|A new species of Orang-utang?
When I first joined the plantation in Sitiawan, Malaysia, there was a secondary forest at the back of the plantation. It covered a few hundred hectares, but most of the useable timber it had had been logged out. What remained were ragged trees here and there amid thick undergrowth. This forest nevertheless supported a wide variety of wild animals, which though seeing their habitat slowly disappear in front of their eyes, had nowhere else to go as all of the surrounding areas had been developed into oil palm plantations. It was a daily struggle for these animals just to survive. This patch of forest had monkeys, wild pigs, bears, leopard cats, squirrels, and other smaller animals. Most of these animals depended on the plantation heavily for their survival. Monkeys would eat the ripe fruitlets of the oil palm bunches, while wild pigs dug up the soil in search of worms. I had seen a bear or two too, but these animals did not venture too deep into the plantation and always kept to the boundary between the forest and plantation, and dashed back into the forest as soon as they saw my jeep arrive. I was very wary when I travelled the boundary road, and always ensured that the windows were wound up and the doors locked when my work took me on this road.
Posted: 01:00 January 9, 2007
One morning I had to travel by this boundary road. It was almost noon then, and the tropical sun was beating down mercilessly on the plantation. As I drove slowly along this road. I saw in front of me a few monkeys crossing the road from the plantation into the forest. This was nothing unusual, as the monkeys did it all the time. They would come into the plantation at about seven in the morning and depart back into the forest for their mid-day siesta. There was something different however with this group of monkeys. I saw a distinct flash of orange within this group. I speeded up my vehicle and caught this group crossing a natural bridge (a tree trunk that had fallen across the stream at the boundary of the forest) which led into the forest. What I saw then my mind had great difficulty in comprehending.
There were four monkeys on the tree trunk that spanned the stream. They were hurriedly walking in single file and trying to reach the safety of the forest as soon as possible. I very quickly came abreast with this group and watched in wonder as it disappeared into the shrubbery on the forest side. The last two monkeys were baby monkeys, as was evident by their size. What was peculiar about them however was the color of their fur. It was white. These baby monkeys carried tails and could therefore not be white gibbons. Besides, their arms were not as long as gibbons’ arms. The third monkey was a normal Rhesus monkey. The Rhesus monkey and the two baby monkeys all stopped for a while and turned back and looked at me for a few seconds when my jeep drew abreast with them. The fourth monkey (which was the lead monkey of this file), however did not turn back to look at me but hurried up its pace and plunged into the undergrowth. This monkey was by far the most mysterious of the group. Firstly it was much bigger than the second monkey and had bright orange/red shaggy fur. Secondly, it had no tail, and thirdly it swaggered from side to side as it walked, just like an ape would. I was very perplexed as I watched the scene in front of me, as it did not make any sense. I watched as the last baby monkey disappeared into the shrubbery before I drove away.
I pondered about what I saw for the rest of the week. Questions that arose in my mind were:
Was the lead monkey an ape? If so, was it an orang-utang?
Orang-utangs were found only in the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. What was an Orang-utang doing in Peninsula Malaysia, and how did it get here?
This orang-utang definitely looked smaller than those we see in zoos. Was it a new species that had heretofore not been discovered?
What was an ape doing in the company of monkeys? Did the ape take the Rhesus monkey as its mate? If so, were the white baby monkeys the result of the union between the ape and the monkey? This was not possible of course, as apes and monkeys were different species altogether and did not interbreed. Or could they? After all, horses could breed with donkeys to produce mules, which sadly are sterile animals. Could these baby monkeys be the sterile offspring of the ape and the monkey?
As these thoughts rambled on, I thought I would write to the Malaysian Nature Society for clarification. I thought the better of it though, as I was exactly in the position of people who witnessed UFOs and made the mistake of reporting these and ended up being called loonies. I therefore dropped the matter altogether and concentrated on the work at hand. What I failed to realise however was that a covert operation was underway right beneath my nose to capture this ape.
When I first started work in this plantation, I noted that groups of Chinese men would enter the plantations on weekends in jeeps and motorcycles and head straight for the forest at the back of the plantation. I questioned my staff about this and was told that these men were going into the forest to hunt for wild pigs and wild fowl. I did not like this situation, as it amounted to a breach of security. I therefore informed my guards stationed at the main entrance of the plantation to disallow this group from entering the plantation with immediate effect. These Chinese men who came mainly from the village of Kampong Koh nearby however continued coming into the plantations on weekends that I was away. They bribed my guards and staff into allowing them access into the plantation. I learnt about this when I returned to the plantation early one weekend and caught sight of them leaving the plantation. My staff acted as informants for this group and would phone them as soon as I left the plantation on weekends. I got around this by placing a signboard at the entrance informing that outsiders would only be allowed in if they have passes issued by the plantation which were signed by me. The guards at the entrance were at the same time warned by me that they would face immediate expulsion if I caught this group of Chinese in my plantation again. I found out later that this group of Chinese then accessed the forest through the more arduous way via a neighboring plantation. I was still blissfully unaware as to the real purpose this group was entering the forest every weekend.
It was some months after my sighting of the above group of monkeys, that I had to call a research officer from a big plantation group to my plantation to check out some trees in a certain field that were doing poorly. After we had spent the whole morning checking the trees there and taking tissue and soil samples, we returned to my bungalow for lunch. After lunch we talked about various subjects, when the officer suddenly asked me if I knew that the forest at the back of my plantation hid a great secret. Feeling very excited, I asked him what it was. His reply stunned me.
He said that in the forest at the back of the plantation lived the only known sub species of orang-utang that was distinctly smaller than that found in Sumatra and Kalimantan. He said that the last this was sighted by someone was many years ago and that no one knew that if any member of this sub species was still alive. This was unknown to science as yet, but the information had been passed on to the wild animals black-market, and a foreign zoo had promised a very handsome reward for the capture and delivery of a live specimen. I questioned the officer if this was the real reason why the group of Chinese men visited the forest every weekend, and he replied in the affirmative. I was glad that I did not open my mouth and inform him about what I had seen, as I suspected that the officer was also in the game of capturing this ape.
I did not see this orang-utang again for the next ten years I was in the plantation. Meanwhile, a quasi government body had purchased the forest from the state government and wiped out the forest in order to plant it up with oil palm trees. I had no idea what happened to the animals that inhabited the forest. Perhaps they all died from starvation. I occasionally saw a monkey or two foraging in the plantation and sometimes some wild pigs- but that was about all I saw. It is really sad that all humans think about is money even in the face of something as precious as a rare species of animal making its last stand.