‘Monkey Business’ saves Sukau
Published on: Sunday, June 30, 2019
By: Kan Yaw Chong


Monkey business means mischievous, deceitful acts and behaviour as well as sheer trickery!

Yet, Albert Teo proudly declared, “I am in the monkey business” to brand himself as “The Good Guy” to a crowd of witnesses, including a somewhat baffled Deputy Chief Minister-cum-Tourism, Culture and Environment Datuk Christina Liew at a big “do” at his Sukau Rainforest Lodge last Thursday and  Friday.

“Yeah, you are in the monkey business and we, from the Ministry, are all here to support you,” Christina said jokingly in response in her Friday morning launch speech. 

But, Albert is literally and historically right.

 

Close range sight of the Orangutan at Borneo Villas. 



 

The ‘monkey or gold’ debate

When the late former Minister of Primary Industries, Tun Dr Lim Keng Yaik, hinted coal mining of Maliau Basin was set to begin, it sparked a contentious “Monkey or Gold” debate at a critical moment of choice.

Then Chief Minister (1996-1998) Datuk Seri Yong Teck Lee came out with a clear cut official stand on the side of the monkey, despite the hefty and tempting potential billions from coal and reported gold mining.

In Sabah, we have seen episodes of fierce battles where the established State power fought on the side of green commitment from the golden 90s and won.

Ecotourism kingpins in the likes of Albert Teo and a few others like Alexander Yee came from that golden eco era. 

 

Monkey business: The fascinating Mohawk hairdo of the pigtail macaque. 

 



Paying big money just to see monkeys 

So Albert’s public confession that he is in the monkey trade is not new – but why not? 

Just to see the monkeys alone, monkey diehards – 90pc of whom are from the UK – are willing and able to pay US$200 per pax.

Of course, monkey extraordinaire has to be the Orangutan for its most human-like characteristics. On par in terms of high demand is the Proboscis monkey. But when I saw the natural Mohawk hairdo of a pig-tailed macaque close-up, topped up with a pitch black patch on top during a boat cruise Thursday evening downstream Sukau, that was my most photographed and most fascinated monkey business.

 

Monkey business is very bankable 

Monkey business is very bankable with such easy monetary and experiential returns, certain to bring profits and success that Albert didn’t want to miss.

The money was so good that 20 years after his venture into the Sukau monkey business, starting 1995, he told Daily Express that he’s making enough surplus to pay 60 staff at above average minimum wage, mostly English-speaking locals.

To forge ahead, Albert had launched himself into “continuous innovation” to stay relevant and ahead of the competition, expanded his initial basic 20-room to 40, the latest 20 additions of which are world-class Borneo Villas certified as Malaysia’s one and only “Unique Eco Lodge of the World” by National Geographic.

 

Stately soaring tree in Borneo Villas. 
 



Deputy Chief Minister: ‘I had not expected this’

Seeing this on her first ever visit to Kinabatangan, Christina exclaimed: “I had not expected to see villas so well-equipped and fitting into the natural environment”, and gleefully launched the Borneo Villas on June 28.

Albert started Sukau Rainforest Lodge on a small land, but it has now expanded to 7.7 acres after more land purchase. 

And where he built his 20 villas into is a newly-acquired pocket of undisturbed primary forest with closely-packed soaring trees which are “highways” for the Orangutan to swing from one tree to the next.

 

UK tourists pay big money to look at the monkeys. 



 

Stately trees and fruits attract Orangutans 

The most important fact is that among these stately trees include many fruit trees which the Orangutans are attracted to because it is food.

That’s where Albert makes the money from his monkey business – an undisturbed primary forest with its original food chain well-preserved which keeps the Orangutan coming back for breakfast, lunch, dinner or any time, at low heights above the Borneo Villa verandas and broad walks of Sukau Rainforest Lodge.

This makes them so easy to spot for the Orangutan diehards who came from half the world away, followed by two-and-a-half hour boat ride up Kinabatangan River from Sandakan. They get instant, guaranteed once a life time sighting of the “Man of the Forest” and leave satisfied as they part with their pounds or dollars. 

