In Indonesian, “orang” means “person” and “utan” means “forest”.
Now before I begin, for anyone planning on going to Tanjung Puting national park (in Kalimantan, Indonesia) to see orangutans like we did, I’d like to highly recommend to you 2 things. Firstly, you should do it even if it’s out of your way, because it was definitely worth it, and secondly, I recommend our guide, Herman Ningrat. It was the best thing we did during our month in Indonesia, and Herman was an amazing guide. He spoke great English, was very friendly and taught us a lot about what we saw. If you’d like to contact him, his email is firstname.lastname@example.org and his mobile number is 0822-5478-0777.
Last summer, when my mom, Kaia and I went to Florida, we visited a place called Monkey Jungle, a kind of “open concept” zoo, where humans walk in caged walkways through big monkey enclosures. There were mostly small monkeys, but there were also a few great apes, including a female orangutan named Mei. She was very cute and lovable. Then, the zookeeper explained that in their natural habitat, on the island of Borneo in southeast Asia, orangutans are under threat because the jungle is being cut down to plant palm plantations, to make palm oil. She told us that a way to help orangutans is to not buy palm oil or products that contain it. I thought that it was a great idea to let people see an orangutan, then explain how to help, because Mei made people feel an emotional connection with orangutans, which motivates people much more than just hearing about them. And let me tell you, after we did what I’m going to write about in this blog, we’re even more motivated to help the amazing “red apes”.
Our time left in Indonesia was winding down, but there was still so much that we wanted to do. We’d heard about a 3 day trip on Borneo where you go up a river through the jungle on a boat with a personal guide, cook and captain, and you’re almost guaranteed to see orangutans. It would require 2 short flights from Bali to get there, and 2 flights back, so we didn’t know if it was worth doing it, but we read reviews on TripAdvisor saying it was “the best thing I did in Indonesia”, so we decided to go for it and my dad went to work booking tickets online. Most people arrange the trip ahead of time, but since it was the low tourist season, we figured we’d get a better price by hiring a boat and crew on the spot.
We spent the night in Kuta (the super touristy part of Bali) for no reason other than being close to the airport. We had at least 3 hours between flights in Surabaya, on the east side of Java, which I believe is the second biggest city in Indonesia (similar size to Toronto). We then flew to Pangkalan Bun, in the southwest part of Kalimantan. Most people consider the whole island Borneo, but that name only applies for the Malaysian part in the north. The Indonesian part is called Kalimantan, but when I’m talking about the whole island, I’ll call it Borneo, because that’s the only term I’ve heard for the whole island. We took a 15-minute taxi from the Pangkalan Bun airport to Kumai, on a big estuary that most rivers in southwest Borneo flow into. We found a pretty basic hotel (the first place we’ve stayed that doesn’t include toilet paper in the price), and my parents went to the port and found a boat captain and guide that would take us the next day. We didn’t do much in Kumai, so I’ll skip straight to the trip.
The boat, or the “kloktok” as they’re called, left port in the morning, with 8 people on board. The Douglas family, guide Herman, captain Anjung, assistant Rudy and cook Alu. We went downstream on the estuary for about 30 minutes, and Herman told us the plan for the trip: We’d enter the Sekonyer river off the estuary, and travel upstream until we got to the first orangutan feeding station (I know you’re wondering why they feed them, but I’ll explain later). We’d hopefully see orangutans, and we’d spend the night on the boat there too. The next day, we’d go further up the river to the second station, then turn off onto an even smaller river, and go to the third feeding station. We’d then head back downstream and spend the night somewhere along the small river, and the next day, we’d go all the way back to Kumai. We had an exciting trip ahead!
We turned off the estuary onto the Sekonyer river, the entrance to Tanjung Puting Notional Park.
As we cruised along, Alu brought us a delicious lunch of fried squid, vegetables and rice. She’s an amazing cook!
Herman told us that you can sometimes see orangutans in the trees, so we kept our eyes peeled. We didn’t see any, but we saw several troops of proboscis monkeys, known for their big, floppy noses.
Finally, we arrived at the first orangutan feeding station. Most of the orangutans in the area, the north of the national park, are semi-wild, meaning they spent most of their childhood in captivity (probably because they were orphans), and have been rehabilitated, then reintroduced into the wild. They’re able to survive in the wild, but they still need a little bit of help, so are fed fruits, vegetables and water once a day. During the dry season, when fruits are hard to find, they almost entirely rely on the daily feeding, but we were there in the wet season, so they don’t always come to the feedings because they can find food and water by themselves. First, we went to the little visitor centre at the ranger station. Then, we walked for about 20 minutes to the feeding platform, and sat down in the viewing area. There were about 15 people, and all of us had come by kloktok that day. We watched the park rangers put out bananas, sweet potatoes, lychees, and many more kinds of fruit onto the platform. Almost immediately after they left the platform, we heard rustling in the trees. Then, we saw something big and red moving through the forest. We watched in awe as a huge male orangutan climbed from the treetops down onto the platform. We couldn’t believe our eyes!
