by Alice Mariscotti-Wyatt
You might already know orangutans are pretty great, but I don’t think I’d fully appreciated it until I was running from one through the forest of Borneo. “Why are we running?” I asked our guide. After all, we were there to see orangutans. “This one’s a grandma, and she’s cheeky” he told me when we paused. She apparently liked to play tricks on visiting tourists. And given orangutans are several times as strong as humans, the tourists didn’t always get the joke.
I was visiting Tanjung Puting National Park, a wildlife reserve in Kalimantan, which is the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo. It’s one of the most popular places to come and spot the fascinating primates in their natural habitat. The most common trip is what my friends and I were enjoying (when we weren’t being pursued by sassy animals); a leisurely cruise on a traditional boat known as a klotok. Which has the dual advantage of being both the ultimate in relaxing ways to travel, and able to access the otherwise remote areas of the park.
People of the Forest
Our trip was a too-brief two nights and three days onboard. We were to travel along the Sekonyer River, visiting several viewpoints and research stations along the way. Tanjung Puting contains both wild and semi-wild orangutan populations. And it is these semi-wild families, the descendants of ex-captive orangutans, that you’re most likely to spot, as they regularly return to feeding stations created by rangers.
After a worrying start, with zero orangutan visiting the first feeding station but plenty of eager tourists, we were lucky enough to meet whole families at the second. Tom, the male of the group, was an impressive figure, but all had plenty of presence. Smaller females forced a path through the human audience on their way to the food, giving us an incredible close encounter. And the cheeky infants had everyone falling in love.
A final stop was at Camp Leakey, a research facility originally founded by Dr. Birute Galdikas. Don’t know her? Well, she’s one of three female primatologists mentored by Louis Leakey, who are sometimes referred to as Leakey’s Angels. The other two ‘Angels’ are Dr. Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Mist fame and Dr. Jane Goodall, who is known for her work with chimps. All three have made huge contributions to our knowledge of primates.
Scientists and students still stay at the Camp to conduct research, and there’s plenty for visitors to learn about – the orangutan release programme, and the current threats to their environment.
We also spotted wild orangutans as our boat floated through the jungle river. These sightings were fleeting, but no less special, as we’d make eye contact for a moment with a face in the trees. They would disappear within moments, but it left us with no doubt as to why orangutan translates as “people of the forest”.
In between all the orangutan spotting, life aboard the boat was nothing but relaxing. Klotoks are two-storey wooden boats, so we had the entire upper deck to ourselves. We spent the majority of our time aboard lounging on beanbags at the front of the boat, while our eagle-eyed guide, Nur, pointed out animals and birds around us.
To say we were well looked after is an understatement. At meal times we were treated to meals of Indonesian specialities, including plenty of tempeh after we mentioned we couldn’t get enough of it… After each trip into the forest we’d find cold drinks and cold towels waiting on our return. Both of which were extremely welcome after experiencing the jungle humidity. And on the second night our boat moored next to bushes filled with fireflies, so that the night twinkled for us as we fell asleep beneath our mosquito nets.
See The Orangutans Yourself
We booked our trip in advance through Fardi at Orangutan Houseboat Tour, but it seems like a lot of the boats and guides are shared. For example Fardi was guiding another boat we saw while in the park, and our lovely guide, Nur, owns a boat too, which you can book at Orangutan Rainforest. At the time it was also out on a trip, being guided by someone else.
In order to get to the national park you need to fly into Pangkalan Bun airport. It’s an hour flight from Jakarta. Most of the tours pick you up from the airport, and it’s a short drive to your boat.
A Quick Reminder to Save the Planet
We’re always being told the importance of saving the rainforests, but visiting Borneo, you couldn’t miss the real effects of deforestation. Tanjung Puting is an important nature reserve in Borneo, but elsewhere the island is undergoing much development. The deforestation is widely publicised, but being there and seeing the undeniable impact was something else. Our flights over and back were both delayed several hours. It’s a regular occurrence, as a thick smog hangs over the area, especially during the annual land clearing for the production of palm oil.
Not only does this cause respiratory problems for the population, not only does this release tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, but fires regularly spread to the forest, giving the already endangered orangutans an ever-decreasing habitat. The fires are illegal, but that hasn’t stopped landowners clearing their land this way yet.
There are charities working to help, like The Orangutan Foundation, originally set up by Dr. Birute Galdikas. Today their work includes preserving the forest and rehabilitating the amazing orangutans. Plus training local workers and educating communities in Borneo about the importance of protecting the orangutans and their habitat. You can donate to them here if you’d like to help them too: www.orangutan.org/donations
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