“How about witnessing the miraculous event of someone giving birth!” I say, as dramatically as I can. A chokes on his coffee.
“Or seeing some young ones running wild.” I add breezily. The colour has now drained out of his face and he has stopped breathing.
A looks at me suspiciously. Maybe, I have finally lost it. Or maybe, I am serious and it’s time to rein in all unnecessary expenses and start thinking about college funds.
I toy with the idea of torturing him for a little while. But I can feel his blood pressure rising – so I come to his rescue.
“I was only talking about our Merdaka weekend getaway, you fool. I have found this amazing island, in Sabah state…..” As I fill him in on my latest research, A starts smiling. A smile that means “Whatever you say. As long as I don’t have to see wild kids running around in my house!”
East Malaysia is the best part of Malaysia. Uninhabited islands, virgin rainforests, some of the world’s best diving sites – east Malaysia has everything that one looks for in a wildlife adventure. And in this pristine landscape, lies Selingan Island, one of a group of uninhabited islands situated between the Malaysian and Philippine boundaries lying within the Sulu Seas. This archipelago is the home to the Green and Hawksbill Turtles, who live in and around the water of the Sulu Seas and hatch their eggs on the white sands of these desolate landmasses. The three main nesting islands - Pulau Selingan, Pulau Bakkungan Kechil and Pulau Gulisan, covering an area of 1,740 hectares, are protected for the sole purpose of conservation and preservation of turtles and other marine animals inhabiting the area and are called The Turtle Islands Park or Pulau Penyu National Park. Pulau Selingan is the only island of these three that has a small resort, which accommodates guests who would like to see a turtle lay eggs.
Our journey starts from Sandakan – a small port town in the north eastern coast of Borneo. If the name sounds familiar, let me remind you of the TV series we used to watch late night in the black and white era of Doordarshan about a pirate named Sandokan who used to terrorize the jungles of Borneo. A series that made me fall in love with Kabir Bedi and a wild land called Malaya. Somerset Maugham came later in my life and cemented my wonder for the Malaya land. I always used to fantasize about the feral rainforests of Malaya. For many years, as a child, I have visualized myself exploring the Malaya jungles, à la Phantom style. Now that I am finally here, I consider it destiny. Before A panics again, let me clarify that I don’t intend to straddle a horse and roam wild in the jungles, though I would, if I could. But I do want to explore every nook and cranny of this wonderful land and compare notes with my mind's eye.
Back to reality, Sandakan is neither wild, nor unexplored – but a proper small town, with some really good sea food. And an airport, which is why it is the gateway to some of the wild adventures in Borneo. A night’s stop in Sandakan, we start early the morning after, for our destination – Pulau Selingan. About 3 hours of boat ride through the bluest water I have ever seen, we see the first speck of land in the horizon. I start feeling like Christopher Columbus. A starts feeling hungry.
We are off loaded in the white sands of Pulau Selingan soon - we, as in, the two of us, and 6 other couple. August being an off season in this part, we got lucky not to be straddled with 60 people, which is the maximum number of heads this island can accommodate. Okay, so we will not be able to witness up to 50 turtles coming ashore at night to lay eggs. But we were assured that we will definitely get to witness a couple, if the weather is nice.
And the weather is nice. We spend the rest of the morning getting wasted in the sun and the sand. We find our own private spot in the deserted beach and while A, now happily fed, snoozes, I go snorkeling. The island is surrounded by coral reefs and the moment I dive into the water, I am greeted by colours – of every hue and palette ever imaginable. It is like swimming in a vast aquarium – schools of fish – of all colours and shapes swim past me and along with me. A joins me soon and after splashing around for a while, goes away in search of some chilled beer. But me, I just can’t seem to have enough. I keep going back, enamored by the crystal clear blue and the scene it has to offer. By the time I am called back by an again-hungry A, I have a bad case of sun burn, but I feel like a mermaid.
The afternoon is spent snoozing and then later, catching the sun go down. One is not supposed to walk in the beach after sun down without a guide, so we make the most of the daylight available and explore the island. Apart from a basic resort, which accommodates visitors, there is a small restaurant, which doubles up as a visitor’s centre to give an idea about the Green Turtles that populate these parts of the ocean. Needless to say, the Green Turtles also fall in the list of endangered species. There is a hatchery where the eggs are collected from the beach and looked after till they hatch. There is a pier where we landed in the morning and then there is the vast expanse of pure white sand and azure blue waters. The island is so small that one can circumnavigate it in 30 minutes flat. We walk down the beach, taking in the sunset and looking for adventure. We spot a couple of geckos. We shoot pictures aimlessly, knowing that whatever we click, will come out looking magical. Such is the ambiance.
We have an early dinner and a tour through the gallery, to get some knowledge about these very vulnerable sea creatures. Green turtles are the largest of all the hard-shelled sea turtles. While hatchlings are just 2 inches long, adults can grow to more than 3 feet long and weigh around 160 kg. Adult green turtles are unique among sea turtles in that they are herbivorous, feeding primarily on sea grasses and algae. This diet is thought to give them greenish colored fat, from which they take their name. A green turtle's top shell is smooth and can be shades of black, gray, green, brown, and yellow.
They may sport a hard shell as an exterior but that plaster is not hard enough to protect themselves from a vicious species called the homo sapiens. As we humans have successfully demonstrated over the last 4.4 million years, no matter what species you are, if we humans find you, we will make sure you become extinct. The Sea Turtles have existed for over 100 million years but suddenly, they are struggling to survive because of things we humans are doing to the planet's oceans and beaches. Not only that, we hunt these turtles for their meat, for their oil to be used in cosmetic industries, for their skin to make bags and belts. If for nothing else, we run over these turtles with our fishing trawlers.
