Looking into their eyes, you can see their minds at work. They’re more intelligent than we realize. The red haired apes even look human with their ability to hold objects in their hands. Orangutans are endangered and only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, in Malaysia and Indonesia respectively, and there are estimated to be less than 50,000 left in the wild. They’ve become victims to habitat loss, especially due to the controversial palm oil industry.
Borneo was always on the itinerary for the trip, but after some rough weather in Kota Kinabalu, we ended up going to Kuching instead. Which is how we ended up at Matang Wildlife Centre for what became the highlight of my trip. The group arrived at the centre for the Heart 2 Heart program, which involves an afternoon of volunteering and getting to know the majestic creatures. Ben Fogle even experienced it!
Located on the edge of Kubah National Park, Matang Wildlife Centre is different from other wildlife habitats. The orangutans and other animals in cages are ones who would not survive on their own in the wild. They’ve been confiscated or donated from zoos and the illegal pet trade. Most of the orangutans actually live in the forest or are slowly reintroduced after time around people.
Our day of volunteering started early as we changed into official shirts, slipped on rubber boots, masks and helmets to clean out alpha male Peter’s enclosure. We were given water and scrub brushes, where we made it squeaky clean and left bananas and guavas throughout for our orangutan friend to find. Then we made a Martha Stewart-style salad with tapioca leaves, nuts and honey wrapped in a burlap bag to keep both their bodies and minds working at their best.
One of the first things we were shown upon arriving at the center were images of injuries caused by orangutans when humans got too close or mistreated them. The bites were gruesome and bloody, certainly not something you’d want to risk in the name of a photo. The folks at Matang wanted to reiterate how important it is that wild animals are not meant to be pets. They’re not here for our entertainment or to perform, as I learned at the Elephant Nature Park. I was stunned as I looked through the #orangutan hashtag on Instagram, where I saw baby orangutans being held by backpackers at zoos in Indonesia.
Before they are re-released, orangutans that come to Matang go through a long process to ensure their wellbeing. First, the staff gathers information on how they’d been living previously. Next, they’ll be quarantined to check for any health problems. They’ll be treated for any issues and be nurtured back to an adequate orangutan diet. Third, they’ll go through three training stages, starting with enclosures, then periphery forest and finally deep forest release. The last step involves completely releasing them back into the wild while still monitoring their progress. If they no longer return to the centre for food, they’ve been completely rehabilitated.
Each orangutan has its own unique story. Aman, the dominant male pictured above, was blind for ten years before becoming the first successful orangutan cataract surgery patient. He was reaching out because he knew it was feeding time. His large face plates make him the most attractive to the female orangutans. Others are orphaned or have gotten into fights with other orangutans.
While the orangutans are certainly the main draw to Matang Wildlife Centre, it’s also home to a number of other creatures, including native birds like the hornbill and pet species cockatoos, as well as a gibbon, turtles, snakes and young sun bears.
If You Go
Visitors can experience the Heart 2 Heart Volunteer day for 300 ringgit (around $100 USD) or volunteer for two weeks or longer. If you’re visiting for the day, you may not be overly impressed with seeing only the animals in cages, as this is first and foremost a rehabilitation centre. Matang Wildlife Centre is located in Kubah National Park, Kuching, Sarawak, 94500, Lundu, Sarawak, Malaysia.
My visit to Matang Wildlife Centre was arranged by Sarawak Tourism and Tourism Malaysia.