Unusual purple fruit with nerf bristles
Unusual purple fruit with nerf bristles

Though I’ve been here in Kuching over a year now, I’ve barely been outside of the city. Partly because of that, I had the impression that all the “real” nature was to be found far into the uplands. So I was very pleasantly surprised when I visited Semenggoh just a half an hour’s drive from our house. Semenggoh is a state park with an Orangutan rehabilitation center attached to it. “Apes in rehab?!”, you’re thinking, “what are they, on crack?”

Orangutans brachiating through the jungle
Orangutans brachiating through the jungle

Ahem. No, these are orangutans who have been orphaned in the wild or were illegal pets or so forth, and are now being retaught how to live in the jungle. They are fed twice a day by rangers who leave big piles of fruit on an elevated platform, and the orangutans come brachiating in out of the jungle for the free food. It was an amazing thing to see animals this way, freely moving around in their own habitat. We were on the other side of a small ravine from the feeding platform, but some of the orangutans had brachiated on over, and were literally overhead, some 20 or 30 feet up in the trees above us. They didn’t swing from vine to vine like tarzan either, they would swing to small trees which would bend over under their weight till they could grab another one. The largest male in the group, who had a black leathery face and chest and must have weighed half a ton, misjudged a tree and it bent all the way to the ground, dumping him rather ungracefully. My son and daughter had a blast, with my daughter asking me the very next day when we could go back to visit the “orang rambutan”.

Gathering food from the feeding platform
Gathering food from the feeding platform

Which brings me to our fifth Malay contribution to English: Orangutan comes from two malay words, Orang meaning man or people and hutan meaning jungle. So, people of the jungle. I have heard though that the name was only given to the creatures by the British. Maybe someone out there can confirm or deny that? There is a local Sarawakian name for them too, but I can’t remember what it is.
[Update: Orangutans are called Mawas in Malay and Kuyat locally, according to comments received below. -Ed.]

A gibbon swings around the visitor center
A gibbon swings around the visitor center

Well, we had so much fun that we went back last week, this time with my father (that would be Gregory) and uncle, who were visiting for a few days. We didn’t have as much luck though: no orangutans. But we did see a very lively gibbon, a few crocs, and an unusual tree dropping that I must conclude is a fruit but is pretty enough to be a flower. It kind of resembles the terap, except petite and decorative, so maybe it is an Artocarpus of some kind.
[Update: The fruit is Anthocephalus sp., a member of the Rubiaceae, eaten by gibbons. TQ, Iqbal.]

Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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  1. Having been to the exact same place, I must say that the pictures don’t exactly do justice to the beauty of these animals. The orangutans have reddish fur, simply amazing to look at. Highly recommended for anyone in the Kuching area.

  2. The Malay name for orangutan is “mawas.”

    I once had a book written by the Russian scientist, traveller and humanist Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay (1846-1888) about his travels in Borneo where he goes into some depth into the origin of the word “orangutan,” which he translates as the “man of the forest.”

    Unfortunately, I have lost the book and books published in Russia are hard to come by; certainly not available at amazon.com. Also, I do not remember its title as it has been 30 years since I last read it, but it could have been simply “Borneo” or “Travels in Borneo.”

    Sorry, can’t be of more use on that score.

    I had adopted a juvenile orangutan at the Zoo Negara in Ulu Klang about ten years ago and can attest to the reddish hue of its fur. It was a lovely creature, friendly and allowed me to dokong it with ease.

  3. Little correction from me. The pink thing dropped from tree is not an Artocarpus. It is Anthocephalus, member of coffe family. It is eaten by dibbons in Sumatra. You can look for Orangutan as Mawas in Ordoardo Beccari’s book Wanderings in the great forests of Borneo, Italian Naturalis from early 20th century.

  4. i’m malaysian and i’ve never even been to kuching! i know, i know… it’s terrible! i’ve been to sabah, but never sarawak. i should visit there sometime when i go back…. great blog, btw. very interesting – and i like the fact that i almost always know what blogs of malaysia are talking about – not in the way that those politics blogs of US stump you… heh.

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