We watched Gungul eat for a long time. He was in no rush to finish eating and leave the platform, so the other orangutans needed to be patient for their turn. A while later, one of the rangers told us to come back on the path a bit. There was Kucao, the second most dominant male, waiting for Gungul to leave. We saw him right up close!
Gungul ate for a long time, but he finally got full and left. Kucao didn’t realize this though, so he kept waiting. A female orangutan, Chelsea, swung in on a vine and climbed down onto the platform. Kucao eventually realized Gungul was gone, so he came to the platform too. It seemed like after Gungul left, there was no order of who eats, because Kucao and Chelsea ate at the same time.
2 more females came, and both of them had a baby about 3 years old. They were so cute!
Later, we learned that one of the mothers and her baby are completely wild, but they come to the feedings too. We watched for at least 2 hours, then walked back to our boat. And after that amazing experience, we had a delicius fish dinner! Rudy and Herman set up mattresses and mosquito nets for us to sleep, and they slept on the bottom deck. We had a good first day of the trip!
The next morning, we woke up to the sound of birds singing. We had breakfast as we continued up the Sekonyer river. We saw many birds and more proboscis monkeys. They’re mainly active in the early morning and late afternoon when it’s not so hot, so we saw them jumping from tree to tree! We arrived at the second feeding station and walked about 10 minutes to the platform. The rangers put out food and we waited for them to come, but there wasn’t any sign of them. While waiting, we saw the biggest stick bug I’ve ever seen.
We waited patiently for an hour or so, but it was getting hot and it didn’t seem like the orangutans were going to come, so we walked back to our kloktok. In a way though, it’s a good thing that they didn’t come because it means they’re learning to live independently in the jungle.
Alu had another delicious lunch ready for us, this time baby lobster, and we ate it as we cruised up the Sekonyer river, and turned off of it and went up a small river, what they call the Coca Cola river, because of its clear, but brown colour.
It was even quieter on the Coca Cola river, and we saw hornbills and other birds flying over us. We went a couple of hours until we arrived at the third, and biggest feeding station, Camp Leakey. Right as we were coming up to the dock, we saw a female orangutan in a tree right next to the river! And as we looked more carefully, we saw this:
She had a baby! She turned around, and we got a better look.
We wanted to watch them forever, but we had to get to the feeding platform in time to see the feeding, so we said goodbye to Peta and Peter. To get to the camp, we needed to walk along a boardwalk, but there was quite a ridiculous obstruction. Siswi.
Everyone got by Siswi safely, and we walked along the boardwalk to the visitor centre. The camp has quite an interesting background. In 1971, Louis Leakey, a anthropologist from Kenya, was researching the origin of humans. To do so, he found 3 young women to research some of the closely related animals to humans. Jane Goodall went to Tanzania to study chimpanzees, Dian Fossey went to Rwanda to study gorillas, and Biruté Galdikas, a Canadian, came to Borneo to study orangutans. She and her team established Camp Leakey as their base. But orangutans had, and still have, several threats that are making their population decline rapidly. The biggest is habitat destruction, either for lumber or for palm plantations. Some orangutans are killed by the forest burning, or by trees falling, and others are forced into other troops’ territory, and there isn’t enough food for all of them. An even sadder problem is the pet trade. People go into the jungle to find a baby orangutan. They kill its mother, and take it and sell it as a pet. They seem like great pets at first, but they get big, and their owners don’t know how to take care of them anymore. All these threats make so many orphan orangutans and adult orangutans that don’t know how to survive in the wild, so Prof. Galdikas found herself not just researching, but rehabilitating orangutans.
At the visitor centre, there were great displays to teach people about orangutans and their threats, and all the other plants and animals living in the jungle around Camp Leakey.
There was also a big orangutan family tree on the wall, with pictures of all the semi-wild orangutans around Camp Leakey. They always name the babies with the same first letter as their mother (like Peta and Peter).
After the visitor centre, we headed to the feeding station. The platform was much closer to the seating area than it was at the first feeding station. Rangers put out similar food to the other stations, but they even put out cow’s milk here, because a lot of the adult orangutans’ old owners fed it to them as babies. Again, the orangutans didn’t come immediately like they did at the first station, but we waited. After about an hour, people were starting to give up and leave, but this time, our patience paid off. We saw a few red shapes moving in the trees, and as they got closer, we realized it was a family!
They were so cool! Just like at the first feeding station, it seemed like orangutans’ favourite fruit are bananas, because they ate lots of them before eating anything else. A few other female orangutans showed up later too.
We saw some other animals around there too. Wild pigs were under the platform, hoping the orangutans would drop something. We also saw Boy, a young gibbon who lives around Camp Leakey and apparently comes to every feeding and takes a few bananas.
