Borneo Orang Utans Get Second Chance in Resort's Nature Park

Greg Waldron was impressed by a vacation resort that is helping rescued orang utans return to the wild – a model for future plantation and resort development, providing for economic progress, conservation, and education about environmental issues.

Home away from home.

Singapore, 6 March 2009. As the Silkair A319 winged eastwards toward Kota Kinabalu I gazed upon the sharp demarcation between the South China Sea and the mythical island of Borneo. The flight attendant passed me another glass of chilled chardonnay and I wondered what awaited me on the ground. All too often trips to exotic, romantic locations have resulted in disappointment: rows of half-completed condominiums, shopping malls, and western fast food joints. And, inevitably in Asia, signs of man’s destruction of nature under the relentless flag of progress.

A guide from Sabah Tourism met us at the airport. Our group comprised five journalists, three from Singapore and two from Australia, as well as a representative of Silkair. Silkair is a unit of giant Singapore Airlines, and sponsored our trip to publicize its flights to tourist destinations in and around Southeast Asia.

For most people the word ‘Borneo’ conjures up one image: the orang utan. Southeast Asia’s only great ape, these clever, gentle creatures have been decimated by the loss of habitat owing to logging, mining, and the vast areas of Malaysia and Indonesia (which shares Borneo with Malaysia and Brunei) that have fallen to palm oil production.

Logging, mining and plantations strip away their homes.

According to WildAsia, an Asian conservancy organisation, orang-utan numbers in Indonesia and Malaysia have declined sharply since 2004, mostly because of illegal logging and the expansion of palm oil plantations. Serge Wich, a scientist at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, found the orang-utan population on the island of Sumatra to have dropped nearly 14 per cent since 2004, to 6,600. In parts of Aceh province, no orang-utans were found at all.

The study – which appeared in the science journal Oryx – discovered the orang-utan population on Borneo had fallen by 10 per cent, to 49,600 apes. "It's disappointing that there are still declines, [despite] quite a lot of conservation efforts over the past 30 years," said Dr Wich.

The UN's environment programme report, 'The Last Stand of the Orang Utan: State of Emergency', says natural rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia are being cleared so rapidly that up to 98 per cent may be destroyed by 2022, and the lowland forest strongholds of orang utans much sooner, unless urgent action is taken. This is a full decade earlier than the previous report estimated when it was published five years ago. Overall the loss of orang utan habitat is happening 30 per cent more rapidly than had previously been thought.

The Borneo Orang Utan Survival Foundation UK, a charity which works to rescue, rehabilitate and release the animals into protected forest, warned that at the current rate of deforestation by the palm oil industry, orang utans in the wild could be close to extinction by 2012.

I knew orang utans were the first item on our itinerary, the focus of which was to familiarize us with mass tourism attractions around Kota Kinabalu. It was a great surprise, then, that we were taken to the Shangri-La Rasa Ria resort, as opposed to the long jungle trek I’d expected - and hoped for. At first glance the Shangri-La Rasa Ria looks like a conservationist’s nightmare. It has a vast lobby, large blocks of rooms with balconies over-looking the beach, and carefully manicured gardens amid clean-shaven lawns.

Not quite Conrad

“Wow, this is really the heart of darkness,” said one of the Australian journalists, gesturing at German tourists drinking beer at the poolside bar.

Quest for wildlife in Sabah's jungles.

“This is Southeast Asia, man,” somebody replied. “We can’t be too critical of all this. Lots of jobs here – and I expect they do have a cultural dance at night.”

Our group was led along a winding stone path to a hut at the end of the hotel’s white sand beach, the midday sun sparkling on the sea. The guide turned to us: “Let us know if you’d like some insect repellent. To help conserve the environment we don’t spray chemicals on the beach to prevent sand flies.”

Really? Being 3pm there were not likely to be sand flies about as these pests of Asia’s beaches tend to come forth only in the morning and early evening. Nonetheless I cast a wary eye at my sandaled feet, worried that I’d see black clusters of small flies forming there. No flies, thankfully.