We wait in the dark while we ponder about the dark side of humanity. And we wait and wait for the Mother Turtle to come ashore to lay eggs. It being a clear moonless night, we gaze at the stars and hear the ocean lashing at the rocks. We don’t mind waiting. We exchange stories about our wild life and diving adventures, we discuss our future holidays with the fellow enthusiasts. I could have spent an eternity there, but then the Mother Turtle finally shows up.
The Ranger guides us through the rocks and takes us to where the action is. And there she is, a huge green turtle, nestled in the sands, laying her clutch. It is only safe for the ranger to invite visitors for the watch once the female has comfortably settled in motion; otherwise she may get scared and dump her clutch in the water on exit. We surround her and watch in awe as she goes through the motion. It is as if she is in a trance, oblivious of the human chain around her. She will lay around 100 – 110 eggs of which only 1% may survive to adulthood.
For us, it is an overwhelming experience – a scene we never have and will never experience ever. We show her the respect she deserves - we try and click pictures without using flash; we contain our excitements to ourselves and don’t create a racket; we don’t clamor over each other, but give up our space so that the others can also catch this ethereal sight. The entire session could well take up to 4 hours and after the process is over, she will rest a while and then head for her home in the ocean.
Meanwhile, the Rangers will collect the eggs, label them and bury them in a pit of the same depth, among the sands in the hatchery. A protective cylindrical wire meshing is placed around each pit so that when the hatchlings burst out from their nest in around 2 months’ time, they will be restricted in the area until the Rangers collect them in a basket to be released on the beach. Like the crocodiles, the sex of the hatchling is determined by the temperature of the nest. Essentially, the hotter the sand surrounding the nest, the faster the embryos will develop. Cooler sand has a tendency to produce more males, with warmer sand producing a higher ratio of females. Of the 100 eggs laid, only 5% will make it to the ocean and 1% will ultimately survive to adulthood. For turtles to achieve sexual maturity, it usually takes anywhere from 20 to 50 years and hence there is an urgent need to protect and ensure as many eggs hatch as possible.
After watching the action for a good one hour and wanting more, we are taken to the ocean, where a batch of newly hatched turtles are being set free. Tiny as they are, they struggle through the waves to head out for freedom. A few keep coming back, confused and dazed, not knowing what is expected of them. But finally, primal instinct takes over – the little ones scuttle towards the open sea. A few will die on the way, a few will fall prey to the birds. The ones who make it to the ocean will have to struggle to survive. But the ones that finally will prevail against all odds and attain adulthood will keep the cycle going. The females will swim miles to come back to the same place where they were born. And hatch eggs – to spawn a new cohort of sea turtles.
We leave the island the morning after and head for the mainland, ready for some monkey business. 25 km away from Sandakan, is the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Started in 1964 and covering an area of 40 square km, it is one of only four orangutan sanctuaries in the world and one of Sabah's top tourist attractions. The centre deals with injured, orphaned and dislodged orangutans. Orangutans, which are exclusive to Malaysia and Indonesia, have been categorically hunted down by humans over the years to make them feature in the endangered species list. Just ten years ago the estimated population was around 27,000, today it could be as low as 15,000. At the Sepilok Centre, a dedicated group of environmentalist work hard to rescue and train these doomed apes – so that they can finally be freed to where they belong – the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra. Run by a British NGO called The Orangutan Appeal UK, with the help of the Wildlife Department of Sabah – this centre is doing a good job. It has so far, successfully rehabilitated around 80 orangutans to the wild.
We arrive just in time for lunch and position ourselves in the enclosure to watch in bewilderment as these almost human like apes come sweeping from trees and bush and sit themselves properly to have lunch.
The word "orangutan" comes from the Malay words "orang" (man) and "(h) utan" (forest); hence it means "man of the forest". Well, true to its etymon, in its mannerisms, an orangutan apes man. It’s the other way round, actually – since they came first and were somehow, somewhere related to our forefathers. According to a study, orangutans and not chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to humans. Humans share at least 28 unique physical characteristics with orangutans but only 2 with chimps and 7 with gorillas. Now that is some food for thought.
We walk through the centre, see the work that is being done here and are impressed. It needs a lot of compassion and devotion to dedicate oneself to a cause like this. The orphaned babies are reared by the staff as if they are their own. Once they are old enough, they are trained such that they become independent to find their own food and survive without any human contact. The babies are so sweet - almost like human babies - inquisitive, affectionate, hankering for attention. It breaks your heart to think that these vulnerable creatures are being persecuted by humans and kept captive or injured, for no fault of theirs. It dawns on you that we, the humans, are the beasts in reality – who for their own selfish motive are steadfastly destroying all that is good in this world.
We fall in love with one of babies and end up adopting him. His name is Sogo-Sogo and he will be 3 next March. This year, we have adopted another girl – Michelle, who is 7 months old. We are told that both are making good progress and Sogo-Sogo may soon be skilled enough to be set free in the wild.
So yes, we did end up having kids, as A had suspected before we started this sojourn. Ah well, what can I say - he's the wise one. It’s only that the kids don’t run wild in our backyard – but hopefully, will soon be running wild among the lush greens of the rain forest, living and surviving in the wilderness with dignity, as they justly deserve.
PS: If you want to adopt one, please visit www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk. It does not take much on your part, but does make a lot of difference for this conservation effort.