In the 1980s, a colleague of mine at the National Audubon Society, participated in an Earthwatch program with orangutans. I had seen the advertisements and wanted so much to take this trip to Borneo. However, any free time I took from my public policy position at Audubon was used to fulfill contracts with the U.S. Agency for International Development, primarily in Africa.
When my husband, Ken Strom, and I finally retired several years ago, we began to make lists of the great places we wanted to still explore. And the beginning of the list targeted some of the most difficult to get to. In our considerations were the amount of time it would take to just get there.
Last year we began to look for options to see those orangutans in Borneo. It would take 30 hours of travel on planes and sitting in airports to find our way to Borneo which is actually an island split between Malaysia and Indonesia, with a cutout space for Brunei.
The usual travel companies we had travelled with did not really include Borneo, and specifically the small places still left in the world where wild orangutans were living in their primary habitat. Borneo, like so many places in the world, is losing habitat for wild birds, mammals, amphibians and insects. The global demand for palm oil, which is often found in nut butters and hair products for example, leads to the destruction of primary rain forests.
In our research we discovered Orangutan Foundation, International (OFI). This organization is the one most closely associated with Dr. Birute Mary Galdikas, who has the longest continuous research of orangutans in the world. I will write more on her in my next post.
Travel with OFI is handled by Irene Spencer out of San Diego. There is a process for being accepted on the few trips that are being done each year, and most of the requirements are to ensure that you understand the challenges of the trip and the need to protect the orangutans that you come into contact with. For example, you need a current TB test.
We decided that if we were going all that way, we would add an additional week for birding in Malaysian Borneo rain forest. We stayed at the Sepilok, Sukau and Tabin Eco Lodges, birding on foot, by range rover and from boats. We saw 115 species of birds, some for the first time in our lives.
At Tabin we could actually see at one point the contrast between the primary and secondary rain forests up against the palm oil plantation. The palms only last for 35 years, so we were able to see fully grown and newly planted palm groves, as well as burning fields from slash and burn processes.
At Sepilok we saw one orangutan, which hangs around the Rainforest Discovery Center, and three baby orangutans on the roof of the nursery at the small park. Rehabilitated orangutans eventually are released in Tabin. We did not see any of the 240 orangutans in the forest, but we could see the nests that they make high in the trees of the primary forest.
Heading back from Tabin, we flew from Ladtu Datu to Kota Kindabala to Kuala Lumpur to Jakarta, Indonesia where we spent the night. The next morning we connected with the group heading for Pangkalan Bun, Indonesia, and the boats that would take this small group into the Tanjung Pating National Park.
Our lunch with Dr. Galdikas was a combination briefing and group introductions. She outlined her mission to protect wild orangutans by protecting the habitat they need. During the 45 years of work, her group has been able to help save the national park, educate the local people, protect wild populations of orangutans, rescue orangutans in captivity, rehabilitate injured and orphaned orangutans and purchase land to extend the habitat.
We arrived at the Rimba Lodge on the Sekonyer Kanan River, which was our home base. Each day we would float done the river to the Camp Leakey River extension and see Proboscis monkeys, macaques, and once an orangutan along the way.
The elusive orangutan in Malaysian Borneo was not hidden in Indonesian Borneo, especially in the park. They met us at the dock when we arrived in Camp Leakey. And they met us at the Camp buildings. They came to “feeding stations” to get fruit during the day. Some 6,000 orangutans live in the park. And the Care Center back in the city is providing rehabilitation for several hundred more.
Siswi, who is one of the older orangutans, greeted us the first day inside the camp. Somehow, she knew Dr. Galdikas was coming. In the interim, she tore down some branches and made them into a square mat on the ground. Then she laid down on it. She was demonstrating how the orangutans make their beds. That day and the next when walking into the forest, we would find branch beds on the path and were sure the Siswi had made these beds to rest on while she waited for us to return from the feeding stations.
If was not uncommon to see mother orangutans with their babies attached to their backs and sides. Juveniles might be hanging around with moms and their younger siblings. Tom, the alpha male at Camp Leakey, showed up one day. He is probably 300 pounds and has the extended face pouches which mark the males. Some of the orangutans will go out in the forest and not be seen for years. But each day the Camp provides supplemental fruit and milk for those orangutans that want them.
Once you have met the orangutans, you will see that they are the gentle ones of the ape species. If you have seen the IMAX film “Born to be Wild,” you will understand the need to make sure they have a space to live and thrive. And if you have a desire to see them up close, go to www.orangutan.org. Irene Spencer will help you design your trip.
There are two immediate things you can do: donate to the foundation or become a foster parent: join the effort to boycott products made with palm oil. Remember, if we cannot maintain a healthy habitat for these creatures, we will not be able to save one for ourselves.
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