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!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Search for Orangutans: Part 3

Since we did not see any wild orangutans in Sebangau, we decide that we have to head west to the town Pangkalan Bun which will get us to Tanjung Puting National Park - the most accessible place to see orangutans in Indonesia - which also means touristy and expensive. Tours ask about US $66 per person per day everything included (food, boat, park fees, guide). So for Mika and I, a three day tour (the minimum required) would cost about US $400 - which is a heap of money for us long term budget travelers. Luckily now is November. We have the rainy season and a very low tourist season in our favor. We see only three other foreigners in Pangkalan Bun. The tour company Borneo Holidays quickly lets us fashion our own tour of just two days with their boat and guide while we will supply our own food and can use the boat‘s kitchen. I am excited for this boat/camping because we have not made one single meal in four months. Park fees are the only fixed expense.

We are picked up in the morning and drive to the pier and our boat which will be our home for the next two days. The upper level has a table and mattresses for us while below is the kitchen and place for our guide and crew. The toilet and shower is at the back of the boat. We leave town and cruise across a large river to the smaller river entrance of Tanjung Putting National Park.
Our vessel and floating studio apartment
Inside Tanjung Putting are several ranger stations designed to research and monitor orangutan behavior. The main area is Camp Leakey which was established in 1971 as a rehabilitation center for rescued orangutans. In the park are wild, semi-wild and rehabilitated orangutans not to mention a whole host of other creatures from crocodiles to cloud leopards to horn bills.

Each ranger station has feeding platforms for the orangutan. These feeding times are designed to help supplement the diets of the rehabilitated orangutans who are not fully accustomed to living without humans and living on their own in the forest. The platforms also are good for tourism because they make an easy way for people to see orangutans without traipsing all day through the jungle. Though the impact of tourism on the rehabilitated orangutans is yet to be determined (during our hike at Camp Leakey the next day we meet a university student following orangutans to study that exact thing). Another downside of a reintroduction program like this is that the wild orangutans may learn bad habits and not to fear humans from the rehabilitated apes. At times wild orangutans have been seen around the platforms eying the free bananas.

The first stop is at Camp Leakey, the farthest point from town. So we plug along upriver for several hours. A downpour starts -- it is rainy season -- so the bird viewing is minimal. This is also a difficult activity without binoculars. But the rain stops, as if by design, exactly as we pull up to Camp Leakey. Our guide leads us through the trail to the feeding platform and then right in front of us on the trail straddling two trees is a big female orangutan. It is exhilarating to see them this close.
There is a semi-circle of wood benches which face a platform about four feet off the ground. There is a large group of Indonesian tourists and five other foreigners. The guide tells us that according to the rules we should stay at least 5 meters (15 ft) from the orangutans, however, the apes here do not follow this rule. One mother continually stops at and passes over the benches where we are sitting. At this platform we see several nursing mothers clutching their infants while the younger children play around them. This is somewhat far from seeing actual wild orangutans, but nevertheless, a beautiful sight.
This just is not exactly the same as seeing orangutans in the wild
We leave Camp Leakey to our boat and find a place to sleep by the river. We try our hand at fishing with the Indonesian guys and then sit and wait for wildlife to appear. We see a large yellow and blue kingfisher streak by and see some black horn bills from afar. There are also some proboscis monkeys (only found in Borneo), but everything is far away. It is regrettable that we do not have binoculars. Mika and I make fried noodles for everyone. Our guide says it is the first time ever a guest has cooked for him. We fall asleep to the sounds of the jungle being drowned out by the pouring rain on our plastic tarp.
The morning view from the boat
We wake up very early in the morning to the sounds of the jungle. After breakfast we go back to Camp Leakey for some hiking. As we enter, sitting on the narrow boardwalk are two orangutans. One is a large 33 year old female who our guide says is the toll taker. If we want to pass by we will have to give her something. Stuck, our guide calls out to the rangers. One approaches from the other side to save the day. He shoos away the small orangutan and gives the Toll Taker a mirror to look at as we gently slide past her back to freedom.
Notice the ranger in the back coming to save us
Jungle mushroom
We hike for a couple hours in the jungle without spotting any significant wildlife which seems to be our luck these days. I was hoping to see some more orangutan and really wanted to see a gibbon. The most interesting thing are some exotic mushrooms and leeches. Yes, leeches are why we hike with our pants tucked into our socks. Our guide, however, is barefoot and pulls one off his leg to show us. The leeches are like black inchworms. When we arrive back to Camp Leakey I pull one more leech off of my sock and another crawling up my pant leg.

The gibbon
Camp Leakey is not just home to orangutans. There are some semi-wild pigs and three gibbons who hang around the area. A ranger calls a gibbon over for us so we can see him up close bribing him with bananas. The monkey swings swiftly and gracefully to where we are sitting and perches on a branch just out of reach. The ranger tosses him bananas. Gibbons have amazing reflexes and he catches the treat every time. Hearing the action, the Toll Taker strolls over to get her bananas too. She is a really lazy orangutan. Again, this is not exactly the same thing as seeing these animals in the wild, but it is definitely not a zoo either. It is fascinating, and well worth our effort to come here.

Our last stop is for the 3:00 PM feeding at Tanjung Harapan station. We follow the ranger as he fills his basket with bananas and leads us on the short hike to the feeding platform. Above us we hear crashing through the trees and the growling of a male who is letting us know of his presence. It sounds intimidating to me, but the guides are unimpressed.

Unlike Camp Leakey where we saw many mothers with children, this feeding platform seems to be all young males who are too lazy to find their own lunch. One or two guys will be eating and as another approaches the ones at the platform will comically stuff their mouths full of unpeeled bananas and head up to the trees with their stash. None of the orangutans come near us either like in the other park. They all leave through the forest the way they came. The last to arrive this afternoon is a large male with the skin flaps on his face. He is not the king of this jungle, but at least we have a relatively close encounter with a really big ape. We see just one mother here who watches from high in the trees with her two children but does not come down to fraternize with the males.
Two males on the feeding platform
When the bananas are gone, the orangutans leave to make their nests for the night. We hop back on our boat and chug through Tanjung Putting past proboscis monkeys, macaques and another large kingfisher as we say farewell to the orangutans of Kalimantan.

Follow the links below for more detailed information about organizations working for conservation in Kalimantan:

Orangutan Foundation International - Doing research at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park

The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation - They have several projects in Kalimantan

Nyaru Menteng - Training young orangutans to survive in the wild

World Wildlife Fund (WWF) - About their work at Sebangau National Park

Kalaweit - This organization is rescuing gibbons

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