Sarawak

 

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SARAWAK

THE SCIENTIFIC EXPLORATION SOCIETY 

ORANG UTAN PROJECT (1997)

(This Report by Carolyn Franklin appears with the kind permission of the Scientific Exploration Society) 

The forest was quiet, the team stood still, and over the canopy came the distinctive sound of the long call of an Orang Utan, the intelligent, beautiful, primate that we had come nearly eight thousand miles to study. Months and months of preparation including a recce and with the blessing of the Sarawak Government, we were now able to work in the remote and challenging terrain of the Sarawak interior, the Uli Ai, close to the Kalimantan Border at a place called Selong.

Our team which included a student from University College, London, the Director of the Orang Utan Foundation based in London, a retired Royal Marine Officer and a senior Trust Manager, Royal Bank of Canada, both based in Jersey, two mature students, a mother and son who had both lived in Sarawak for several years, a doctor and E.E.'s Expedition Manager had all made the decision to spend time learning more about this shy, dignified creature.

The long journey from Kuching to Saong on the Batang Ai Hydro Dam where we were to meet the longboats and crews marked the true beginning of our adventure. It was a great sight as 10 longboats containing the team and all our equipment set off across the opal-blue water which would eventually take us into the complex river system that is the central feature of everyone's lives in this area. There are no roads, so communication is totally reliant on the rivers and the exceptionally skilled crews. Our final destination was reached after a stop of one night at a jungle lodge alongside an Iban longhouse at Nanga Sumpa. Our camp, nicknamed Mildew Manor or Doby Hall, depending on your point of view, was a simple construction within which we lived for ten glorious days!

Our scientific task was to try and establish through nest counts, the density of the Orang Utans in this area. The Scientific Director of the project was Mrs Ashley Leiman, Director of the Orang Utan Foundation and with the help of the Wildlife Conservation Service, Kuching, in the form of Dr. Elizabeth Bennett and Adrian Nyaoi (who allowed us to draw on his considerable knowledge and who spent 5 days in the field with the team,) a 2 kilometre transect was put in on one of the few accessible trails in the area. Once Adrain had departed, Ashley ably assisted by the team, continued to lead the study and the Scientific Exploration Society is most grateful to her for her patience in teaching us how to recognise and record evidence of the Orang Utans in this area.

The trail was marked by a pole every 25 metres and nests were counted within each section. Nests were categorised 1 to 5, 1 being a new nest, 5 being very old with just a few twigs indicating where the nest had been. This was a long and painstaking task which required a great deal of concentration over many days. From these recordings, a formula will be applied which will give an accurate indication of the density of the Orang Utans. No such survey has ever been undertaken in this particular area. The Expedition report and archive records are available at expedition Base for members. Reports have been sent to the Ministry of Forestry and the Wildlife Conservation Service in Sarawak. Our aim is to provide enough evidence for consideration to be given to formal protection of the habitat by including it within a National Park.

Eleven sightings of Orang Utan during our ten day stay in the jungle allowed everyone to have a least one glimpse of this amazing primate. It is a sobering thought that it is estimated that fewer than three thousand people in the world have actually seen wild Orang Utan in their natural habitat. One member of the team had the surprise of her life when she was quietly sitting in camp on her own, an Orang Utan came straight over the camp, she described it as ' a one-man logging team', saying that she was so transfixed by the experience that she lay quietly in the river (where somehow she had ended up), being bitten all over by mossies, hoping that he might come back!

Other tasks undertaken by the team included observations of some very beautiful , large butterflies and moths and the study of the local tribe the Iban whose welcome few will forget! On our first night in the jungle, (before we went further up river to our final destination), we were given the traditional welcome by the Iban. This included copious of amounts of 'Tuak', the local rice wine which appears to be harmless, until you try to stand up! Many gifts were handed over to the Iban and these included much needed exercise books, pencils, sharpeners and rubbers. There is a small school further down river which the older children attend. They board at the school from Monday to Friday, since it's too far for them to return home each night.

Four of the team were very privileged to witness a traditional celebration for the return of one of the longhouse inhabitants who had been working abroad. This ceremony in the longhouse included the offering of food to the spirits of ancestors, the ritual killing of a chicken and a small pig - somewhat gruesome but fascinating. Each dish and offering was placed exactly so and the restrained pig was periodically fed with rice and Tuak, presumable helping to quietly ease its departing from this world. The pig is killed by a single knife stab through the jugular vein, once dead, it is gutted and the organs removed. The liver is examined by the elders of the longhouse, since this will tell them if the spirits are happy with their offerings, if they are not then the whole ceremony has to be repeated the next day - but this was a good liver! The celebration moved up a gear and that point we decided that it was time to quietly withdraw. The singing coming from the longhouse went on well into the night - there were definitely some very sore heads next morning!

We spent some time in the pocket-sized capital of Sarawak, Kuching. Fascinated by the contrasts of the busy markets, the exceptionally good museums, the great Sarawak River, many of the team took the opportunity to really get to know the city. Some amazing gifts were purchased for those at home; beautiful perangs (short cutlass - essential equipment in the jungle!), sarongs, porcelain, jewellery, pewter items (a local tradition, exquisite work). Many of us bought traditional gifts from the Iban. Their weaving is complex and the designs are recorded only in the minds of the Iban, the carvings too were beautifully simple and several found their way into our bulging packs.

Our next expedition to Sarawak is in November 1999 when we will be repeating the nest count (essential since we hope that this will add to our belief that these Orang Utan live in this area year round and will therefore add weight that the habitat must be protected) and at the same time taken on another project which was suggested during the recce. If you are interested, please telephone Melissa Dice 01747 854898, at Expedition Base. The S.E.S. would like to record its grateful thanks to Borneo Adventure, Kuching for all their help and for acting as our ground agents on this project.