My Authentic Orangutan Volunteering Experience!

My Authentic Orangutan Volunteering Experience!

Posted by Sharon Lynne on 26th Nov 2019

The following was written by returning volunteer Sharon Lynne, who has proudly volunteered on both the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project and at the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary. 

It doesn’t matter if you’re 24 or 64 or somewhere in between, volunteering in the midst of the Bornean forest with orangutans, is a life-changing experience. Well, it certainly was for me in my 59th year and that was 5 years ago when I first volunteered on the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project organised by The Great Projects.

Yes, that was five years ago and I was so taken in by not only having achieved a bucket-list experience but mainly because my heart was drawn more and more towards helping save a species that is now on the critically endangered list… and I have been back every year since then! Needless to say, I will be 65 when I return for my 5th time in 2020.

Over these five years, I have been to both sanctuaries in Eastern Kalimantan (Samboja Lestari Orangutan Sanctuary) and Central Kalimantan (Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary). The fullness of the program at both sanctuaries is just as exhilarating as the other because they both have their highlights. All in all, I can’t quite describe the amount of emotion, awe and fulfilment I experience each time I go, and every time is different from the last one. 

Volunteering at the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary

I think the most exhilarating experience for me as a volunteer is knowing that these rehabilitated orangutans may eventually experience freedom, but this time, in protected forests. They have been rescued from the most horrible conditions, caused by deforestation, malnutrition (because their source of food has been burned down), illegal pet trade and many times being shot at for wandering into a palm oil plantation in search of food. I can go on and on about the abuse and annihilation of this human-like species, but mostly I want to tell you about my awe-inspiring experience at the sanctuaries run by The Great Projects.

From the moment I open my eyes in the morning, I hear the orangutans’ deep, guttural calls and I feel that hard-to-describe rush of adrenalin! I think to myself “Oh my goodness… I am actually here (again)”. I can’t wait to jump out of bed, get dressed and start my day working amongst orangutans with the rest of the volunteers… And after a scrumptious, authentic Indonesian breakfast our day begins.

I wait expectantly to stare into the eyes of an orangutan that projects pure emotion and a real raw connection, making you wonder what you’ve done to deserve their respect. It is at that moment, I know that nothing else I have experienced in previous wildlife ventures (and I have been on many), or holidays for that matter, could ever come close to the fullness I feel in my heart working amongst these anthropoids. They display such human traits. 

Volunteers on the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Volunteer Project

Each day brings more and more joy as I work with like-minded volunteers all experiencing the same joy as me. Every minute is saturated with substance-filled-activities from chopping bamboo, making enrichment for the orangutans, venturing into the forests to cut ginger leaves with machetes (which the orangutans use to make their beds) to filling the orangutans’ water bowls and giving them the enrichment previously made, all the while being cajoled by the colourful characters of these orangutans as they watch you with curiosity and cautiousness. 

And there is so much more…. Building feeding platforms on the man-made islands, pulling weeds from the rivers so the orangutans don’t use them to pull themselves across, weaving hammocks for them to relax on, planting new trees to help reforestation and feeding the sun bears at Samboja Lestari. There is so much to do it would take me paragraphs to include it all. There’s a real plethora of stimulating activities all for a cause that has treasured outcome. 

Orangutan Islands at Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary

To be taken on a boat around the islands and witness the progress that these sanctuaries (run by the incredible Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation) are making, makes it all worthwhile, especially if you are passionate about wildlife and helping to save endangered species. 

It is here at (the larger sanctuary) Nyaru Menteng, that you realise the fullness of the program when you witness orangutans in thick forested pre-release islands waiting for their final return back into the wild. The same orangutans that came to the sanctuary sometimes up to eight (or more) years earlier. The same orangutans that were saved from a life-threatening situation by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. 

To drink in the environment from every emotional aspect is something that has now become part of my passion and purpose. I can’t express enough how soul drenching this experience is when volunteering at either sanctuary. 

Baby Orangutan Playground at the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary

… And I haven’t even spoken about the baby orangutans yet, but I don’t want to tell you too much about that because it’s the cherry on the top that will lift you to heights that you will not want to come down from. I choose to stay up there, and that’s why I am going back! 

I will always stay true to the true essence of “why” I keep going back, I am and always will be dedicated to supporting the plight of the orangutan. In saying that, I encourage people to please always respect the fact that orangutans are not pets instead they need to be wary of us humans. 

So if you do choose to work amongst orangutans please always be mindful of this and if you can do that, that will make volunteering with The Great Projects an even more authentic and gratifying experience.

Sharon Lynne
Age - 64

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Lisa commented 3 months ago
Thank you for your review, Sharon. I’m 52 next week, from Australia too and I look forward to enjoying this experience myself someday soon!

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Kris Blok-Andersen commented 4 years ago
I am so envious of you! The horrific circumstances that orangutans face is almost too painful to encompass. I would be so incredibly happy to volunteer at either site in Borneo...but in the past 2 years have been suffering severe arthritis in my knees, which are now good for standing/walking only about 3 hours each day :(. I hate how limiting this is, especially when it keeps me away from the labour of love you do. All the best, Sharon, and Brava! Hug one of those babies for me, will you?

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Colleen commented 4 years ago
Thanks for sharing your wonderful experience. I’ve booked to do the orangutan/ Pygmy elephant project in April and have been having doubts if I’m too old! I’m 58 and feeling so much better knowing I’m not the only oldie doing volunteer work. All the pics show lovely young 20 something volunteers and it’s had me worried.... now I really cannot wait to go.

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