Island Sanctuary of the Apes

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Welcome to the only bastion of safety for the orangutans in West Malaysia – the protected island sanctuary of Bukit Merah!

To get to the Orang Utan Island Foundation, you’ll have to catch a ferry from the main Bukit Merah Laketown Resort. The ferry departs every 45 minutes, and the ferry ride and tour of the sanctuary costs around thirty ringgit (varies between locals and international visitors, as usual).

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The place is sturdily built and well structured, and you do get a chance to see orangutans up close. Orangutans are clever and curious creatures, and although the larger ones are pretty sloth-like, most of them are agile and lively.

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This is BJ, the current alpha male on the island. Formidable and deliberate, this giant’s bellow can be heard for kilometres!

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The trio above are the resident jokers – teenage males that like to chill and play with things.

It’s a shame they have to be kept behind fences most of the time, as I’m sure some human-orangutan interaction wouldn’t be detrimental to either side. Apart from the rougher males, most of these creatures don’t mean anyone any harm.

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The youngest ones get to chill by the water and are fed through a pipe that runs to a platform in the middle of the water.

The way they easily swing their way around makes you wonder – why are they so darn hairy? 

And it’s not even a good hue for camouflage!

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Although they claim to be preparing the orangutans for rehousing, I’ve met the exact same orangutans in my numerous visits to this sanctuary.

The tour guides are passionate and very professional, but I have a strong feeling there’s things in between the rehearsed lines that they feed us.

Who knows if these orangutans ever make it off the island?

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There’s nothing particularly sinister about the place. It’s just that as much as the tour guides joke that the orangutans are the ones that get to roam free and gaze at us humans in the confined caged walkways, this particular sanctuary doesn’t seem all that big.

And I’ve never once seen the neonatal orangutan care centre occupied; that’s where they’re supposed to house the baby orangutans. I hope it’s because all the newborns are happy and healthy.

To me, this is more of an orangutan zoo.

Perhaps it’s the only way to “save” this endangered animal – by keeping the remaining ones alive behind electric fences. A sad reality of our strange human concept of conservation.

Welcome to the island sanctuary of the apes.