Saving Ritchie, the Man of the Forest

Last week, I tried to play detective when a gentleman from Samarahan tried to sell me a live porcupine at a very special price.

Apparently the Rial “Pasar Tamu” Market is one of the locations where one can purchase exotic wild meat on occasion.

During the “negotiation” over the deal, I reported the matter to a senior officer in the Sarawak Forestry Department. I had hoped to close the deal and then write the story of illegal wildlife meat trade, which has led to the drastic depletion of wildlife in Sarawak in recent years.

However, the man did not turn up because he suspected I was not a genuine wildlife meat eater and the deal was off.

In fact, I have been writing about this rampant trade from the 1980s while trying to protect the denizens of the forest from ending up in the cooking pot.

Since then, I have “rescued” a macaque from the Old Satok Market, a “tenggiling” or pangolin — a delicacy — from the “Pasar Tamu” in Limbang and endemic masked palm civet, to name a few.

I have also reprimanded a wildlife hunter who had been a frequent hunter of leopard cats in an oil palm plantation in Serian two years ago.

I have a collection of some sad stories of how wild animals have suffered at the hands of man; the first involves the killing of an orang utan at the Batang Ai National Park 25 years ago.

As the story goes, a police sergeant and a group of civil servants on a hunting expedition shot a full-grown primate they had stumbled upon in the Park.

One of the witnesses to the incident told me: “We had a few beers when we came across a large lumbering male orang utan which blocked our path in the middle of the jungle.

“Before I could say anything, the sergeant, who was armed with a shotgun, fired at the primate, point blank.

“The animal did not appear to be hurt, turned around slowly and continued to walk away but the sergeant quickly reloaded his gun and fired into its back and it fell. I was sad but I was a guest and there was nothing I could say or do.”

They skinned the carcass and beheaded the animal. It’s a sad story because 30 years ago, there may have been at least 5,000 orang utan at our famous national park but now the figure has fallen to between 2,000 and 2,500.

In another but equally tragic incident in the late 1980s, a group of starving communist terrorists hiding in Indonesia’s Martinus Complex were encouraged to eat orang utan meat.

They captured a live primate, cut off its hands and cooked its fleshly palms, before setting the bleeding animal free to face starvation and certain death.

However, a happier story is about an adopted orang utan called “Ungka” who was coached in human ways. Retired Sarawak Special Branch officer Datuk Lawrence Lim recalled meeting Ungka when he visited a longhouse in remote Ulu Kanowit in 1963.

Ungka was taught how to imitate the Iban “ngajat” dance as he imitated the movements of monkeys and other animals in the forest and hornbills.

Ungka had been captured by a group of hunters at Ulu Lanjak in the bordering jungle of Indonesia when its mother was shot — the primate lived in the longhouse for more than 20 years. 

Last but not least is the story of how I confronted a poacher with a caged seven-year-old primate at Nanga Delok in Batang Air in December 1989 before surrendering it to the Semenggoh Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre near Kuching. The 130kg alpha male was named “Ritchie” after its rescuer.

Ritchie

But there was a happy ending to this story because days after Ritchie’s detention at Semenggoh, a female Orang Utan named “Seduku” ripped open my namesake’s flimsy cage and both “eloped” into the forest.

Ritchie, who was a young adult at that time, sired his first child with 45-year-old Seduku — the oldest orang utan female at Semenggoh.

Since the 780ha Semenggoh reserve was opened in 1975, the population rate has barely grown to 30, which is still very small when compared to the current death rate due to environmental degradation through logging and oil palm development.

A serious effort must be taken to educate our people on the need to preserve our heritage of Borneo’s noble “Man of the Forest” before it’s too late.

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

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