Orangutans are our “most distant” primate cousins. Translation: we share a paltry 97% of our DNA code.
As it turns out, 97% is like looking in the mirror, thinking “I really must make a waxing appointment” and then getting lost daydreaming in your reflection. These amazing creatures are definitely our sisters and brothers from another mother (doubly so for redheads).
Remember tape decks?
In the early 90s, local Guelph musician James Gordon was in heavy rotation in Purbrick minivan. My favorite track was about Gordon’s wild child, The Wild Boy of Borneo. Among other antics that a less creative parent would label ADD, The Wild Boy of Borneo swings through the jungle like an orangoutang and “wears spaghetti in his toes”. Hours of rewind and replay instilled a lifelong dream to swing through the wild canopy side-by-side with a Borneo orangutan.
My childhood fantasy came true along the banks of the Sungai River in Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park.
Some more relevant background
The third largest island on Earth, Borneo spans three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, and itty-bitty Brunei. Kalimantan, as Indonesian Borneo is known, covers the most turf. Tanjung Puting occupies a swampy peninsula in the southeast. The 416,000 hectare park runs the jungle gamut with primary, swamp, heath, mangrove, and coastal beach forests. It’s one of the oldest rainforest in the world (think how many times I could listen to Wild Boy of Borneo in 130 million years!), and is home to tens of thousands of plant and animal species; over 100 species have been discovered and added to the list since 2007.
Despite Tanjung Puting‘s protected status, lucrative illegal logging and palm-oil farming have destroyed over 65% of the park’s primary forest. The jungle’s native ironwood and teak trees yield some of the most coveted and expensive woods on the market. Palm-oil (a highly versatile but environmentally devastating product found in household goods from Ben & Jerry’s to Colgate) plantations pose another threat. In addition to eating up land and polluting water sources, palm oil plantations have labeled many wild animals, including Borneo orangutans as commercial threats, and systemically shoot, mutilate, and poison them.
Where palm oil farmers see land squatters, conservationists see the last of Asia’s great apes, and the largest truly arboreal (tree-dwelling) animal alive today. And wherever there are mammals that captivate human hearts, someone will try to keep the planet from going to hell in an orangutan fur hand basket. It the case of Tanjung Putting, that someone is renowned orangutan behaviorist Dr. Birute Galdikas. Since the early 1970s, Dr. Galdikas and her team have built four camps for studying, documenting, and rehabilitating the Borneo orangutan population.
Visitors can experience some of their work the camps’ feeding stations where semi-wild orangutans come to supplement their foraging diet with bananas and milk.
Cue the rise of ecotourism, a financially viable alternative to logging and palm-oil farming. Arif—the huge-hearted, unstoppable, and unflappable ecotourism guru we partnered with to execute every aspect of our Tanjung Putting excursion—sees the balance of island-wide conservation and local jobs as the ultimate sustainable answer. He makes it a point to hire ex-illegal loggers and plantation workers, provide them with good wages, and teach them the importance of the habitat he lives to protect. If Borneo can groom more local and independent tour operators with the same ethical and moral fiber as Arif, the local population will learn that conserving Borneo’s natural wealth will better support their families in the long run.
Borneo by boat
The way to Tanjung Puting is via klotok. The two-story houseboats house crew and kitchen below, and tourist quarters complete with dining table, rocking chairs and mosquito net-tented sleeping mats on deck. Charm is standard; our klotok came with the bonus whimsy of a bright yellow paint job and decommissioned school bus engine motor.
We shared our klotok with our easygoing guide, Faisal, his three-man crew, and Bjorn, a German biology student.
Cruising klotok style
Soon after launch we lunched. Knowing we’re fat kids, Arif had plotted with Pete, the cook who delivered a never-ending spread of Indonesian and Borneo specialties: fresh caught and roasted whole fish with sambal, fried chicken, tempeh and mungbean fritters, mie goreng, various local veggies, and fresh fruit. We felt spoiled and most definitely stuffed—a trend that continued throughout the trip.
