Michelle’s wild about orangutans

Actress Datuk Michelle Yeoh’s love for animals helped her form a special bond with orangutans, writes HIZREEN KAMAL.

MALAYSIA’S very own international actress Datuk Michelle Yeoh has always had a fascination for animals. Her father is a great animal lover and her family would always sit in front of the TV to watch documentaries and movies featuring animals.

Having been to Africa to observe wildlife in an open jeep at close range, this 47-year-old former beauty queen is quite comfortable in the company of a pride of lions just a few metres away.

While she returns to Malaysia as much as she can to visit her parents in Ipoh, Perak, she came back for a different reason recently — to film a 50-minute documentary titled Among the Great Apes with Michelle Yeoh, which tells of Malaysia's conservation efforts to protect orangutans which are among the planet’s most endangered primates.

The documentary was filmed at three main locations in Sabah — the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

It was during the filming of the documentary that she felt a certain closeness with the primates.

Like most people, her first encounter with apes was at the zoo when she was very young. But filming the documentary opened Yeoh’s eyes to the world of primates as she had spent time being around them. “They are cute but, at the same time, they can be strong too. While there are people who would like to have them as pets, they belong in the wild.”

Yeoh, who is best known for her role in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and the multiple Academy Award-winning Chinese action film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, has never been this close to the apes before, but she has learnt to always be calm in the presence of wildlife. “We have to also understand their movements. Normally, they are not violent,” she said, when asked how she felt being near an ape for the first time.

During the filming, she adopted two baby orangutans — Sen and Michelle. “I choose the ones with the most colourful characters. Sen is quite the little rascal and he loves running around, while Michelle is a little sensitive as she doesn’t like to be scolded,” said Yeoh.

Yeoh is also in the country to shoot period costume martial arts thriller Jian Yu Jiang Wu. She acts opposite Korean heartthrob Jang Woo Sung. However, she hopes to a return to Sabah and visit her “babies”. “Even though I can’t be there physically with them all the time, I try to do my bit to help in any way I can. It is a privilege to help."

“I was fascinated with the idea when it was first pitched to me. I have always wanted to do something like this but never had the opportunity. As an artiste and celebrity, I think we are able to reach out to more people on conservation awareness and efforts to protect primates.

“I want to get down and dirty, and be on the ground with the animals.” While Yeoh may be super-fit, she finds it a feat when she had to climb a tree for one of the scenes. “It was like wall climbing. When we rehearsed to get the hang of it, it was not quite what I thought it was. The person who was teaching me was brilliant as I find it a challenge as I have a fear of heights.”

The filming took two weeks and Yeoh had a wonderful time seeing the wildlife. “We were advised not to be surprised if we could not see many wild animals, as they are shy.”

Yeoh also enjoyed watching Sepilok’s veterinarian Dr Cecilia Boklin and Sabah Wildlife Department chief veterinarian Dr Sen Nathan, who are practically the mother and father to the primates at the rehabilitation centre, try their best to work with the apes before releasing them back to the wild.

“During filming, we saw two orangutans making their journey back into the wild. As the apes went up the trees I can see the emotions in their faces. It was touching, and at the same time you felt a sense of pride.”

Yeoh is hopeful that the documentary will allow viewers to see the beauty of orangutans in the wild. “We need to protect these wonders. If we don’t, orangutans will go extinct.”

2 Responses to Michelle’s wild about orangutans

  1. wow, michelle yeoh looks good for her age. I can't believe she is 47, almost middle age. Maybe she takes the 'Oh Yes' cream with tocotrienols in them!

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