Indonesia’s Orang Utans up close and personal

By Dian Hasan | July 16, 2010

The playful Orang Utans at Camp Leakey, Tanjung Puting National Park, Indonesian Borneo. Photo: Nicole Duke

To understand the plight of the mighty Orang Utan, the magnificent orange apes that are native to the last remaining areas in the world, Borneo (Kalimantan) and Sumatra, I thought the best way to appreciate it was from a first-person encounter.

Orang Utans are an endangered species whose habitats and survival are being threatened by the slash-and-burn technique of rainforest destruction for palm-oil plantations. These developments are encroaching into Orang Utans’ territory, a fact further marred by the many Orang Utan orphans whose parents were killed in the fires. Orang Utan orphans are unable to fend for themselves, and the practice of keeping them as pets, doesn’t help their rate of survival.

Gar and Nicole Duke, an intrepid couple from Seattle, WA, who are in the midst of a 5-year around-the-world sailing trip (departed from San Francisco in the Summer of 2006, expected to return by late 2011). The couple visited Orang Utan Conservation Center in Camp Leakey, Tanjung Puting National Park in Borneo (Kalimantan), Indonesia. The camp is managed by Orang Utan Foundation International (OFI). The following is an excerpt from their trip, a true journey into the heart of Borneo, no doubt!

You know when you experience something really incredible and you try to take photos to show your friends how amazing it was and then you find yourself telling stories about it. And once you’re finished telling the story you realize its not nearly as good as the experience itself and finally you just have to say, “I guess you had to be there”. Struggling to find words to accurately express our three days on the river in Tanjung Puting National Park with the orangutans is one of those times I realize it would be better to say, “you just had to be there”. But since most of you weren’t and won’t be this will have to do.

We sailed from Bali to Kalimantan, Borneo to see the orangutans. Borneo and Sumatra are the only islands in the world orangutans still live in the wild. To get to the orangutans we traveled by a traditional Indonesian klotok boat, aptly named for the sound the engine makes as they chug up the river.

Met early morning by our blue and white klotok boat named “Sempurna”, which means ‘perfect’ in Indonesian, and our 4 crew: the smiling and flirtatious captain known as the “land crocodile”, his assistant with the most brilliant wide-gapped smile and kind heart, the shy and skilled cook who hid when we first arrived, and Eddie, our determined and ever observant guide. We left Dreamkeeper in the safekeeping of our “boat boy”, Alpha, who slept on our boat and watched her day and night. Once we stepped on the klotok, we quickly made our new home on the top deck under the welcome shade of the roof, cozying up on two black plastic paco-like pads with gigantic pillows covered with cartoon race cars on them. Throughout our journey we alternated spots between the bow of the boat on the top deck and our mats.

Meandering up wide and narrow stretches of the Sungai Sekonyer river we saw its many colors. We began by traveling up the river through mossy green murky waters past riverbanks lined with pandanas and palms, to waters that changed, swirling cafe-au-lait. The prehistoric pandanas gave way to diverse tangled overgrown jungle. In the first hour the only people we saw were villagers fishing in their small canoes along the banks of the river. We felt like we were really on an adventure. Cicadas hissed as the heat settled heavily upon us. And then somewhere we crossed an invisible line where the coffee river turned clear like a healthy potion of strong dark tea, thick with tannins and crocodiles.

We were headed to Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park. This is one of the main feeding stations for orphaned or rescued orangutans and was established by Dr. Birute Galdikas in 1971. (She is the mother scientist of orangutans, like Dian Fossey to gorillas and Jane Goodall to chimpanzees.) Stepping off our little blue klotok we clambered over a few more tourist boats and hopped our way onto the pier. After following a long wooden raised walkway and walking through one of the few established paths leading through the forest we wiped rivers of sweat from our faces and listened to the rangers calling the orangutans to the feeding station in a deep ‘EEEuuuuW, EEEuuuuW’. We waited, I was holding my breath as usual when something exciting is about to happen, watching the tops of trees shake and sway until at last we saw our first orangutan.

We stopped and stared, our eyes glowing with joy as we clung to each other smiling. Nothing could really prepare us for this. We don’t usually enjoy seeing wild animals with other tourists and instead are happy to appreciate when some incredible creature crosses our path. But some of our cruiser friends had told us this was the highlight of their entire sailing journey. While we appreciated their enthusiasm, we weren’t sure we’d have the same reaction. We did.

Seeing a patch of orange high above in the trees backlit by the sunlight our hearts raced a bit more and we watched in awe of the orangutan gracefully dancing across the treetops towards the feeding platform. You really have to see them to appreciate their beautifu and lithe, calculatedly cautious movement. They move from tree to tree by climbing high up a tree until it bows towards the next one. Often they will grab whatever leaves on a tiny branch they can and then keep reaching and pulling more and more of the next tree until they have a safe purchase, then they begin shifting limbs without letting go of the safe branch until all three out of four limbs are attached to new tree, and then they continue. Sometimes, if the next tree is too far away for her baby the mother will use her body to make a living bridge for it to scamper across. And then they continue traveling together.

Food is brought to the feeding platforms once a day at scheduled times. The ex-captive and orphaned orangutans can choose to come to supplement their diets when food is scarce in the forests and help them adjust to living in the wild. Only seldom do wild orangutans show up to curiously view the feeding. Once above the feeding platform, the orangutans climbed over a huge trunk of a tall tree or crossed over small vines and climbed up the platform. At the feeding platform they enjoyed a predictable meal of bananas. Each orangutan seemed to have a different method of eating. Some of them used their dexterous hands to peel each banana and put it into their mouths, others just stuffed them in, peel and all and spat out the peels once they had separated them from the fruit. Some ate quickly and greedily and some of them took their time, lazily enjoying the feast.

