Fam­ily af­fair

Some among Sarawak’s Iban con­sider their lo­cal orang­utans to be ‘fam­ily’. Mark Eveleigh joins these de­scen­dants of Bornean head­hunters to dis­cover why.

BBC Wildlife Magazine - - Orangutans - Pho­tos by Mark Eveleigh

My grand­fa­ther be­came an orang­utan,” says hunter Kubi anak Mani. “In his old age, he started to grow long hair from his arms and liked to swing from the long­house beam. Fi­nally he just walked out into the for­est.” In­stinc­tively I look around at the faces of the peo­ple sit­ting with us on the com­mu­nal plat­form of the long­house. They nod se­ri­ously in agree­ment. Al­though the event took place in an­other long­house, they’ve heard this story too of­ten to doubt it.

“I was in the long­house too when that hap­pened,” says my guide Bayang anak Pen­guang. “I was very small but I re­mem­ber it. When Kubi’s grand­fa­ther left, he was still wear­ing the kandi pouch around his neck that he kept his be­tel nut in. For years peo­ple of­ten saw an orang­utan in the for­est wear­ing the same kandi.”

Neigh­bour­ing Batang Ai and Lan­jak En­ti­mau Na­tional Parks are the last vi­able breed­ing range for orang­utans in Sarawak on Bor­neo. This com­bined area of more than 2,000km2 of ex­tremely di­verse Bornean rain­for­est is home to around 2,500 orang­utans. The apes here are pro­tected by an an­cient taboo that prob­a­bly even pre­dates the ar­rival of the Iban in this re­gion two cen­turies ago.

“They can be our friends,” Bayang, a guide with lo­cal travel com­pany Bor­neo Ad­ven­ture, ex­plains the next morn­ing as we wade across the river in front of the long­house to trek fur­ther into the rain­for­est in search of the great red apes. “There are count­less sto­ries about orang­utans help­ing peo­ple in trou­ble in the rain­for­est. If you get lost, an orang­utan can show you the way home, and many trav­ellers have es­caped star­va­tion be­cause the orang­utan showed them what to eat.”


We’re only a half-hour walk from the long­house when we pass a stand of sago palms and Bayang points out a palm that has been bru­tally dis­em­bow­elled by unimag­in­ably pow­er­ful orang­utan hands. Al­though there’s been lit­tle re­search on the sub­ject, the orang­utans may also have a tra­di­tion of herbal medicine that might be as rich as that of the Iban them­selves.

Near a gur­gling stream we pass a stand of spindly cane. Each plant is del­i­cately nib­bled and from tracks in the mud we can see that a big orang­utan has gnawed dain­tily at each plant as it passed by. The plants are crawl­ing with ants, so pre­sum­ably the ape ate only what it could be­fore the in­sects started to bite. It would seem to be an in­sub­stan­tial meal for a 90kg ape, but per­haps there was some medic­i­nal value to the plant.

Bayang leads me through an area of old sec­ondary for­est last cleared around a cen­tury ago. It is per­fect orang­utan habi­tat be­cause the rain­for­est figs and other wild fruit are sup­ple­mented here with fruit trees in­tro­duced by Iban farm­ers around their ladang (dry rice fields). Bayang ex­plains that few peo­ple come here since the for­est is haunted. I lis­ten closely but am un­able to catch a hint of the chanted singing that ap­par­ently freezes the blood of wan­der­ers here.

Even within the cul­tural ‘no fire zone’ of

Batang Ai Na­tional Park, the orang­utans of this for­est seem to have found an ideal safe haven and we have soon counted more than a dozen orang­utan nests. From the con­di­tion of the dry­ing leaves on each nest, Bayang is able to es­ti­mate with a fair de­gree of ac­cu­racy how old the struc­ture is. Since orang­utans make fresh nests ev­ery day, it is easy to es­ti­mate a pop­u­la­tion and within a rel­a­tively short dis­tance of Nanga Sumpa long­house ex­perts be­lieve that there may be up to 200 in­di­vid­u­als, mak­ing it one of the most im­por­tant areas for the species in Bor­neo.

