The First Time I met Hope and Doris


by Peter Ong

Hope and Doris. Photograph by Peter Ong

One always remembers the firsts with particular clarity. The first aeroplane ride. The first drive. The first kiss. This particular first was no exception.

The first time I came across an orangutan was in the wild. Free from confinement and with no other humans around except for myself and another researcher, this beautiful orangutan was with her little infant rambling through the ancient rainforests at Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Sabah.

I can still remember waking up way before dawn in my shared attap hut, fumbling around in the pitch blackness for the exit from my mosquito net, ready to begin our trek. The song of insects slowly began to give way to bird song as we trekked through the dark jungle to reach the nesting site of the orangutan mother, Hope and her daughter, Doris. Orangutans make nests high up in the trees every evening before they sleep at a different location each day. Being the largest arboreal creature on Earth, the trees provide them with everything they need, including a safe place to rest at night.

After about 45 minutes of thrashing through the dense jungle, we arrived at the base of what appeared to be an ancient giant tree. It was tall. We could not even catch a glimpse of the canopy from where we stood.

“She’s here”, whispered James, the researcher I was with.

We sat around for what felt like hours. The light began to change around us. The smell of wood and leaves enveloped us as moisture from the ground rose up into a form fine mist.

Hope cradling Doris. Photograph by Peter Ong.

Without warning, the stillness was interrupted by the swaying of vines that ran parallel to the giant tree. I craned my neck to peer upwards. Slowly, through the mist, I saw movement. A dark shape that got bigger and bigger. There was no sound. Just the gentle swaying of the vines. We retreated behind another tree to give it space. And slowly, Hope emerged through the morning fog - descending the giant tree carrying her little treasure, Doris.

She sat for a while on the ground observing her surroundings, wondering when would be the right time to move. She saw James and looked away. She was obviously familiar with James, glancing away without a second thought the same way siblings do. But she spotted me lying flat on the ground. We stared at each other for what felt like hours and at that moment, I knew she was a creature of vast intelligence and deep emotion. I knew she was capable of curiosity and comprehension. I knew we were more alike than different.

Orangutan mothers only give birth to a single child which they raise until full maturity. This means they will invest everything to teach this child and will not have another baby until it leaves her which usually takes around 8 years. This is one of the reasons why their population is rapidly declining.

That first time was electric.

I spent days in the jungle trailing her with my camera while James took notes. Observing what she ate, how she ate, how she cared for Doris, where she went. I learned that Hope was actually one of the few successfully rehabilitated orangutans that have been released into the wild. At that time, the second to successfully mate and reproduce out of captivity. She doted on Doris, showing her off to us at times. We could see that she was so proud of and in love with little, fuzzy Doris.

Sadly, baby Doris never lived to maturity. I learned that she had passed on a few months after I had left. I was heartbroken. I was told that Hope brought a dying Doris to the same attap hut one day in a bid to save her precious child. But it was too late.

Hope dotting on Doris. Photograph by Peter Ong

Orangutan mothers only give birth to a single child which they raise until full maturity. This means they will invest everything to teach this child and will not have another baby until it leaves her which usually takes around 8 years. This is one of the reasons why their population is rapidly declining.

Hope was an orphan, rescued from the illegal wildlife pet trade. It is probable that her mother was killed and she was taken from her home to spend the rest of her life in captivity in a private zoo. Fortunately, she was rescued and managed to learn enough skills to survive in the wild. However, some skills seem like they can only be passed down from mother to child.

There is a reason why they are called Orangutans - they are the people of the jungle yet, they are so similar to us.

But true to her namesake, she was found recently to be expecting her second child. I pray she is able to raise this next one to maturity in safety.

There is something truly magical about observing such an intelligent creature in the wild. One of our closest living relatives that we share this land with. Go, discover them for yourselves in the jungles of Borneo. I know you will have a magical first time too.

Please do also consider supporting the Malaysian Primatological Society and PONGO Alliance who are doing everything they can to keep our primates safe.

Peter Ong is a Malaysian actor, singer and dancer both on screen and stage. He is also a wildlife photographer, a conservationist and the founder of Project Monyet.

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