Volunteering with orangutans in Sarawak

Natasha Beckerson spent almost 10 years volunteering for the Orangutan Project based at the Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak. This is a conservation organisation working with a variety of endangered wildlife in Borneo, practising impressively responsible tourism in the wildlife volunteering sector. Orangutan Project was set up by Leo Biddle from the UK and the center itself is government run, making this a very successful partnership between a conservation organisation and the state authorities of Sarawak.

Natasha chats with our travel writer, Catherine Mack, about volunteering with orangutans in Sarawak.
How you ended up at the Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak?

I am from England and worked here for almost 10 years, on a voluntary basis. The organisation doesnít salary any Western members of staff. They have quite a few long term volunteers like myself but they are just there on a house and food allowance. The team of local staff are all salaried and paid well for their work, but Westerners have to scrounge and suffer for our love!

I came into it after graduating university (I studied biology and criminology, but in the final year I specialised in biology and conservation) and was looking at short term volunteering projects to have a bit of a window into the conservation world. I spent about a year doing volunteering here and there, then bouncing back to the UK. It was during those months I met the founder, Leo, and he was talking to me about the work he does at here at Matang. After I finished all those short term trips, I agreed to come back to Matang and volunteer for two to three months, I thought at the time, to help Leo set up the volunteering project. One month led to another and then to another nine years.
What is the average amount of time that people spend volunteering?

Most common is the two-week project, but there is a four-week option as well.
What sort of people decide to go on this vacation?

People usually assume that it is all gap year people, but for this project it is ladies, predominantly, between 30 and 60. Usually people who have been thinking about it for a while, who have always liked orangutans or they have always been interested in Borneo. And then they have finally got to a place where they can afford it, or they have been in their jobs long enough that they can take a longer vacation. There is a tiny chunk of gap year students but it is definitely not the majority. The minimum age for an independent traveler is 18, but the project has taken as young as 15 if they are traveling with parents.
Have the volunteers usually had past experience?

No, they aren’t usually experienced and people thinking about coming out shouldn’t worry about being inexperienced at all. We receive volunteers from such a wide range of backgrounds; sometimes they also have skills that you might not always think are useful to this kind of work. For example, our website was designed by a past volunteer; some of our merchandise artistic work was designed by a volunteer. Those kinds of things have been really useful, and we just wouldn’t have met people with those skills if we didn’t have the volunteering project here.
Is there a daily routine for people volunteering with you?

There is. Volunteers are working from roughly eight in the morning with a two hour lunch break when it is hottest, from 12 until two, working again until five, roughly, in the evenings. The morning work is generally dominated by husbandry, which is basically feeding and cleaning, in a nutshell. Matang as a center is very diverse in the animals that it houses, it is not just an orangutan project – it is any protected wildlife from the area. Matang is the only center in the whole of Sarawak that can take these animals when they need to be rescued. So we do split our volunteers’ time into different animal areas so they are not just focused on the orangutan, but of course they do spend some of their time with orangutan.

In the afternoon, it is a mixture of enrichment work, construction and center maintenance. The jungle is pretty tough on manmade objects, so lots of cleaning, repairing, that sort of stuff, happens as well.
And what do people do in the evenings?

Well, there is no WiFi, which is nice – there is electricity in the volunteers’ houses, but there are no TVs or anything like that, so people just talk to each other a lot, which I think is nice, and a bit of a novelty as well for some! They play card games, or they cook together. But people end up finishing work pretty tired usually, and so they quite often have early nights, finishing their day at nine or ten each night. But there’s definitely a lot of chat and improvising without TV to fall back on.
You mentioned other animals at Matang – what other species do you have there?

At the moment we have quite a lot of sun bears – we just received a new cub yesterday, so that is 14 sun bears at the moment. We’ve got a lot of macaques – long tailed and pig tailed macaques, probably more than 50 of those. And then about 20 orangutan. Those are the three main areas that the volunteers work in. On the wider trail, which we sometimes work on for maintenance and enrichment projects, we have crocodiles, a lot of deer, porcupines, some civets, some binturongs, quite a few different bird species, some turtles and a few other different reptiles. People will often meet animals here that they may never even have heard of before, which they quite enjoy.
What is the main reason for the primates being there?

The orangutan have mostly been taken from pet trade. And most of the smaller primates are mostly ‘conflict’ animals, which means they have been in wild landscapes that humans are now expanding into. The macaques, for example, are very smart and very interested in everything that humans have, and people don’t enjoy sharing their space with those. So they set traps, and then end up bringing them to Matang.

But it is overwhelmingly the pet trade and people giving up their pets – it is illegal to keep any of the animals that are here at Matang as pets. Sometimes the authorities confiscate people’s pets and bring them here; other times people just give them up themselves. The sun bear that we got yesterday, for example, was a pet that came from a town a long way from Matang, so it had a long drive here yesterday with the authorities. It is about three months old. Sun bear cubs are absolutely adorable so it is very easy to see why some people want to keep them. But the period of time that they are cute is very short, because their teeth develop and they are very bitey when they want to play. And they are very strong, even at four or five months old. So there is probably a window of four to six weeks when they are cute and playful, and after that people start to get injured. And that is when they start to remove the sun bears’ teeth and claws to try and keep them a bit safer for a bit longer. Or they will just give them up.
So what about food at the center? You said everyone mucks in with their own cooking?

