Ritchie, when just a young 18 inch tall primate, was squeezed into an 18-inch square cage and put up for sale.
At the Semenggoh Orangutan rehabilitation center in kuching to be nursed and taken care off. From 30 kg to a
majestic 140 kg adult today.
Sometime in December 1989, I went on an assignment to write about an Iban longhouse in the Batang Ai dam area together with an entourage that included the owner of Borneo Adventure, a travel and tours Company, a former journalist from the New Straits Times, k.C. Boey and several others. Before we could settle into our rooms opposite Nanga Delok longhouse under the charge of headman “Tuai Rumah” Jonathan Jugat, a slightly balding man approached me. He said: “I have an Orangutan baby for sale. Do you want it?” He ushered me to a spot under the longhouse where the poor debilitated primate was caged- a young primate about 18 inches tall, it had been squeezed into an 18-inch square cage with hardly any room to move. My first reaction was to tell him off. But I realised that if I did he would have bolted off with the animal, and the poor orangutan would have to go on another sad journey imprisoned in his small cage with his captor! Instead, I referred to my peers who agreed that we must rescue the primate. We agreed that I warn the poacher about the illegality of keeping a totally protected animal and threaten to report him to the authorities.
With that, the man begged us not to report him. He left the animal with us but before he left us in a hurry, he begged for a few ringgit so that he would not go home empty handed. We gave him RM100 before he scooted off as fast as possible, probably to indonesia – about a day’s journey from Batang Ai.
In those days many of Sarawak’s VIPs kept orangutans which were caged in private homes. I was familiar with what was happening and despite knowing that it was wrong, knew the female Orangutan at the Rehabilitation Centre. that some important figures got away with it. One of those who kept several orangutan in his private zoo was a personal friend, the Environment Minister. At Nanga Delok, it was agreed that I would take the animal
home that Saturday before surrendering it to the authorities on Monday. On Reaching Tabuan Desa, my wife who worked in Malaysian Airlines had a look and found that the poor primate had a bloated stomach. She gave him a dose of a deworming fluid called “Combantrine” and shortly after, he defecated a bunch of worms.
We then fed him with fresh fruit. To cut a long story short, the Sarawak Forestry Department came to our home on Sunday and a kelabit friend of mine, David Labang, and his staff, took “Ritchie Junior” off our hands. The primate was taken to the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in kuching (I was told the same day night) and was put in a cage in the holding area. Apparently, that’s where he met an older female “Seduku” – she was named after an island called Pulau Seduku – who managed to get in the premises and meet the new “inmate”. As the story goes, it was love at first sight.
I’m not sure if the animal was kept in the same flimsy wire cage that he was brought in, but Seduku was able to rip the cage door open. Grabbing junior – then estimated to be about four years old- by the hand they “eloped” and fled into the jungle. Later when informed about the “new inmate” at Semenggoh, a senior Sarawak Civil servant whom I was told was former State Secretary Tan Sri Hamid Bugo, christened the primate “Ritchie” after me.
From debilitated 30kg primate, Ritchie is now a 140kg alpha male who rules the forests of Semenggoh. Note: Since fleeing from his “prison” in December 1989, Ritchie has never been recaptured or rehabilitated and has remained wild. Ritchie has had at least two babies with Seduku and then moved on to having offspring with most of the female Orangutan at the Rehabilitation Centre.
James Ritchie is author of numerous books on Borneo. He has also produced two documentaries on the Penans and wrote the scripts “Crocodile Lash” for Discovery Channel . Over the last thirty years, he has received four Sarawak awards for his contribution to the State. James lives in Kuching.