Sundai Si­lang, an Iban bi­ol­o­gist, is one of the top ex­perts on orang­utans. “The orang­utans of Batang Ai are the um­brella species for that park and neigh­bour­ing Lan­jak En­ti­mau,” he said when we met at Matang Wildlife Cen­tre, north-west of Kuching. “The lo­cal taboo is the key to pro­tect­ing the orang­utan, but to­gether with sus­tain­able cul­tural and wildlife tourism, it would be pos­si­ble to safe­guard an area of more than 2,000km2.” This would make it big­ger than Sur­rey.

Dur­ing my visit, 29 orang­utans were in the wildlife cen­tre, a sort of train­ing academy for po­ten­tial re-re­lease.

Certainly, at least seven of the cen­tre’s res­i­dents would never be able to ad­just to life in the wild. A 17-year-old fe­male called Doris is a clas­sic case. As a baby she was ‘nur­tured’ by a Western vol­un­teer who ‘hu­man­ised’ her to the point where she still con­sid­ers her­self “a bit of a princess”. “It’s very sad,” says Sundai. “She’s scared of heights so can’t climb, and she hates go­ing into the jun­gle be­cause red ants and leeches freak her out.”

Matang is lo­cated in Kubah Na­tional Park. But at only 22km2, Kubah is sadly too small ever to be a vi­able orang­utan habi­tat. So the an­i­mals here are ul­ti­mately, it is hoped, des­tined for re-re­lease in Batang Ai. “The Iban–orang­utan re­la­tion­ship in Batang Ai is a spe­cial case,” says Adel­heid Mu­nan, who has spent half a cen­tury doc­u­ment­ing the ma­te­rial cul­ture and folk­lore of Bor­neo’s in­dige­nous com­mu­ni­ties. “In gen­eral, Iban have mixed feel­ings about the orang­utans. Few Iban would ever eat an orang­utan ex­cept in cases of sur­vival, but some do see them as a threat to their crops. If they re­spect the apes it is more of­ten for their strength than for any spir­i­tu­al­ism, al­though some­times they view them with a sense of gratitude, as a source of rev­enue in areas where they can work as tourist guides.”


Over the bor­der in West Kal­i­man­tan (In­done­sian Bor­neo), the orang­utans are less lucky. On pre­vi­ous trips there, I had seen orang­utan skulls hang­ing from long­house rafters just as I’d seen hu­man skulls hang­ing in Sarawak long­houses. Once, I’d ar­rived in a re­mote jun­gle camp where hunters be­moaned the fact we’d got there too late to join their orang­utan feast.

“I heard that in Kal­i­man­tan, peo­ple kill fe­male orang­utans since the ba­bies fetch a high price as pets,” a young hunter called Jalang anak Mun­tah, who works as a porter for Bor­neo Ad­ven­ture, told me as we sat by our camp­fire deep in the Batang Ai for­est. “For us they are a sa­cred animal, though. I never heard of any­one in this area who could do that.”

The Iban are al­lowed to hunt un­pro­tected species for food (though not for sale), and Jalang is known among the Nanga Sumpa com­mu­nity for his hunt­ing skills. These days, it takes a lot of skill to hunt here. In an ef­fort to restrict rebel or guerrilla ac­tiv­ity, Malaysian law lim­its the pos­ses­sion of shot­gun shells to just five per per­son at any one time. They can only be re­placed if you re­turn the empty car­tridges, so hunters like Jalang must make ev­ery shot count.

The Iban in gen­eral are vo­ra­cious hunters, and, apart from orang­utan and re­spected preda­tors such as clouded leop­ards and croc­o­diles, al­most any­thing is con­sid­ered fair game. Tourism might be the only al­ter­na­tive for men like Jalang if they hope to stay in


their long­house com­mu­ni­ties, and they are now learn­ing that wildlife can bring in rev­enue.