We dish out a small budget for volunteers’ food which they get on the first day they arrive with us. After their first tour of the Centre, we take them out to do their grocery shopping. There are four different houses that volunteers are living in, with three or four volunteers to a house, so usually they pool their food budgets and shop and cook as a household. Some nights all houses pitch in for an evening or two together, but most evenings the houses stick to themselves.

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Do they get a chance to volunteer out in the wild as well as at the Centre?

At the moment they are all based at the center. However, recently we have been training up a team of local people who are tracking animals that have been released back into the wild. In the last year we have had the money to invest in collars and radio tracking technology, so the local team is getting more involved in using those, and we are talking about bringing that into the volunteer project, hopefully in the next year. But if people want to see orangutan in the true wild, that wouldn’t be possible here, because the area where they live is very far away from Matang, in Batang Ai National Park. We have a separate project that works there, but it is only just kicking off now.
What sort of things do people do on their weekend off?

Bako National Park is fairly close by. It has a lot of wildlife – not orangutan, but lots of other animals – so a lot of people take an overnight trip there and spend a couple of days looking at the other primates. We will always help with them booking a lodge or whatever they want. Sometimes they want a hotel with internet and air conditioning, and there is that option – there are a couple of resorts in a coastal area, so people often book a night there too.
What sort of things do people get wrong before they come out to you? Do they have false expectations?

I think they are pretty well prepared for the living conditions, and sometimes they think they are in the middle of the jungle even though it isn’t at all at Matang. But compared with your average residence in the UK, for example, it is pretty removed. I think very occasionally, some people are disappointed that they are not just working with the orangutan. We have tried very hard with our website, and our agents, to make sure that there is clear information about that. And I think it is clear, but not everyone reads the information provided. Sometimes people have an idea of what they want to do, and they book it even though they haven’t always digested all the details of what they are going to be doing.

Other than that, the humidity and working outside is a challenge, but I think people have an idea of that, even if you can’t prepare for it really until you are here. Another thing is that some of the orangutan documentaries that people watch before they come feature wheelbarrows full of babies, and sometimes that is what people are expecting. But that isn’t what Matang is at all. We have far more of the other species than we do orangutan, and almost all of the orangutan are adults. So it isn’t a photo opportunity to get wheelbarrows full of babies. It isn’t like what you have seen on TV.
What are your top tips for someone considering volunteering on this trip?

Read all the information before you come. Connect with past volunteers – so easily done now with Facebook and other social media – as they can give their perspective on things. Have an open mind and a laid back attitude, and not have an idea set in stone of what you are going to see and what you are going to do. And to be ready to learn from the new experiences.

Another thing to consider is that although people are quite motivated to work with animals, they must remember that they are working and living with a group of humans as well. So they need to keep an open mind about being tolerant of other people, and be ready to be sociable. Sometimes we get people who live alone and then find themselves in a situation here of communal living, and I think that is something people donít always think about when they are mentally preparing for a project like this. They do need to be friendly and sociable if they are going to get the most out of the project. I am very interested in animal behaviour, generally, but in my job I also get to see human behaviour which is in some ways the most interesting animal behaviour. So I quite enjoy that aspect of it too!
How do you know when an animal is ready to be released?

You never do to be honest. The ideal way is when an animal that has been trapped in the wild by a member of the public and then surrendered to us immediately. Then the most you want to do is a quick health check, and hopefully release straight away. But for any of the other animals here, we are just trialling it all really. Now we have the funds to buy the technology to track them, we have been attaching some kind of transmitter to anything that has been released in the past year. But the failure rate of the technology is really high, so that is something else that we are learning as we go along.
If you had to sum up your top three memories, what would they be?

One happened not that long ago. We finally got agreement from the government to use an island area to release some of our macaques onto. We have been struggling with the macaque population at Matang for years, so it is great that we have this solution. We have released a trial group of ten macaques already and we had funds to buy some camera traps for the island. Going through the camera traps and looking at the photos of the monkeys on the island has definitely been awesome!
My second lasting memory was releasing a binturong in the forest. We had had it in a cage in the forest for a few weeks, and we were feeding it out in the forest so that it could get used to that type of setting. And so the day came when we were due to release the binturong. We all trekked out with the volunteers, opened the door, and it just sat in the cage. So then we tried to rig up a little bridge to try and help it out. After we did that, it came out of the cage, turned towards me and the group of volunteers and just charged towards us and looked really angry. So I turned to the volunteers and said, you need to walk very quickly, but it kept chasing us through the jungle.

I was at the back, and kept shouting forwards to the volunteers to keep running, but it kept chasing. It was very funny looking back on it. We eventually got to quite a large bridge that the group of volunteers had constructed and for some reason it wasnít comfortable crossing that bridge. It was really pissed off! You donít get gratitude from the animals!

As well as those memories, just generally, when you have a great group of volunteers on site who are motivated for whatever work you throw at them, and they gel really well as a team, those are some of my best times.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: DUPAN PANDU] [Orangutan: Fish Ho Hong Yun] [Volunteers: Natasha de Vere & Col Ford] [Sunbear: cuatrok77] [Bako National Park: Peter Gronemann] [Binturong: Radovan Zierik]