 

The jumbo dilemma among the ‘Big 5’   

However, the Orangutan is but one of Albert’s “Big 5” in his monkey business. 

The other four are the Pygmy elephant, Proboscis monkey, crocodile and Hornbill.

Huge and imposing, the elephant is extremely popular and everybody wants to see it. But here is a proverbial problem – one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

Local farmers or planters don’t like them.    

At the Thursday night slide show briefing to the Minister, Albert included pictures of the gruesome, bloating elephants poisoned to death by their haters in Central Sabah a few years ago.

It is an unfortunate truth that some villagers in Kinabatangan hate the elephants which destroy their crops in passing. He also showed a picture of a villager’s palm tree stripped to the ground by the jumbos.     

So, there is this fretful social dilemma.  

 

The Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre. 



 

Tourists pay big to see jumbos but nobody pays farmers the damage  

On the one hand, fascinated tourists pay big to the ‘Monkey Business’ to look at elephants. On the other hand, who pays the villagers who suffer losses from the same jumbos?

Nobody.

Given hefty penalties against killing jumbos under the Sabah Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997, they can no longer shoot on sight as some of them had confessed doing in the past.

In fact, according to Department of Wildlife Director, Augustine Tuuga, his department used to help planters or villagers shoot encroaching elephants even up to the 80s, but the situation had completely reversed since.     

Farmers are helpless in the face of jumbo damage which is actually a State-imposed protection on the side of elephants and not the fault of the “monkey business”. 

 

A very interesting bee study to keep elephants at bay    

However, a very interesting research has been planned to reduce damage. Albert and UMS had come up with a potentially smart, practical idea – the deployment of bees to keep the elephants at bay to reduce human-elephant conflict in Lower Kinabatangan.

Studies in Africa strongly supports the hypothesis that the use of just the recorded buzz of bees is enough to cause groups of elephants run away from the sound of disturbed bees within seconds.

So, last Friday, through its in-house NGO called Best Society, Sukau Rainforest Lodge signed a MoU with Universiti Malaysia Sabah to do a bee farming research project to test how effective it might be that bees need only sting the soft skin of elephant ears to set the big beast running away. 

The African studies have shown that they only need to hear the bee buzzing and will run off as quickly as they can.

If successful, not only will villager crops be protected but they will also get the additional benefits of income from honey and the avowed corporate social responsibility objectives of Best Society accomplished. 

 

Traditional welcome to Sukau Rainforest Lodge. 



 

MoU on box nests to breed hornbills   

What about the hornbills? They are one of the “Big 5” and always a sight to behold in the Monkey Business of Sukau Rainforest Lodge, as all eight species of hornbills of Borneo are found in Sukau.

But they are in trouble. 

First, they breed in cavities of old tall trees, created by Sun bears and woodpeckers.

Logging and clear cutting for agriculture not only had removed most of the tall, old trees but Sun bears have also been hunted down.

To save the hornbills, year 2018 being the Year the Bird, Albert decided to start a project to mount twice-visited artificial box nest so far on one of the tall trees in the Borneo Villa area through the expertise of Helson Hassan who had done some five similar box nests in Lower Kinabatangan in 2013. 

Four years later, it successfully attracted the Rhinoceros Hornbill to breed a chick.           

So, June 28 saw the signing of an MoU between Best Society and Mursalin Abdullah, a Sukau local who agreed to collaborate with Best Society to set up a hornbill box nest on his land for hornbill conservation.   

 

Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre launched 

Albert said he believed in Science to Action research. But this means there must be a research centre for scientists to do their work.  

Precisely, this was what everybody saw – the launching of a large Sukau Ecotourism Research Centre (SERC) by Christina, just two minutes upstream Sukau Rainforest Lodge.  

Presumably, both studies on the deployment of bee project to reduce elephant damage and hornbill box nest projects will be conducted from here.





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