Over the last several decades, human activity, including the development of palm oil plantations, has caused massive deforestation in the Borneo rainforest. More recently, the Malaysian government has been struggling to balance its desire for sustained economic expansion with the need to increase its wildlife conservation efforts.
Last year, I was lucky enough to roam around Borneo and the province of Sarawak, a new camera in tow. My goal was simple: to go photograph the majestic orangutans. These primates are closely related to humans; even the Malayan word for orangutan means “person of the forest.” They spend the majority of their lives up in the trees, making nests among the branches and foraging there for food. For days, I trekked in the rainforest looking for orangutans and trying to keep up with my Iban guide. Along the way, I saw various wildlife, encountered armies of mosquitoes, swam at the toes of waterfalls, and ate rice cooked in bamboo. I absorbed every moment of this fun adventure. But as I continued my journey, the fascinating memories in the making, the visions of a tropical paradise, clashed with the harsh reality of what I encountered along the way: the deeply entrenched palm oil plantations and barren land left behind by the logging industry. Clearly, civilization has been (and still is) slowly gnawing away at the pristine rainforests, home to thousands of species. The orangutans are only one of many species whose habitats are slowly dwindling.
After days of chasing the ever-elusive orangutans, I finally resigned myself to the fact that I would not be able to see wild ones. A century ago, there were nearly 230,000 orangutans on the planet; now, there are fewer than 41,000 Bornean and 7,500 Sumatran orangutans – only 50 percent of which still live in the wild. I had to settle for seeing the semi-wild ones, those who have been rescued, rehabilitated and prepared for release back into protected areas of the rainforest. At these rescues, most members of the public are kept at a distance so orangutans do not become accustomed to their presence. As such, it was truly a delight be able to see these primates up close, foraging for food above my head. They are truly magnificent and fascinating animals, so similar to us in so many ways.
Borneo is an island with a powerful draw, and it will remain in my memory as a land of contradiction, like so many of the countries I have visited before. A land struggling to find a balance between the needs of man and those of nature.