While the name orang­utan means ‘jun­gle peo­ple’ in Malay, sci­ence recog­nises the Bornean Orang­utan as Pongo pyg­maeus. The Iban, how­ever, ar­gue there are three dif­fer­ent species of ‘Ma­ias’, as they call orang­utans. Jalang tells me that the small­est and most com­mon is Ma­ias Kesa (charm­ingly named af­ter the ubiq­ui­tous red ant) and next in size comes Ma­ias Ram­bai, known for its long hair. Fi­nally, big­gest of all is the Ma­ias Ca­pan, known for its cheek pads, which re­sem­ble ca­pan rice-win­now­ing dishes.

Has Jalang ever seen a baby Ma­ias Ca­pan? He shrugs: “Per­haps they go deeper into the for­est to have their ba­bies…” It’s an ex­pla­na­tion as good as any other. Af­ter all, it is just one of many mys­ter­ies in these en­chanted forests.

We are in­ter­rupted by rustling in the tree­tops. In the canopy across the stream, a young male orang­utan is mak­ing his bed for the night. De­spite thick veg­e­ta­tion that makes view­ing dif­fi­cult, this is the sev­enth I’ve seen in three days and – though I’ve trav­elled in orang­utan coun­try be­fore, both in Kal­i­man­tan and Su­ma­tra – I’m con­vinced I’ve never been in the midst of such a healthy pop­u­la­tion. Ap­par­ently, it’s been five weeks since any­one camped here, so this young male can­not be ha­bit­u­ated to hu­mans and yet cen­turies of co­hab­i­ta­tion have helped re­as­sure him that the Iban and strange white-skinned peo­ple be­low are no dan­ger.

Over the years, there have been oc­ca­sional in­stances when the time-hon­oured truce was bro­ken, how­ever. When we fi­nally ar­rive back at Nanga Sumpa long­house, cel­e­brat­ing a suc­cess­ful jour­ney over glasses of tuak (rice wine), I hear the full story of Kubi anak Mani’s orang­utan grand­fa­ther. It was with a cer­tain ret­i­cence that Kubi ad­mit­ted that his grand­fa­ther had killed an orang­utan.


“It was in self-de­fence,” he said. “The orang­utan was sit­ting on a branch above the track. It was sway­ing back­wards and for­wards, drool­ing un­con­trol­lably. My grand­fa­ther knew that it was in a trance and in a mo­ment it would turn into a ghost and would eat him. So the only thing he could do was to kill it with his spear.”

In the weeks that fol­lowed, Kubi’s grand­fa­ther was haunted by dreams in which he was told that he would be rein­car­nated as an orang­utan. The Iban find noth­ing un­usual in this. It has hap­pened be­fore, and as proof peo­ple can point to many grave­yards in the jun­gle where orang­utan are sighted with un­usual reg­u­lar­ity. But the strange thing was that Kubi’s grand­fa­ther was rein­car­nated as an orang­utan be­fore he even died.

Be­fore he left, he had time to warn his peo­ple that they must never harm the great apes. In do­ing so, he added an­other branch to the leg­end that has cre­ated what might be one of the most pow­er­ful con­ser­va­tion taboos in the world. And, reach­ing far be­yond the most care­fully im­ple­mented con­ser­va­tion strate­gies and wildlife leg­is­la­tion in the world, it is this taboo that could ul­ti­mately be the key to pro­tect­ing the great red ape.


Above: an Iban in tra­di­tional war­rior cos­tume. The tribe was once much-feared as head­hunters. Right: ‘orang­utan’ lit­er­ally trans­lates as ‘per­son of the for­est’. Ma­ture males have large cheek pads.

Above: trekking into the sup­pos­edly haunted rain­for­est. Right: Iban guide Bayang anak Pen­guang knows the orang­utans and the jun­gle trails of Batang Ai NP in­ti­mately. Be­low: head­ing up­river in search of the great red apes. Left: A baby orang­utan clings...

Left: 93-year-old Und­ing anak Libau is per­haps the last of the head­hunters. Far left, top: the Iban have a very spir­i­tual re­la­tion­ship with orang­utans – but they can also be a source of rev­enue, at­tract­ing tourists to the area. Far left, bot­tom: Doris...

Above: a mother and baby re­turn to care­fully mon­i­tored feed­ing sta­tions that are de­signed to sup­ple­ment their for­ag­ing at Se­meng­goh Orang­utan Cen­tre.

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