This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Search for Orangutans: Part 2

Note: This is part 2 of my three part series on trying to see orangutans. For those who would like more in depth information about some work being done by organizations in Indonesia to save the orangutans I will place links at the end of the last post.

We saw a couple young orangutans at the rehabilitation center Nyaru Menteng, so now we would like to try to find some in the wild at Sebangau National Park. We are not sure how difficult this will be.

The office for Sebangau National Park is located at a pier about a twenty minute ride in shared taxi from Palangka Raya. We are greeted by a very friendly young woman, Suli, who speaks excellent English and gives us plenty of her time to explain the area to us. Sebangau is open for visitors, but is definitely not ready for an influx of guests. It sounds like visitors need a guide and she is the only English speaker. But actually her bosses are coming from Jakarta, so she will not be able to take us. Therefore, Suli kindly let’s us go on our own without a guide and arranges it so that we will meet up and stay with the workers from the WWF (World Wildlife Fund). Since they do not speak English, Suli loans us her pocket translator.

We buy seats on a public speedboat that will take us to SSI, the WWF office at the entrance of the park. The water is black and smooth with perfect reflections of plants and clouds. It feels like we are gliding on a mirror.

Sebangau is a relatively new national park and is the largest protected area of peat land - think swampy wetlands - forest in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). This is actually the last remaining peat land in the Central Kalimantan region after the central government initiated the Mega Rice Project in 1995 in which they tore down an unprecedented 1.4 million hectares of peat land forest for agriculture (and you can bet logging concessions too). 1.4 million hectares ( = 3,336,000 acres) is almost exactly the size of Conneticut.

In the past in Sebangau hundreds of canals were dug by loggers (different than the Mega Rice project) which gave them access deep into the rainforest. The canals and forest degradation reduced the natural ability of the peat land to retain moisture during the dry season and made the area very susceptible to fires which in turn released enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and significantly reduced the natural habitat of the animals. Peat land is a breadbasket full of flora and fauna. It is easy to imagine the impact this sheer devastation of forest in Kalimantan is having on the 808 species of plants, 150 types of birds and 35 species of mammals, including 6000-9000 wild orangutans - the largest population in Indonesia - that live in Sebangau.

These edible jungle mushrooms became part of our lunch
 A program of canal blocking was started in 2005 by WWF along with the local governments. The pilot program was at SSI (where we are staying). The huge canal here runs 24 Km (15 miles) straight into the jungle. Canal blocking allows the ground near the canals to remain moist and prevent fires. After having success with canal blocking, the forest began to revegetate itself. Though it could take 100 years to get back to how it was. So the organizations have been growing and planting the proper species to help accelerate the process.

This nursery is growing indigenous species that will be planted in the area.
We arrive at the pier and are greeted by the three WWF employees. There are three teams of three men who stay here for one month at a time. Their job is to monitor the water levels of the peat land (which they do only once a month) and to cruise around the canals looking for illegal loggers. This year there has not been any illegal logging - a testament to the success of the project.- so I am not sure actually what they do for a month. At SSI there is a observation tower. From the tower we can see huge swath of land that was burned by fires and where the newer, five year old vegetation meets the tall trees of the older forest.
The WWF station at Sebangau
Two of the guys take us down the canal by boat to see the canal blocking and how they check the water levels. We hike a little in the peat land. The ground is very soft and getting shoes wet is unavoidable, no matter how hard we try. You take a step on what you think is solid ground and you go down to your ankle. Another step as you prepare to soak your ankles and you sink down to your knees. One misstep later and I my left thigh is covered in wetlands. This is the first time in my life I think it could be worthwhile to have a pair of Crocs.
Later in the day we take another short boat ride. This time on the river and small tributaries behind SSI. I am not sure what we are looking for exactly, but we do not see any wildlife. We do, however, get to see the younger of our two guides scale straight up a tree to get two jungle apples. And we do slog a bit more through the swampy jungle, which is always fun, I guess.

Watch your step!
The next day we want to head out very early because that is the best time to see animals. From SSI we can hear the morning call of gibbons carrying across the treetops. It is a loud wwwooooohhhhhhppppp like the cross between the howl of a dog and the whoop of a large bird. In Bahasa Indonesian the word for gibbon is “wah-wah” which is quite similar to their sound. Unfortunately though it is drizzling, and one of the WWF guys is still sleeping. When he finally gets roused the rain is just a patter so we make them, via the boss, take us out immediately without waiting to have breakfast. Probably not good social conduct in Indonesia, but who cares we have wild orangutans waiting.

View from the canal blocking site. This canal streches another 19 KM.
The green is where vegetation has begun to return.
We take the boat back up the canal to the dam where we were the day before. We slog through the swamp for an hour or so with no sightings of the red ape. In the distance we do hear the call of a gibbon. The older guide says, “jauh” which in Indonesian means far and also, more subtly, means farther then the guide wants to take us. We heard this before from our guide at Tangkoko National Park in Sulawesi when we were searching unsuccessfully for the black macaques. We return to the boat having not seen even one of the 6000-9000 wild orangutans in Sebangau. Bummer!

As we near the base, our boat makes one surprise stop to a clearing by the canal with young trees, some of which have name tags including one from the Prince of Denmark. Mika and I get to plant five trees (without our name tag) of different species, two of which are Tutup Kabali (not sure what that is in English), the preferred food of orangutans. Across the canal are five year old trees that were planted when the project started. They look healthy, but far from ready to support an orangutan. So who knows, maybe in fifteen years or so orangutans will be eating from trees planted by our own hands. Making our small contribution to the re-greening of Kalimantan definitely saves our morning and more than makes up for the lack of wildlife viewing.

Because of the public boats infrequent boat schedules we have to choose between leaving today or staying for three more days. We decide to let the WWF crew get back to their relaxed life and go in the afternoon.

We never did see an orangutan here, but I am glad to have witnessed Ground Zero in the battle to save what is remaining of Kalimantan’s forests. With the now more progressive attitude towards conservation by the central government along with programs to educate and generate alternate sources of income for local communities maybe (hopefully?) the alarming rate of forest degradation in Kalimantan will cease. And it better because the orangutans survival is dependent on it.
A very bitter tea made from Akar Kuning (Sp?).
This root found in the forest will supposedly help fight against malaria.


  1. This blog is showing the fantastic picture of Terica's Flower Impressions with Pressed Flowers and Plants. You can enjoy here with crafting, WWPFG, plants, & mixed media.

  2. Your images are showing that you are dedicated towards the natures and the mushroom which is under some log will definitely becomes our lunch.

  3. Thanks for the comments and for reading the blog!