Sabah is vital to the survival of orangutans. In the past couple years, there has been approximately 250,000 hectares of forest gazzeted as Class 1 protection forest surrounding Danum, to increase the habitat for the wildlife.
Is there one orangutan that you are especially fond of?
Alibaba, the largest dominant male orangutan that lives near the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in Danum Valley. He has lived in the forest near the lodge for his entire life and he's between 40 and 45 years old. This is about the maximum lifespan of an orangutan in the wildlife, so he is coming to the end soon. He has brought joy and memories to thousands of guests who have had the pleasure to see him when he makes appearances. He is a bully, constantly beating up Abu, the other dominant male that lives in the area. I have seen Abu many times with bite marks and hair ripped out from an encounter with Alibaba. The males "long calls" are believed to be warning calls to other males that they are in the area. By nature, dominant males must fight when they encounter each other to prove their dominance.
Where are the best places to see orangutans in the wild?
The best places to see orangutans in the wild are on the Kinabatangan River and Danum Valley. In the Kinabatangan River, there is an abundance of orangutans. You are searching for them by boat, so sometimes you are looking at them from a bit further away, if they are on a tree that is pushed back from the river. In Danum, you are searching by foot, following the trails and searching for evidence of them being there.
Why should people travel to Borneo to see orangutans?
It's important for people to come see orangutans in their natural habitat to become educated about the environmental issues that impact these great apes. I believe seeing orangutans in the wild is one of the most amazing wildlife experiences to be had on this planet. And it's not just about orangutans, there are pygmy elephants, gibbons, langurs, wild cats, sun bears, hornbills—the amount of fauna here is amazing!
Charlie Ryan interviewed by Heather Howard
Charlie grew up between Hawaii and California. He has had a passion for outdoor adventures, traveling, and nature his entire life. He is particularly fascinated by the ecology of tropical rainforests. Hawaii's lush jungles first caught his attention, Central America’s rainforests broadened his horizons and, finally, he found Borneo. Well rounded in the ecology of the Bornean rainforest, he is experienced with species identification of mammals, birds, amphibians, and snakes. He has strong leadership abilities and is comfortable in any situation. Charlie has lived in Borneo for the last three years, working with different local communities, and he spent nine months working with Mescot (www.mescot.org), a community-based forest restoration project in the Lower Kinabatangan Floodplain. He then worked with NGOs doing humanitarian work with an indigenous group called the Penan. He speaks Bahasa Malay and has strong connections with people working to save this beautiful region. Charlie looks forward to meeting you and sharing this adventure with you.
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