After a short, easy trek along a well kept jungle path we arrived at two wooden platforms. Our group missed feeding time, yet we did spot two of the Rasa Ria’s four orang utans playing about on the branches.

That said, the orang utans do not really belong to the hotel, for we learned that the park’s primary objective is providing a home for rescued orang utans that are being transitioned for a return to the jungle. Many of the dozens of orang utans that have passed through the park were former pets of loggers and plantation workers, adopted after their parents have been killed. On average, a rescued orang utan spends 4 to 5 years at the 64 acre Rasa Ria park.

“Do orang utans make good pets?” I asked the park warden.

“When they are young loggers often adopt them,” he replied. “But when they get big they are seven times stronger than a man.” While the guide’s tone did not imply an orang utan pet would be come violent, I assumed such a large, strong animal would become a handful as it got bigger and hungrier – and thus more likely to be abandoned.

Splendid views in sleepy Sabah.

The park has successfully rehabilitated dozens of orang utans over the years. It is also home to a range of other species, including two species of deer, long-tailed macaques, pheasants, civets, bear cats, masked musangs, monitor lizards, water hens, porcupines, pangolins, pitcher plants, fruit bats and 63 species of birds.

Foster an orang utan

Guests can support the hotel’s rehabilitation efforts through its Foster An Animal program, which provides funding for the care and feeding of the orang utans. Foster Parents have their names listed on the resorts web site.

The two orang utans, having been fed, soon disappeared into the gloom of the trees. The dozen guests who had gathered headed back to the hotel. Our group waited for these secretive creatures to emerge again, but they were lost in the park’s acres of tall trees and thick undergrowth.

Back in my hotel that night I watched a two-part BBC documentary. Part one discussed the proliferation of palm oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, part two a massive resort building boom along the beaches of central Vietnam. While there is little question that both phenomena are bad news for the environment, they are each driven by western demand and provide much needed jobs in impoverished parts of the world.

It struck me that the Shangri-La Rasa Ria’s nature park could be a useful model for future resort and plantation development. Given sufficient political will the region’s governments could oblige resort and plantation firms to set aside a certain acreage of nature reserve adjacent to their properties. This would help avoid the urban sprawl that has ruined such once idyllic spots as Phuket’s Patong Beach or Koh Samui’s Chaweng beach.

Pretty, but growing crops replace natural habitats.

These reserved areas would be educational and enjoyable for guests, provide jobs, and set aside valuable space for endangered wildlife. Coordination among the resorts could help ensure a range of the region’s endangered species keep a small foothold in natural habitats. The ultimate goal could be reintroduction to the wild, as with the Shangri-la Rasa Ria’s orang utans, although keeping animals in their own habitat has great merit in and of itself.

Development and progress are the very essence of mankind, yet the Shangri-La Rasa Ria shows these imperatives

and wildlife conservation need not be mutually exclusive.

Photography by Greg Waldron.

About Silkair:

Singapore-based SilkAir flies one of the youngest fleets in the Asia region, with an average age of 5.5 years. It operates fifteen aircraft, nine Airbus A320-200 and six Airbus A319-100 aircraft. SilkAir positions itself as a premium, short-to-medium haul regional carrier offering unique appeal amongst leisure and business travelers in Asia. Visit for more information.

In conjunction with its 20th anniversary celebrations, SilkAir recently announced the adoption of Friends-International, an award-winning Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) which focuses on reducing the number of street children across Asia and beyond, as its official charity. Sharing Friends-International’s vision to give children access to education, SilkAir will offer two children from the NGO’s vibrant Phnom Penh headquarters SilkAir Scholarships to study English at the Australian Centre for Education in the Cambodian capital.

About Sabah:

Sabah offers some of Asia’s most spectacular rainforests, and has Southeast Asia’s highest peak, Mount Kinabalu. Other activities involve white water rafting through pristine rain forests, snorkeling and diving on exotic reefs, and quaint towns where one can by traditional handicrafts. Learn more at

About the Shangri-La Rasa Ria

Interested in being a foster parent to one of the Shangri-La Rasa Ria’s orang utans? Visit to learn more.