Watching them through my telephoto lens I often found myself laughing out loud. The mother orangutans we saw seemed to have great patience. We saw many scenes like this: while a mom breastfed her adorable little baby who had hair sticking straight up like she had stuck her fingers in an electric socket, her adopted son stepped and climbed all over her so he could get a perfect spot in a tree. She continued to eat and feed her baby unperturbed and only became irritated, pushing her child’s hand away after he was a bit too greedy with his wants for bananas. The entire thing reminded me of a typical day that my friends might be having at home with their kids.

At least 8 different orangutans came down to feed while we were at the Camp Leakey station. Our faces hurt from smiling so much. We stood watching, feeling blessed to be in their presence and awestruck by our similarities. We waited until well after four hoping for a visit of the dominant male, Tom. We knew he was coming when the other orangutans quickly melted back into the forest, hoping to escape Tom’s tenacious advances to mate or his challenge to the younger males in his territory. Sauntering to the platform, he knew his place as king of the forest. Watching him walk on all fours we could feel his power, his hanging throat pouch almost shook like a fat man’s. He seemed regal and had a supremely confident and commanding presence and had much more hair on his back than Gar. Beautiful and strikingly powerful, male orangutans are said to be 8 times more powerful than a man. He sat at the platform, comfortably eating fistfuls of bananas. His method was to put them in his mouth peel and all and spit out what he didn’t like. Sometimes, he would just stare at us sticking out his mouthful of banana like a tongue. Again, I couldn’t help but giggle.

The heat began to lift as the sun slipped beyond the forest. Mosquitos buzzed and the whine of cicadas reached higher pitches. It was time to return to Sempurna. Motoring down river the forest turned grey to purple and then black. We stopped for the night beside a troop of proboscis monkeys. Taking our evening mandi (shower with buckets of river water) I couldn’t help but love this adventure we had chosen. There I was having seen my first semi wild orangutan, taking a bucket bath on a jungle river with crocodiles lining the banks, monkeys in the trees and tropical birds in the forest. And a few fireflies blinked on and off while we ate dinner by candle light on our mats.

We fell asleep under mosquito nets and a thin sheet listening to frogs croaking, cicadas hissing, and proboscis monkeys settling down in their sleeping trees. We awoke throughout the night, clinging to each other shivering under our sheet while listening to the sounds of the monkeys. We could hear them shifting up in the trees and peeing, and pooping. It sounded kind of like a quick light rainstorm once it hit the leaves and cascaded down. Their poops fell heavily through the leaves until it eventually plopped into the river beside us.

Early mornings on the river began dreamily, misty and damp. The proboscis monkeys sleeping above us woke up slowly, well after the birds. Striking blue, turquoise and yellow kingfishers flirted with us and disappeared into the tangle of forest. Ridiculous looking hornbills flew gracelessly with their skinny necks stuck far out and their wings beating loudly.

Once the proboscis monkeys did wake, they never ceased to entertain us. They seem to have no fear of heights as we saw some of them leap fifty feet down grabbing at any branch they could and land, then continuing their journey across river to a feeding tree or some other destination. We were entertained regularly by their skills. One hot steamy morning we watched three leap 40 feet across a narrow stretch of river right before we crossed and land 10 feet from the bank in the river and quickly swim to the side and clamber up and into the trees. (Supposedly they wait until a boat comes by so that the crocs are more likely to be disturbed and they are less likely to get eaten. Smarties! Modern adaptation at its best.)

For three days we walked in the park, went to different feeding grounds, and looked for orangutans. After visiting a really impressive and well tended to tree reforestation project we visited Tanjung Harapan for our final visit with the orangutans. Here the orangutans are semi wild and much more cautious of people. In some ways it seemed we shouldn’t have come. A mother with her baby clinging to her chest sat above us making kissing sounds and throwing sticks. A clear sign she didn’t want us there. After twenty minutes of watching us all, she eventually decided to climb across the forest and down a tree to the feeding platform. With one hand on the tree and a foot on the platform, she grabbed as many bananas as she could, stuffing a hand of them (about 7-10 bananas) into her mouth, a bundle into her foot, and a few more in her free hand and scampered quickly up into the safety of the trees to eat. Slowly peeling the bananas with her teeth or hands she ate banana after banana. Stopping only to give her baby a bite from her hand.

Their interactions were so tender. Watching her, I was filled with respect. Her strength and vulnerability was so clear and I saw a reflection of myself. It is an honor to share over 95% of our DNA with such graceful, thoughtful, caring animals. And so saddened that we hold their future in our hands.

The orangutans rainforest habitat is shrinking rapidly from the pressures of illegal logging and the slash and burning of rainforest land to plant legal and illegal palm oil plantations.
For this reason, we are boycotting all products made with palm oil. Check these 2 links for more information:
Link 1 Palm Oil
Link 2 Palm Oil

Additionally, their lives are greatly threatened by the illegal trade in orangutan babies as pets. Tragically, unless drastic measures are taken to protect the forests it is estimated that within thirty years orangutans in the wild will be a thing of the past.

We left the orangutans in Tanjung Puting feeling both joyful and heavy, like we might have seen some of the last great apes in their native habitat. Chugging slowly down the river we watched the river change colors again. Purple twilight spread slowly across the horizon and fireflies began their dance. Thousands of them clustered in pandanas trees blinking on and off like layers of dancing stars in the leaves themselves. There were entire firefly cities glowing in different parts of the river. It was pure magic. Watching the fireflies, it was easy to think we had been in the Jungle Book and this was all just a story, a thing of the past. I hope not.

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