Volunteer Bambi's Experience at Nyaru Menteng

Volunteer Bambi's Experience at Nyaru Menteng

Posted by Bambi Smyth on 26th Apr 2019

Meeting Farudz

This is a male orang-utan who has been lucky enough to pass all the ‘survival tests’ and is now on a Soft Release island. This means he will be fed every day, but not quite enough to satisfy his hunger, so he will have to learn to fend for himself. Once this capability has been proven, he will be trucked for 3 days deep into the Hard Release jungle where he will truly be free.

Male Orangutan

But let me tell you about another orang-utan - Farudz. He is an enormous alpha-male that has languished in the Sanctuary for 20 years. Since he was one year old. Imagine that – even though he is very well cared for, that is still 20 years without freedom. The reason he is still there is the Sanctuary can’t just release all the alpha males in the one area, as they are very territorial and things would not end well. The Sanctuary is waiting to obtain and re-vegetate enough land to release all the males where they can be separated from each other, and will also have some ‘ladies’ to finally keep them company.

I met Farudz on a ‘water enrichment’ programme. This involves a water hose, which is introduced carefully into his enclosure, and close enough for him to accept it if he so chooses. Farudz is proud, and doesn’t want us to know that he loves water, so he puts a large rice sack over his head to hide from us. I patiently hold the hose in the same position, and suddenly he makes a lunge for it, slurping up the water. A few minutes later he does it again – for longer this time.

Even though Farudz (they all know their own names) is trying to hide his face, he is clearly loving it, opening his mouth wide and letting the water squirt against his tongue, his lips, the sides of his mouth. Eventually, he gets as close as he can to me, and I squirt the water standing just one metre away. He’s still trying to hide the top of his head, but below his mouth is wide open. Then he turns his head a little so I can squirt his flanges – those big flappy cheek pads – and lets me give him a 5-minute water massage each side. Eventually, he takes off his rice sack and looks me right in the eyes. His eyes showed intelligence, sentience, and patience, but also a certain world-weariness at what confinement he has had to endure - day after day after day.

I was both exhilarated and heart-broken. But either way, it was an experience I will treasure forever.

Volunteering At The Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I first volunteered through The Great Projects for a two weeks stint in the jungles of Borneo, helping the staff at Nyaru Menteng Orang-utan Sanctuary look after 350+ ‘residents'. But two weeks later I must say it was one of the most enriching experiences of my life!

Volunteering at Nyaru Menteng

We were a small team of 7 volunteers, from Canada, US, England and Australia. We were of all ages, from 27 to 60, but we quickly bonded through our mutual passion for wildlife, and most especially these amazing ‘cousins' of ours. We worked hard - damned hard - in the heat and the humidity, but the projects we were given were so absorbing it never got to us. We planted trees to re-vegetate newly acquired land. We mashed up bananas and porridge to put into bamboo pipes as little treats. We plaited palm fronds with peanuts and raisins for a bit of a challenge. We were given machetes to cut down tree branches and bushes (preferably with lots of little berries, or even tastier - flowers). We washed out rice sacks to be filled later with healthy food. We sorted fruit and vegetables into buckets to be handed out at dinner time.

Orangutan Enrichment

We were also encouraged to come up with our own ‘food enrichment’ ideas, which I did with great gusto - sawing up sealed lengths of bamboo, drilling little holes down one end, then immersing them in a bucket so they filled with water, then using a syringe to top them up with honey. It was all an experiment, but the trial group of orang-utans LOVED them - sipping and slurping and guzzling at the syrupy water as it came drizzling out in little fountains. Success!

Nyaru Menteng Orangutans

But the highlight without doubt was our interaction with the orang-utans. After five days of quarantine, and wearing gloves and face masks (as the orang-utans are so susceptible to disease), we were able to get up close and personal, and hand out all the treats we’d made for them. There was definitely no actual contact with any of the orang-utans, (keeping a good metre or two away from them), but it simply didn’t matter. We were there for THEM, they weren’t there for US.

Baby Orangutan Playground

Gazing into the faces of one of our closest cousins was awesome - quite literally. They are intelligent, curious, sentient, and have definite personalities - from cheeky to rude to grumpy to friendly to totally adorable! We had to be more cautious with the ‘Big Boys’, who tended to be a little more aloof, but seeing their majesty was electrifying. Watching the toddlers after Forest School was an absolute treat - swinging from aptly named jungle gyms, hiding in tubs, playing peek-a-boo with rice sacks, and play-wrestling. It was all too adorable, and I took a thousand photos!

Baby Orangutans

The staff at the Sanctuary were amazing - from our fabulous volunteer coordinator Chloe, to Andri her local sidekick, the dedicated enrichment team, Mama Mona who cooked our dinner every night and cleaned our ‘long-house’, and the drivers that took us from place to place, including a fun evening at the local market.

As for The Great Projects - I so appreciated their professionalism, enthusiasm, and guidance in organising my stay there. They were always there to answer questions be it big or small. They have dozens of Volunteer options to choose from, but my choice of Nyaru Menteng Orang-utan Sanctuary is one I will treasure forever. Thank you.

This was the ‘holiday’ of a lifetime, and knowing that you are doing something truly constructive for a critically endangered species, is incredibly rewarding. I’ll certainly be doing it annually from now on (and I’m the 60-year-old one!)

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Carolyn Jenkins commented 4 years ago
I'm an ole retired wildlife biologist at 79, unfortunately with fibromyalgia & chronic pain, who would dearly love to join you. Do we get another lifetime to do all that we so desire? Don't know but love that a 60 yr. old could join this amazing group & lend her heartfelt review. I so envy you. Have done primarily volunteer work in 3 states; there is so much to do. Thank you all so very much.

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JuliA rasti commented 4 years ago
Happy to have shared this with Bambi and the others . A true honour

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Rachael Kitts commented 4 years ago
What a wonderful blog. I've just enjoyed an amazing two weeks in an animal sanctuary in Costa Rica and this project sounds perfect for me to take on next!

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