I Scout for Baby Orangutans That Vaguely Resemble My Ex-Girlfriend

04/11/2011 04:02 pm ET | Updated Jun 14, 2012


Breaking up is hard to do. Especially when the baby orangutans in the jungles of Borneo slightly resemble my gingered-haired ex-girlfriend. I'm not saying she looked like a hominidae --it's the color hair and brown eyes really.

Orangutans are our distant cousins. Their name is derived from the Malay words "orang" (man) and "(h)utan" (forest). It means literally "man of the forest." Orangutans also have 96% of the same genetic material as humans. Do you know what that means? We have more in common with the orangutan than we do with Sarah Palin and the Tea Party. (Insert huge laughs.) And just to set the record straight: I have never slept with an orangutan. (Insert slightly less laughs.)

Venturing on the Terra Incognito Ecotour to Borneo, I'm going to meet orangutans up close and personal. My all-time favorite orangutan is Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes. Wise Dr. Zaius served as Minister of Science in charge of advancing ape knowledge. Dr. Zaius is my only previous encounter with an orangutan; shortly I will soon have some new favorites.

The easiest way to spot orangutans in Borneo is by sojourning to the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary. Opened in 1964, the centre is the first official rehabilitation project to rescue orphaned baby orangutans, which will later be released back into the wild. The sanctuary is home to 60-80 orangutan that live in the lush jungle rainforest reserve and are fed milk and bananas twice a day for the amusement of humans.


A boardwalk leads us through a rainforest sprouting thick trees and vines mixed with those mysterious jungle sounds. We're told to watch for mischievous orangutans that might grab our cameras or hats. The strongest of the species, we are told, can rip a man in half. (I'd much rather have one grab my hat or camera.)

Making our way to the viewing gallery and feeding platform the place is bustling with human activity. The orangutan sanctuary is one of Sabah's most popular attractions. Buses and buses of tourists, with various camera equipment of all shapes and sizes, cramp together on the wooden dock.

10am orangutan feeding anticipation builds. Will this be the day the orangutans attack the humans with cameras?

Then showtime. The crowd becomes breathless as the first orangutan appears and makes its way, via arm and leg maneuvering, across a long, elevated cable to the feeding platform. Cameras snap. Oohs and aahs.

This is the closest thing to being nature's paparazzi photographer on the red carpet.

The first orangutan was merely a warm up act. Another orangutan makes an appearance, gripping its way across the cable with those crazy orangutan fingers and toes.

Now it gets real.

Out comes the star who steals the show.

Cameras snap as he poses with a banana in its mouth. The orangutans all ham-and-cheese for the tourists. A big crowd pleaser is the orang eating watermelon straight from the bucket. He pulls the watermelon high over its head and lets the juice drain down. Leaves are constructed into an orangutan Julius Caesar hat. This is like a site-specific theater piece -- done by orangutans who love bananas and watermelon.

We're merely just one flung piece of orangutan poo away from a 1 million hit You Tube video.

A big selling point of the Terra Incognita Ecotour is special access to Red Ape Encounters -- an orangutan wilderness conservatory on the lower Kinabatangan River. Unlike the mass tourist extravaganza at the Sepilok Orang Utan Sanctuary, the conservatory is a more intimate orangutan experience: only 300 people each year are invited onto the land to observe one of man's closest, red-haired cousins.


After being dropped off on the banks of the rainforest by a small wooden boat, we make our way through the mighty jungle with kid gloves, passing wild boar tracks, trees with leaches, and spiny vegetation. Sweat drips from my brow.


Trekking further into the thick, remote brush our guide Mincho spots a baby orangutan named Jenny, traversing across the jungle tops tree-by-tree, from branches with her large orange-haired mother not far behind. Unbelievable!

Disregarding leeches, our group of intrepid explorers starts running through the jungle. Like little, excited kids as we followed their trajectory treetop trekking course in an adrenaline-filled melee. Emotions and exciting overtake common sense. Some trip over tree roots. Others get whacked in the face with branches. We are the orangutan paparazzi. It's a crazy scene.

"Funny little people and their peculiar habits," the orangutans must be thinking with their 96% human brains.

"How do you tell its Jenny?" I ask Mincho.

"The face," he says Mincho, adding that the older orangutans have less fur on their back from years of sitting on trees branches.

"Come on baby, go for left." I request trying to get the red ape moneyshot. "Come hang out with us -- you with your 4-times human strength."

Mama orangutan holds a branch so baby Jenny can swing past. She then moves the branch so she can get a view of us and stares us down--giving the stink eye.

"Open your mouth--it pees," jokes our guide. "It might defecate soon so you might want to move."

Baby Jenny hams it up for the cameras. She plays the popular orangutan game: shake the branch. She's hamming it up for the cameras and shows off for us, putting leaves on her head -- she's showing off for us.

Branches come crashing down. Green leaves fall like confetti. Smiles on our faces the size of the Kinabatangan River. Orangutans, I conclude, make me as very happy as seeing Santa or Jesus.

Check out orangutans for yourself on the Terra Incognito Ecotour.