The sun was high in the blue sky as we departed the mainland. But just after lunch, lightening filled the sky and a Texas-sized rain cloud exploded over our boat. The crew hurried to fasten latches and unfurl plastic tarps, and we hunkered in for an hour of unapologetic jungle downpour. It was electric.
Four hours down the Sungai we reached Pondok Tengguy Rehabilitation Center, the closest camp to civilization. Our klotok docked next to another. We hopped across and on to shore. Feeding stations are located relatively close to the river. A 20-minute slosh through fresh rain puddles landed us at the platform. We looked like we had climbed a mountain; at 100% humidity sweat cascades out of you like Iguazu Falls. We arrived alongside the camp banana porter. The compact man dumped an entire crate of extra-ripe bananas from his back onto the platform.
Then we waited.
The guides talked among themselves. “No orangutans yesterday”…“It’s a good sign, means they are finding enough to eat in the wild”. Some guides took matters into their own hands and belted orangutan cries into the forest. We’re not at all convinced they attracted more life than they repelled, but at least it was a distraction from the drone of a thousand famished mosquitos.
It had been an hour. There was so much Spanish, German, and English echoing off the canopy we were convinced the orangutans would stay miles away. Suddenly a guide caught a barely discernible movement in the treetops. A call for silence rippled through the crowd. We all stared. At first we could only spot the trail left in swaying branches. But as our eyes adjusted, jungle brown became orangutan orange, a branch became an arm, and his colossus came into focus. Our first orangutan siting was the El Rey—the king himself, patriarch of this harem.
The 180-kilogram ape king slipped through flimsy top branches like a 2-kilo kitten. He stayed at maximum altitude all the way to the platform, and then confidently shimmied down a vine to claim his banana tariff from the slack-jawed masses below. Without a hint of care for the army of cameras pointed his way, El Ray ate methodically and prolifically. He peeled one strip off the banana and ate the flesh whole from the skin. We counted five or six bunches before he had his fill. With his puffed out cheek pads (a striking feature possessed only by mature alpha males) he looked just like a 16th century painting of a lace collar-wearing Barron gnawing into a mound of turkey legs.
Once the king ate his fill, the harem filtered into the banana canteen. The females moved with equal grace but were much less into the limelight. One-by-one each mama (often with baby onboard) took a comparatively modest two bunches and retreated to the safety of the canopy to feast.
Watching the ancient hierarchy play out to a tee was a fascinating introduction to the lives of Borneo orangutans.
Just before dark we anchored on a rotting stump. Bed mats were rolled out, mosquito nets hung, and the jungle closed in.
Anyone who has spent a night in the jungle will forever remember the sound. Orangutans slumber silently in treetop nests, but the jungle never sleeps. It’s a strange blend of soothing and unnerving. A cicada symphony blared. Our headlamps picked up crocodile eyes in the marsh.
In the morning we trekked to the feeding platform in the Nipah Palam Area. We had a similar wait, listened to guides mimic similar calls, but ultimately struck out on seeing any orangs. It was a bummer, but also a reassuring reminder that Borneo orangutans are wild animals. They move at will, and not on a tourist performance schedule.
Any disappointment was forgotten upon reaching our second camp of the day, the cornerstone of Tanjung Puting’s research and rehabilitation efforts: Camp Leakey.
There’s practically a money back guarantee that you’ll see orangutans at Camp Leakey. National Park it may be, but Camp Leakey is hardly wild. Leakey’s orangs often come from captive backgrounds. Now they have enjoyed the company and care of banana-flush humans for so long that—for better or worse—the camp is sometimes treated like an orangutan petting zoo.
Shortly after we reached the feeding platform, a mother and daughter strolled up the path we’d just walked. This would never happen in wild where Borneo orangutans spend the majority of their time in the trees.
