At welcome dinners for new groups of volunteers, Leo and I are often asked; ‘So, what other animals do you have at Matang?’ After answering this a few times now, I have come to the realisation that there is no easy way to describe a binturong to someone that has not encountered one before. ‘Well, they are black… they live in trees…’, ‘but what do they look like?’, ‘well, they are black…’
Binturongs are incredible mammals, with prehensile tails and popcorn smells. They are superbly adapted to their arboreal lifestyle, not just with super tails, but also the ankles of the back legs can rotate, allowing the feet to point backwards if they are climbing down tree trunks. They make a strange, shrieking/crying/shouting angry noise when alarmed and are omnivores, despite being a taxonomic carnivore. And they are very cute indeed.
It is sometimes a bad thing to be acknowledged as cute by us humans, the all-pervading great ape who, rather than admire cute animals from a distance, likes to claim them and keep them for photos and cuddles. Through their natural range they are also considered a rather tasty meal, so a mother with her offspring offers not only today’s food, but next week’s too as the infant can be sold into illegal pet trade.
Matang had one such victim of pet trade surrendered to us in March 2013. This month a collective decision was made to release this male, affectionately known as Grumpy, into Kubah National Park.
Task 1: Move Grumpy and a holding cage 2km into the jungle
One sentence makes this sound pretty easy. Past volunteers that ever had to carry iron wood into the jungle for a building project will be able to better appreciate the mammoth task that this was. The cage needed four strong people to carry it, though the awkward trail through the jungle meant only two could just about fit with the cage between them. What we really need to do is clear some more trees to make this conservation work a little easier.
Task 2: Let Grumpy acclimatise
The binturong was left in his holding cage underneath a feeding platform we had already built in the park (see above for volunteers carrying iron wood into the jungle for building projects!). We then trekked out twice a day to ensure he was well fed, hydrated and generally in good health. He seemed very relaxed and pretty happy during this time.
Task 3: Release Grumpy!
After one week of him getting used to the jungle from the safely of a cage, we make the trek out to the feeding platform to open the door and let him make a home back in his natural habitat.
When releasing animals, the (slightly romantic) assumption is often that they will bolt out of the open cage door, make a run for the trees where they belong with perhaps a backwards glance of gratitude to the humans who helped them. Though this does happen in some cases, this was not quite the run of events with Grumpy.
After the door was opened, the binturong stuck his head out, had a good sniff, then retreated back into the cage. He walked around and scent-marked for a few minutes, then looked distinctly as though he was settling down and getting comfortable, ready for sleep. We patiently waited for a while, then when it was clear he was making no further effort to depart, we shut the door and put in place a log-bridge so he could easily walk from the cage to the platform, as he looked reluctant to step onto the forest floor. A great indication, we thought, that he’d return to an arboreal life.
When we re-opened the door, Grumpy stepped out immediately. Hurrah! He walked onto the floor, and around the back of the cage, sniffing all the while. We watched with big grins as he took his first steps into his new, free, life in the forest. His exploratory nose brought him around to the front of the cage, and he took a few steps towards the area where we had gathered to admire him. I suggested to the volunteers that we move back down the trail a few steps, to keep a good distance between us and him, so as not to frighten him in his new environment. Evidently, he was not feeling too frightened by the group of tall, intimidating primates watching him, as his exploratory steps became targeted trotting towards us. I told the volunteers that we needed to move back down the trail now, whereupon they started walking back the way we had come; I remained at the back of the group and was a little alarmed by the increase in pace by the small, cute, yet undeniably angry binturong. I urgently suggested to the volunteers that we needed to RUN NOW, and when they turned their heads to question I calmly stated that they needed to KEEP ON RUNNING, FOR GOODNESS SAKE VOLUNTEERS. NO, NO, DON’T STOP YET, HE’S STILL COMING. YEP, STILL COMING. OK, YES HE’S STILL COMING. KEEP RUNNING. RUN RUN. RUN NOW.
The chase continued for at least 300m, though it seemed longer. It was not the binturong giving up that stopped this blood sport, but a bridge. Yes, Grumpy was thwarted by the running water of the river! We watched the determined, angry binturong desperately seek an alternate route to his prey, but he could not figure out a safe passage across.
Task 4: Keep him fed
For the weeks following his release, we have been dancing with death on a daily basis as we have been keeping the feeding platform stocked with food, in case he struggle to find a natural diet in the forest. This food has been eaten a few times now, and though we have set up camera traps in the area we have yet to capture him in a photo.
I will be sure to share any pictures that we do manage to get of him out in the forest. However, he may not have remained in the intended area so perhaps we will not see any evidence of him in his new life. We hope he is still well, and hold no hard feelings towards him, despite his obvious hatred of us. We still think of him fondly.