Life of an orangutan casanova

More than a year has passed since my namesake, Ritchie the orangutan alpha male, disappeared from the 653ha Semenggoh Wildlife Centre forest.

I have done my own investigations to find out what happened because several years ago, he fell from a 150-ft tall tree and broke a limb.

Thanks to Ritchie’s keeper Murtadza Othman, a search party found the primate after a month nursing a broken limb which had healed.

The primate had been a great asset to the centre, which attracts as many as 60,000 visitors annually.

He was so famous that the likes of the Prince of Wales even visited Semenggoh not too long ago.

My theory is that Ritchie has joined a troop of monkeys, led by Bujang Senior (senior bachelor), who has absconded with a female called Lela.

After the interloper mated with Lela and had two offspring, she only had eyes for Bujang Senior.

About 15 years ago, Lela suddenly disappeared from Semenggoh and has not been seen since.

My theory is that Ritchie could have joined the wild bunch because he was pursuing one of Bujang’s members — a female named Dayang.

Looking back, Ritchie has also led an interesting love life; his first was Seduku with whom he had four offspring.

But when Seduku turned 50 last year, she spurned the hairy and grumpy 38-year-old’s advances.

Ritchie had a second lover called Delima, who also gave him the snub, and so Ritchie had to move on.

Semenggoh’s first female warden, Emel Farnida Jaddil, is well aware that Ritchie is a Casanova.

Emel, who spent 10 years at the centre, told me about Ritchie’s fits of jealousy and his fights with rivals — a common trait among orangutans, who share 97 percent of the DNA sequence with us homo sapiens.

She also told me about Ritchie’s legendary fights with two alpha males, Aman and George.

In one encounter, Ritchie and George fought like humans, chasing, punching and wrestling.

“George was hurt but luckily, he fell into the river and the fight ended. George lost a finger and had to be relocated to Matang.”

Three years ago, two younger alpha males, Edwin and Anuar, in their early 20s, fought with Ritchie.

Both were taller and heavier than the 135kg, 4ft 2in high Ritchie, and gave the old man a beating in separate bouts.

After that, Ritchie seemed to avoid confrontations with the youngsters and just focused on the females.

And so, what do we know about Sarawak’s iconic orangutans, which are only found in this part of the world?

Borneo’s orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) are one of three types of great apes that inhabit Sabah, Sarawak and Indonesian Kalimantan.

In 1900, it was estimated that there were about 200,000 orangutans in Borneo.

But deforestation and plantation development over the last 20 years had dramatically reduced their numbers to less than 50,000.

The worse-hit region was Central Kalimantan where the bulk of orangutans are located, at Tanjung Puting.

In 2015 alone, 1.6 million hectares of Kalimantan forests were razed to the ground.

Sadly, Sarawak’s share of the world orangutan population is only about 3,000, at the Batang Ai National Park.

Last Wednesday, I had a stroke of luck when I bumped into an American Professor Emeritus, whom I will call Dr Jerry, who is somewhat of an orangutan expert.

I learnt that 35,000 years ago, the cave dwellers of Niah domesticated orangutans and even ate them when they ran out of food.

Now back to the subject of Ritchie’s whereabouts, I was told that Ritchie may have joined the wild orangutans who sometimes cross over from Semenggoh to the massive Bengoh National Park 15km away in the Padawan hills.

Sharing the border of West Kalimantan, Bengoh is arguably one of the most beautiful forest destinations in all of Malaysia. 

I think during Ritchie’s romantic escapades, he may even have visited this famous “Shangri-La”.

I wouldn’t be surprised if news of orangutan sightings from the hills will come filtering in soon.

Who knows, they may have spotted a slow-moving lumbering old primate walking about as if he owns the place, thinking he is king of the jungle.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.