(This is a post dedicated solely to the Great Orangutan Project)
Selecting a wildlife volunteer program while traveling around Southeast Asia is much easier said than done. With an ever growing western population of travelers who want the experience of physically interacting with cute, furry animals (most often for the purpose of snagging great photos and stories), finding a legitimate organization who’s mission is to preserve, rehabilitate and save the endangered takes some work. After copious hours of research, we landed on The Great Orangutan Project at the Matang Wildlife Center in Borneo. They highlight their sincere focus on orangutan husbandry and rehabilitation (meaning you engage with projects to improve the animals’ living conditions), with a secondary, but equally important focus on sun bears, another of Borneo’s protected species.
We cross-checked a number of different sources to ensure what we were reading was accurate, and finally booked our spots via The Great Projects, an eco-tourism travel agency, based in the UK, focused on facilitating wildlife experiences like The Great Orangutan Project. Below you can read about our experience in hopes you will gain visibility into the program yet you decide to offer your time to the Great Orangutan Project in the future.
About The Great Orangutan Project
The Great Orangutan Project is based at, but operates independently of, the Matang Wildlife Center, which is government owned and operated. They have built a strong relationship with the Matang Wildlife Center, to care for and take in all animals that are sent their way. Their mission is simple in that they selflessly serve to protect animals from harmful situations, and give them a better life, but they do face a number of obstacles on their road to improvement. They are free to make strong suggestions to optimize living conditions for the animals, but by no means have the ability to enforce them. The government has a heavy but slow moving hand in saying what optimizations get passed through, and given this high level bureaucracy, changes are slow to be made. Even still, the passionate staff of The Orangutan Project continue to lobby their recommendations and do their best to work within their means to do what they can.
They have recently established one other Center in Indonesia, which we understood to be more of a semi-wild facility; and are working toward opening another semi-wild location on a small island near Matang that would be dedicated solely to orangutans that are candidates to being released into the wild.
About the volunteer experience
We were very impressed with the seamless introduction we had; having gotten picked up by one of the facilitators from the airport who eagerly shared a number of interesting facts with us on the drive out about the Center and the Project. We enjoyed a comfortable first night in a pre-arranged guest house (where we had a private room) with the other volunteers, and were happy to meet them all the first night at a warm Welcome Dinner.
We departed for the Matang Wildlife Center in the morning of the next day, where we were taken on a thorough tour of the facility by another equally passionate facilitator, where we saw a range of various animals (everything from cockatoos to crocodiles) who all now call the Center home. From there were were taken to the markets to get food for the week, and then out to a delicious local dinner where we were able to try Roti and other tasty Malaysian dishes.
From there, our real work began. Our day to day consisted of pitching in to help with a number of tasks in order to keep the Center running. Projects included but were not limited to cleaning cages, mixing cement for new enclosures, painting and refacing existing enclosures, and designing enrichment parcels for the orangutans (which usually tended to come in the form of food wrapped up within burlap sacks sewn together with some level of complexity in order to give the animals a chance to think through how to best get to the food parcel quickly). Many of the more maintenance related projects needed to be done in order to keep the Center looking nice so it would in turn be respected by daily tourists, which would ultimately result in keeping the enclosures and surrounding areas clean for the animals to live in.
We were also thrilled to help with the release of a binturong (more commonly known as a bearcat), into the jungle. After securing him into a carrier cage, we helped the Malaysian Forestry team transport the cage deep into the jungle. After much anticipation, the door was opened and he was released. We heard continuous updates that he was doing well in the wild on his own, but both the staff of The Orangutan Project and the Forestry team were still monitoring him via a radio collar device to ensure he remained safe.
To speak a bit to our day-to-day, our schedule of sorts would begin promptly at 8am each morning and end each day close to 5pm, with a 2-hour lunch break in between. The heat and sporadic rain storms made for backbreaking and laborious work at times, but we stayed true to realize our efforts were ultimately going toward preserving these incredibly rare and amazing animals.
Interesting facts we took away
- There is a small group of highly dedicated people who work for free (in exchange for room and board) at the Center. Neither they nor the CEO take a salary. All proceeds from the volunteer work go directly into Project for the animals.
- There is a bar called The Monkey Bar, in Kuching, which is also owned by The Great Orangutan Project. Again, all profits from the bar go straight to efforts for the animals.
- There is one facilitator dedicated to either each animal (i.e. a baby who has lost it’s mom, or an older animal if special care is needed), or to a group of animals (i.e. the orangutans, the sun bears, or the animals collectively within the quarantine area) to ensure consistency in animal care. They strive to avoid the volunteers from having direct contact with the animals as they are transient, and can inadvertently cause the animals stress from not having one consistent person they know around them day in and out.
If you’re interested in volunteering for this program and have specific questions, we’d be happy to answer what you can if you contact us!