Southeast Asia has a tragic record in the twentieth century for the destruction of its forests and the trafficking of its wildlife. Among the most celebrated victims of both processes here in Borneo are orangutans.
Since 1964, however, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre has been rescuing captive animals, teaching them to live in the forest and returning them to the wild. It is a damning statement on human greed and cruelty but also a testament to the centre's commitment and skill that 700 orangutans have been returned to the wild, largely in extensive areas of lowland rainforest such as Danum and Tabin.
This morning we visited the orangutans at the impressively well-managed centre. A visit here is a thought-provoking experience. Every orangutan you see has been brutalised in some way by people. Every one has subsequently been lovingly returned to the forest, or is in the process of returning to the forest, and most have the chance of a life in the wild as a member of orangutan society.
This is a place where the boundaries between animal welfare and wildlife conservation, which are quite different fields, are blurred. The orangutans have been rescued and restored to the forest for their welfare. They may be returned to wild populations, thus contributing to the conservation of the species.
They are also adorable. Most adorable of all were two small, wild-born youngsters brought by their rehabilitated mothers to feed on papaya and bananas after most of the trainee orangutans and all of the other visitors had left.
Later we visited a new venture, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, where 37 sun bears are in the process of being returned to their forest home. Some are hopelessly tame and may never return, but will live out their days in the company of other bears in large patches of their natural habitat. Others are learning to be wild and one, Natalie, has already been moved to a secluded enclosure, has accepted her satellite collar, which will tell researchers how well she adjusts, and is ready to be released in the coming days.
May she be healthy and stimulated in her habitat. May she live long, find a male and raise cubs. And may her genes flow for generations through the wild population of sun bears on this beautiful island.
Also in the past couple of days we have seen plantain, Prevost's, ear-spot, and plain pygmy squirrels (this last too tiny to believe), lesser treeshrew, long-tailed parakeet and blue-crowned hanging parrot, yellow-vented and yellow-bellied bulbuls, rhinoceros and bushy-crested hornbills, fiery minivet, black-and-yellow and black-and-red broadbills, Wallace's and changeable hawk-eagles and much more. I rather think we shall enjoy exploring Borneo.