Well, that was a pretty awesome afternoon! We walked back to the camp and to the kloktok, and had another delicious dinner as we headed back down the Coca Cola river. The place on the side of the river where we spent the night had the best fireflies I’d ever seen. It looked like all the trees were covered in Christmas lights! We slept very well that night. Busy, fun day + quiet night & fresh air = sleep.
Alu made us Nasi Goreng, or fried rice. We went back down the Coca Cola river until it joined with the Sekonyer river.
We weren’t planning on going to a feeding station that day, but we visited Sekonyer village, across the river from the first feeding station. It was bigger than I’d expected it to be. The village is on the side of the river that’s not in the national park, so they’re allowed to have small farms and plantations.
We went back to the kloktok and continued cruising down the river. I want to emphasize how sweet it was on the kloktok. We’re eating lunch, listening to monkeys and birds, with not a care in the world. We felt like royalty!
The highlight of that day came as we were nearing where the Sekonyer river opens up onto the big estuary. There was a group of proboscis monkeys in the bushes beside the river. We’d seen lots of proboscis monkeys in the past couple of days, so we did little more than notice them. But Herman told Anjung to stop the boat, because he thought it looked like the monkeys wanted to cross the river. He said that they wait for a boat to be nearby, then swim across, because they’re so smart that they’ve figured out that boats scare the crocodiles away! We waited for a few minutes, and noticed that there were a lot of monkeys, at least 30 of them.
Finally, one brave monkey climbed down towards the water, then slipped in and started swimming across. After that, there was no hesitation in the rest, and they all started jumping in! The whole group was in the water within a minute of the first monkey crossing. There were sometimes 3 in the air at once!
Here’s a little YouTube link where you can see the fun: https://youtu.be/SW-bfCO0A2E
The river wasn’t too wide, so every monkey made it across without drowning or getting caught by a crocodile. We could tell that the reason they crossed was because there were good fruit on the other side, because they all climbed into a big tree and started picking fruit. That was so cool!
A few hours later, we got back to Kumai.
We said goodbye to the crew, and took a taxi to a hotel in Pangkalan Bun. The next day, we flew back to Bali again, with a couple of hours in the Surabaya airport. The orangutan trip was the best thing we did in Indonesia, and that’s saying something!
But orangutans are endangered. Their numbers have dropped by 1/3 in the past 10 years and they have lost 80% of their habitat in the past 20 years. The threats are:
– deforestation for oil palm plantations. Palm oil use has gone up by 50% in the past 10 years – we use it in food, cooking and cosmetics
– illegal logging. The trees in these forests are worth a lot of money, especially to poor farmers. Our guide Herman told us that it happens in some remote places that the conservation officers can’t patrol, but also in obvious places where the loggers pay the officers to say nothing (corruption).
– illegal gold mining. These many small mines in remote places strip all the trees and soil away, so after the mining is done nothing can grow back. As you saw in that earlier photo, illegal gold mining was even a problem in the park that was set up to protect orangutans!
– hunting. People still hunt orangutans for food. And this often leaves orphans that they sell for pets. When the babies get too big, they are killed or given to the rehabilitation centers (like the one we saw).
– forest fires. Rainforests usually keep their moisture. But the logging and clearing has resulted in drier areas that have burned a lot more than natural in the past few decades.
So these orangutans need our help. When you’re shopping, check the ingredients of the products you’re buying, and if it contains palm oil, buy it only if it has the RSPO logo on it. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil is an organization that gets all the people in the industry (growers, refiners, manufacturers and consumers) together to try to solve the problem. Preventing further deforestation is the main objective. I read that there are still problems with RSPO but it is a step in the right direction.
Better yet, switch to more sustainable oils. If demand for palm oil doesn’t increase, they’ll stop destroying the precious jungle that orangutans and so many other animals need to survive.
For all you Canadians reading this, did you know that Tim Horton’s uses palm oil to fry those delicious Timbits and doughnuts? They made a pledge to not buy unsustainable palm oil, but haven’t fulfilled their promise for over 8 months. McDonalds also uses unsustainable palm oil. Sign the petitions for them to get to work at https://action.sumofus.org/a/tim-hortons-donate/?action_id=40285781&akid=.1503883.m91tz-&ar=1&form_name=act&rd=1 (Tim Hortons) and http://action.sumofus.org/a/mcdonalds-palm-oil-deforestation/?sub=homepage (McDonalds). If you sign a petition, let me know by leaving a comment on the blog. Better yet, write them a letter.
Baby and other orangutans that end up at rehabilitation centers are lucky. Birute Galdikas’s foundation is one that takes in guys like this. They first get the traumatized orangutans to play on play structures like they have at schools. They also spend a lot of time holding them because most of them didn’t really have time with their mothers. Once they can swing, they are taken into a little forest for more integration. All this happens in the rehab center.
Once the orangutans seem to be able to manage in the forest, they are taken out into Tanjung Puting park (where we saw them) to continue their reintegration. From what we saw, Galdikas’s foundation does fantastic work. You can support them by going to their website: orangutan.org
After all, orangutans are 95% human.