The orangutans’ comfort with humans isn’t ideal in the conservation sense, but it makes for some fascinating encounters.
Both mother and child totally ignored the bananas, but junior got down in giant bucket of rehydrated milk. The milk craze continued with the next mother-daughter outing.
Borneo orangutans only give birth every eight years–it’s the longest inter-birth interval in the animal kingdom. But this mother had two bebes (one 7, the other months old). Again, this isn’t wild behavior, but a result of living in a protected environment with more than enough resources to go around.
Just when we thought all those bananas would go to waste, a ballsy gibbon showed up to do his diligence. His lean grace and rapid athleticism was mesmerizing compared to the orangs’ lumbering gait.
We were almost back at the boat when we crossed paths with Ursula, a rambunctious 8-year-old who has been Leakey’s official attention whore since being orphaned a couple of years back. She met us on the raised platform in the mangrove swamp and simply wouldn’t let us pass. She pointed, she laughed. She bent, ripped, and threw branches, and did everything in her power to command our attention.
Leakey was so entertaining that we switched up our day three itinerary, forgoing the official feeding at Nipah Palam to spend a couple of hours hiking around Leakey before heading back to the mainland.
Arriving off schedule gave us the run of the park. But rather than hiking deeper into the bush like we’d planned, we ended up getting a lesson in orangutan psychology.
Ursula and her buddy Mario met us at the jetty. After saying our hellos we took to the boardwalk. But once again, our walk stalled there. This time we were blocked by Siswe. Whereas Ursula is an immature, non-dominant female and considered relatively benign, Siswe is a dominant adult, and has been known to bite when she feels threatened. While female Borneo orangutans are nowhere near as strong as their male counterparts who have 8-times the strength of a full-grown man, they still posses 4-times the strength of that same man. Siswe is more than capable of sending any of us—or any of our individual limbs—on our own jungle flight.
On top of her dominant personality, Siswe is also grieving. Several years back, she fell ill with an infection that left her sterile. Her sole baby fell from her nest at night and died. An inexperienced ranger found the body and decided to give it a proper burial. Unfortunately his actions denied Siswe the natural grieving process of carrying the body until it decomposed. Her grief remains palpable in her face and body language. Given space, she’s not a threat, and clearly still craves interaction. We gave her the run of the jetty and stuck around to lounge together.
Siswe displayed a heartbreaking lethargy. But her energy levels—and alpha instincts—stepped up when we were joined by a mother and newborn, Peta and Petra (at Leakey baby orangutans are named using the first letter of their mothers’ names). You could tell that Peta would have preferred to bypass Siswe, but like an ogre patrolling her bridge, dominant Siswe demanded a toll: face time. As mother and baby canoodled, I wondered if Siswe might reach out and grab Petra. But Peta kept her guard up, and she just looked on with longing.
When she decided it was time to move on, Peta assessed her options. Siswe in one direction, our foursome in the other. She decided to come our way, and, amazingly, grabbed Faisal for support (I think moral rather than physical) as she passed.
We left Campy Leakey and slowly motored out of Tanjung Puting National Park. We were filled with a mix of emotions as wild as the jungle itself: hope and worry, awe and familiarity. It’s incredible to spend time with creatures so emotionally similar to us, whose existence is so removed from and yet affected by our human world.
It would be impossible to fit all of the eco-adventures we’d like to experience into a single backpacker budget. We’re so happy that these Borneo orangutans were part of our trip. I look forward to daydreaming about our new friends each time (for no apparent reason) Wild Boy of Borneo starts playing in my head.
As Indonesia struggles to define its economy in the 21st century, palm-oil farms and illegal logging persist. Eco-tourism with a responsible, engaged local company is a huge help in creating an enlightened and sustainable economy. If you would like to meet some Borneo orangoutangs and wonderful locals, we highly recommend working with Arif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Go Backpacking lists an array of sites that help Borneo orangutan conservation efforts at the bottom of their post here.