MEMBERS OF OUR WELCOMING COMMITTEE at Camp Leakey climb around the wooden slats of the jetty, anxiously awaiting our arrival. The unrelenting equatorial sun highlights their orange tufts of hair, their playful antics offering a distraction from the tropical heat.
One of the orangutan greeters, Percy, befriends several of the tourists who have come to this renowned research area in Tanjung Puting National Park, located in Kalimantan, or Indonesian Borneo. Borneo boasts the world’s oldest tropical rainforests which, until a few decades ago, completely covered the island. Only 50 percent of forest cover remains; 25 percent disappeared since the 1980s as virgin forest was converted into oil palm plantations. The loss of habitat makes orangutan refuges and sanctuaries critical to their survival.
Many of us arrive at Camp Leakey on a klotok, a wooden boat that ferries tourists along Senoyer River to the park. My three-day trip includes two nights sleeping on deck.
Percy joins us as we walk to the feeding platform where orangutans being rehabilitated to live in the wild receive supplemental meals of fruit and milk as they learn to forage on their own. Mothers, babies and a few males indulge in papaya, bananas, durian and other fruit. Some linger in the branches overhead while others quickly depart with their bounty into the surrounding forest.
We make our way to the research center, established in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas and her former spouse, Rod Brindamour. The center was named after paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, a mentor to Galdikas as well as to Dr. Jane Goodall, known for her work with chimpanzees, and Dr. Dian Fossey, who researched mountain gorillas.
The name orangutan, Malay for “man of the forest,” aptly describes these great apes who share 97 percent of their DNA with humans. The World Wildlife Fund estimates the Bornean orangutan population at about 100,000 — putting them on the endangered list. More dire reports estimate 70,000–100,000 orangutans remain in Borneo, meaning the population reduced by more than half from 1999 to 2015.
“The more I get to know orangutans, the more I get to know how human they are,” said Galdikas, who has studied Borneo’s orangutans for more than 50 years. “As similar as they are, they are also different. They are solitary in the wild. They are meditative and contemplative. They look you in the eye and see into your soul. … I have been wonderfully blessed and fortunate to spend many years with them and continue to do so. I don’t want them to perish from this Earth.”
Galdikas helped establish Orangutan Foundation International, which operates Camp Leakey and is dedicated to the conservation of wild orangutans and their rainforest habitat.
The research center area attracts resident orangutans including Big Tom, an adult male with an impressive set of flanges, or cheek pads. I also meet Siswi, the first orangutan born to an ex-captive at Camp Leakey. Dubbed the Queen of Camp Leakey, she plays up the part, posing for cameras and reveling in the attention. As habituated to humans as the orangutans seem, they remain free to forage and nest anywhere in the reserve.
Camp Leakey is one of several feeding stations in Tanjung Putting National Park. I also visit Tanjung Harapan, the first station in the rehabilitation process. Orangutans that pass the semi-wild phase move to Pondok Tanggui, where researchers monitor them from a distance. The park requested two new feeding stations along the Sekonyer River, where illegal miners have encroached.
“One of the mechanisms for preservation of the park is to build up tourism,” Galdikas said “Tourism provides local employment and also supplies more sets of eyes and makes it harder to take resources. Timber mining used to go on in the park. Also surface mining for gold and zircon, the substance that makes glass for Mercedes and BMWs. You need to process tons and tons of sand to get zircon. It’s very damaging.”
OFI offers eco-tours led by specialists including Galdikas, who spends six months of the year in Borneo. The Los Angeles-based foundation has sister locations in Canada, Australia and Lithuania.
The states of Sabah and Sarawak in Malaysian Borneo, north of Kalimantan, offer options for orangutan encounters. In Sabah, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre opened in 1964 as the first center in the world to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans. Here 60 to 80 of the primates live free in the 10,000-plus acres of protected land at the edge of Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve. The Sabah Wildlife Department operates Sepilok, obtaining additional funding from entrance fees and Orangutan Appeal UK.
Many orangutans come as babies, caught during logging or forest clearance. Some are poached for the pet trade, though the Malaysian government outlawed the practice. The process to return to the wild can take up to seven years.
A small family of orangutans gorges on the fruit of a fig tree during my trip along the Kinabatangan River in the Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, spanning 65,000 acres and protecting about 780 orangutans, along with other wildlife.
The secluded Tabin Wildlife Reserve spans part of the peninsula of Sabah’s Darvel Bay. Created in 1984 to preserve disappearing wildlife, including Asian elephants, the reserve takes visitors on Jeep safaris.
Sarawak is home to Semenggoh Wildlife Centre, part of the Semenggoh Nature Reserve. Its rehab program moved to Sarawak’s Matang Wildlife Centre, but the reserve remains home to semi-wild orangutan families. As I arrive, a mom and baby greet me in the car park. At the feeding platform, residents swing in for bananas and coconuts, and the star of the show is Ritchie, Semenggoh’s alpha male at the time.
On a daytrip to Matang Wildlife Centre, part of Kubah National Park, I watch feedings of orangutans and sun bears. U.K.-based The Great Projects offers visitors volunteer opportunities at Matang and in Kalimantan’s Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Sanctuary, home to 393 orangutans, the largest number of captive orangutans in the world.
INFO TO GO
Visitors to Tanjung Puting National Park can fly from Jakarta (CGK) and other Indonesian locations into Pangkalan Bun (PKN); from there an hour’s drive reaches the harbor of the Sekonyer River. Klotok houseboats with sleeping facilities are available at the harbor.
You can travel to Sepilok from the Sabah city of Kota Kinabalu via a five-hour bus ride. Frequent 45-minute flights also operate from Kota Kinabalu International Airport to Sandakan Airport. From Sandakan, public buses run directly to Sepilok in 45 minutes and to Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary in two hours. Flights also connect Sandakan to Lahad Datu Airport, near Tabin.
For Semenggoh, public buses run daily from Kuching. A 20-minute walk from the entrance takes you to the viewing area. Matang Wildlife Centre lies about a 40-minute drive from Kuching City. Since no regular bus goes directly to the center, hiring a taxi is recommended.
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