‘He Who Likes to Sit High’ and the Forest People

In Malay orang means “person” and utan is derived from hutan, which means “forest.”

The Malay words for the tree-loving sun bear mean “he who likes to sit high.” 

The problem I have found with a disappointingly large number of wildlife projects, is that they often cater to the humans, not the animals.  Many organisations tailor their animal rehabilitation projects to make them more attractive to people with money to spend.  They slowly and sadly become more about tourism and income, which often puts animal welfare and reintroduction into the wild lower on the agenda than financial gain and internet popularity.

Cute animal videos floating around social media are the mutts nuts at the moment, and definitely a pick me up in the middle of a boring working day, but is the desire to be part of one of these social media trends becoming more important to people than the welfare of the wild animals involved?

For example, has anybody seen those sweet slow loris videos rapidly spreading around social media?  A slow loris with his arms in the air, suggesting that he ‘loves to be tickled’.  The truth? When a slow loris raises his arms in the air it’s because he feels threatened, this is the behaviour they would display in the wild when they are under attack, because his poison (fascinatingly) is in his elbows.  People’s lack of understanding of animal habits has meant that the illegal slow loris trade throughout Asia has been booming with fresh orders for a cute new pet.  These traders remove the teeth of the animals (without anaesthetic, I might add) to ensure they cannot physically fight back when they feel threatened, making their attempts to fight off their human predators look ‘cute’.

Similarly, more and more stories are coming to light around the use of drugs to keep animals sedated while people pet them at the zoo, or ride around on their backs.  Violent domination over several species has also lead to their submission to do as they’re told for the human audience.

In more recent stories, the truth is thankfully beginning to emerge and we have heard some far more positive news in favour of animal welfare.  Petitions to stop the illegal trade of the slow loris, the final generation of Orcas at Seaworld (not quite release, but still a positive movement) and TripAdvisor has this week banned the promotion of activities involving physical contact with captive wild animals and endangered species.  While the trend for social media sharing is growing, so is the awareness of our bad habits, advertising that we can, if we choose, do better as a species.

If an opportunity presents itself, and an animal chooses to make some positive direct contact with a nearby human then I absolutely support a little paparazzi friend nearby to capture the moment, but that outcome should never be the reason for making contact in the first place.  Unless for the purpose of medical treatment, or the development of a young orphaned animal in the absence of a mother of the appropriate species, there is rarely a need for human intervention in the day to day life of a wild animal.  There are certainly exceptions, and I can’t pretend I know them all to list them here, but a photo opportunity is definitely not a good enough reason.

Wildlife volunteer projects all over the world are set up by majority with one goal in mind, to provide care, treatment and rehabilitation to animals who would otherwise not have survived alone in the wild.  These organisations should be there to aid and encourage an animal wherever possible to develop the skills required to survive on their own when the time is right to release them.

After spending a little time at the Na’an Ku Se Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia a few years ago, I learned a lot about the complicated relationships between humans and animals, and realised that release back to the wild, for various reasons, will not always be possible.  There are times when an animal has experienced so much human intervention, sometimes unavoidably, that they become ‘humanised’, making it too dangerous for them to be released to fend for themselves again.  At this point, they are basically a pet, and are better off in the care of humans than in the wild.  I also, through the other volunteers I met, learned about other organisations around the world who are doing similar work to the great efforts of Na’an ku se in rehabilitating wild animals into their natural habitats.  This information, ticking over in my mind, has transpired into a new bucket list item for me and since leaving Africa 3 years ago I have decided that I cannot bypass Borneo without spending some time working with Orangutans.


Borneo, a giant, rugged island in Southeast Asia’s Malay Archipelago, is shared by Malaysia, Indonesia and the tiny nation of Brunei. It’s known for its beaches and ancient, bio-diverse rainforest, home to wildlife including orangutans, sun bears and clouded leopards.  Kalimantan is the Indonesian part of the island.

“Skewered by the equator and roasting under a tropical sun, the steamy forests of Kalimantan serve up endless opportunities for epic rainforest exploration. The island has no volcanoes and is protected from tsunamis, which has allowed its ancient forests to grow towering trees that house some of the world’s most memorable species. The noble orangutan shares the canopy with acrobatic gibbons, while prehistoric hornbills patrol the air above.

The indigenous people, collectively known as Dayak, have long lived in concert with this rich, challenging landscape. Their longhouses dot the banks of Kalimantan’s many waterways, creating a sense of community unmatched elsewhere in a country already well-known for its hospitable people.

Kalimantan’s natural resources have made it a prime target for exploitation; just three quarters of Borneo’s lowland forests remain, and its once abundant wildlife and rich traditional cultures are rapidly disappearing.”
– Lonely Planet

Established in 1991, the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation is an Indonesian non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the Bornean orangutan and its habitat.

Established by the BOS Foundation, Samboja Lestari is an area of restored tropical rainforest near the city of Balikpapan in East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo.  The 2,000 hectare sanctuary was created with the aim of providing a safe haven for rehabilitated orangutans.

Since 2001, the land has been planted with more than a million trees covering over 1000 different species. With the growth in the forest, the density and diversity of wildlife has returned. So far 137 bird species and nine primate species have been recorded. Several Forest Schools provide natural, educational playgrounds for the orangutans.  They have also developed this area to cater for the rehabilitation of sun bears, the world’s rarest bear.

Volunteering with any organisation is often not an inexpensive endeavour.  When somebody is paying a large sum of money to go to a tropical destination and involve themselves with the development and rehabilitation of a species, they will likely expect some perks, like cute cuddly playtime with the animals, for instance.  The BOS Foundation discourage all direct contact with the animals and value the approach that public participation is based on awareness, concern and love for nature, to be more environmentally friendly and overall better for the welfare of their local orangutan population.  They value this more than they value the need to please a tourist who wants a cute holiday snap cuddling a fluffy orange baby.

Based on everything I’ve learned about this organisation so far, I’m extremely excited to be able to say that I’ve been accepted to take part in 2 weeks of enrichment, observation, husbandry, construction and maintenance for around 700 ‘forest people’ (orangutans) and approximately 50 of ‘those who like to sit high’ (sun bears), alongside the 400 highly devoted staff and experts in primatology, biodiversity, ecology, forest rehabilitation and orangutan education and healthcare.  I’ll be heading across to Borneo in early March, right after I’m finished exploring the east coast of Australia.

The ethics of this organisation seem to be completely in favour of animal welfare and support of the local community and so far everything I’ve learned suggests that this is not going to be a holiday at all, it’s going to be hard work and I’m going to learn a hell of a lot about these two fascinating species, as well as having the opportunity to take part in improving their quality of life.

I am of course looking forward to dancing with King Louie and Baloo, if the opportunity presents itself.

To Borneo!



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