Entering the great apes’ domain

Ritchie, the alpha male.

Ritchie, the alpha male.

SOON enough, after I arrived, I could hear branches rustling, and as I looked up towards the sky, I saw dark shapes moving high among the forest canopy.

They were ‘the men of the forest’ — the orangutans of  Semenggoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre — slowly making their way towards the feeding platform near the information centre.

The platform is located at a clearing area against a huge tree, about 50 metres from the roped-off observation centre.

It was so amazing coming face to face with the endangered orangutans of Borneo. These graceful, red-haired great apes are really active, alternating between eating, climbing and swinging across the suspended ropes strung between the trees, leading to the feeding platform.

On the platform were some food — bananas and sweet potatoes. Three of the primates had shown up. There was seven-year-old Endu, Delima’s youngest offspring. After being orphaned, Endu was cared for by her sister, Selina.

Making her way to the platform, Endu was closely followed by Selina and one other relative — Anaku.

Endu was really cute and playful, even taking some time to pose for professional and amateur photographers among tourists while descending to the platform.

When I turned to look, I saw her munching some food before stuffing her mouth with more food, especially bananas.

When Selina and Anaku clambered onto the platform, Endu climbed back up to the rope to eat by herself.

Anaku, 10, is the first offspring of Analisa and Seduku’s first grandchild, making him the first of the third generation of orangutans at the centre. His name is a combination of Ana from Analisa (mother) and Ku from Seduku (grandmother).

It is said since a very young age, he has shown remarkable jungle skills and has now grown to be an independent young male, bravely venturing into the forest of Semenggoh on his own.

Selina, born in 2004, is the first daughter of Delima, and said to have inherited her mother’s unique sense of style.

The drama-queen princess has now transformed into a very popular belle among the male orangutans and is currently Ritchie’s girlfriend.

After the death of Delima, Selina has reportedly taken on the role of mother to her young sister, Endu.

Then, we proceeded to the platform inside the park, and having her meal was 20-year-old Analisa, the first offspring of Seduku and the first female orangutan born in Semenggoh.

She became a mother at age of 10 to Anaku in 2006 and gave birth the second time to Digital Guro in 2012.

Her mother Seduku is the ‘Grand Old Lady’ of Semengoh and a grandmother now at 55.

Her playful nature is akin to Delima’s and she is often seen having a tumble on the ground and swinging among the trees.

Endu enjoys her meal.

Endu enjoys her meal.

Oh hail ‘king’ Ritcher

The ‘Grand Old Lady’ and Ritchie, the big boss at Semenggoh, however, did not appear on my recent visit.

I was hoping to see ‘king’ Ritchie again. Although he did not show up, I could still remember my first visit to the centre about five years ago when the ‘lord’ who rules this patch of forest, plunked down the trees in one mighty leap for his breakfast.

As we were taking pictures of the orangutans enjoying their meals, suddenly, some of the young males grabbed chunks of food strewn near their feet and scrambled back up over a rope to a nearby perch. There, they sat quietly, munching their food while posing for camera-toting visitors.

The reason for the sudden commotion was that Ritchie, the beast of the park, was about to make his entrance. The alpha male arrived halfway through the feeding session and it was fascinating to see how his presence changed every other orangutan’s behaviour.

The sign of his coming was obvious — like the sound of a strong wind blowing through the forest canopy, snapping the branches.

At that time, he was already huge and fearsome — and he swaggered towards the platform. His over-bearing presence sent the mothers and young females disappearing into the nearby trees.

On reaching the platform, he just sat down and ate at his leisure. He looked truly dominant and none of the other orangutans dared come near the platform. They instinctively knew invading his space meant big trouble.

Back then, Ritchie also had  the longest body hair among the orangutans at the centre.

After eating the soft fruits in front of him, he took up a coconut, smashed it on the platform (belian-made, luckily) and drank the water before crushing the husk to eat the pulp.

According to a ranger, Ritchie came a day (around noon) before my recent visit, and reportedly broke the pantry door, grabbing an assortment of food, including coconuts, and wolfing them down in one short sitting.

Seduku and her offspring.

Seduku and her offspring.

Iron fist rule

Nowadays, Ritchie normally comes down after feeding time.

Camp workers will tell you he rules his territory with an ‘iron fist’, earning himself a reputation as a fierce overlord to other male orangutans who dare challenge his supremacy.

In a fist fight with Ritchie, another contender, named George, was said to have lost his fingers.The fight was stopped only with the interference of officers from the centre.

Estimated to weigh more than 140kg, Ritchie is unlikely to abdicate for a while yet and can safely keep his throne. Moreover, George, the pretender, has

been relocated to the Matang Wildlife Centre to avoid a future rematch.

Born in 1981, Ritchie is the oldest living male orangutan at Semenggoh. Today, he reigns in the surrounding jungles at the centre as the most famous orangutan, not just there, but also  throughout the state.

Visitors to Semenggoh look forward to catching a glimpse of Ritchie but he rarely makes an appearance during feeding time.

Although I didn’t get to see him on my second visit, I must say it was a rewarding experience watching the other great apes in their natural habitat.

Early morning before feeding is the best time to see these primates up close as well as the most amazing aerobatic displays from them. They are truly spectacular to watch and the guides are very friendly and helpful.

I was told during the wet season when the orangutans were reluctant to come down to the feeding platforms, the guards would have to coax a mother and baby down from a tree with a durian for visitors to spot them.

Seeing these animals up close and uncaged is truly amazing — certainly much nicer than seeing those in captivity at zoos.

There are more than 20 orangutans at the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre which has been adopted by various corporate organisations.

The oldest is Seduku, a mother of three — Analisa (20), Sadamiah (16) and Ganya (8), and a grandmother of three — Anaku, Digital Guro and Ruby — all 3.

Seduku was released 17 years after completing her rehabilitation course in 1995.

To be able to see them, it is advisable to come during feeding time — normally from 9am to 10am, then from 3pm to 3.30pm daily.

After paying nominal entrance fee, visitors will have to drive up to the parking lot and then take a short walk downhill to the staging area.

There, a ranger will explain the rules — no food or drinks, no smoking and obey the ranger’s instructions at all times.

Visitors may also be taken to an easy hike along a well-trodden jungle path to the feeding observation area if any orangutans are sighted having their meal on the platform within the park.

The rehabilitated female orangutans in Semenggoh are said to have given birth to a large number of babies over the years.

Orangutans are a species of great ape found only in Southeast Asia on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra although evidence of their existence has been found in Java, Vietnam and China.

The gentle red ape demonstrates significant intelligence with ability to reason and think and is one of our closest relatives, sharing 97 per cent of the same DNA as humans.

Tourists walk towards the feeding platform inside the park.

Tourists walk towards the feeding platform inside the park.