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!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Search for Orangutans: Part I

Note: This is part 1 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.

Mr. Orangutan, What to do?
The rainforests are disappearing
And so are you.
But there’s always a home
In the zoo,
Next to giraffe and gnu

Bad idea?
You turn it down
What about work as circus clown?
The children laugh
As you frown
Traveling from town to town

Not good either?
Well then maybe you could
Get a job in Hollywood
Be an actor
Yes you should
Star in movies with Clint Eastwood!

— Jeffrey Leventhal

I wrote this poem about 10 years ago when I was going through a mini-creative writing phase of animal based poetry, just like everyone in their late twenties does I suppose. Of course, I did not know then that ta decade later I would be in the rainforests of Borneo looking for orangutans, but this is exactly where I find myself now.

Orangutans (“Forest Man” in Bahasa Indonesian) are the only large primates living outside of Africa. Their natural habitat is the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra which for years has been disappearing at an alarming rate due to illegal logging and forest clearing for slash-and-burn agriculture and palm oil plantations. According to the info center at Tanjung Putting national park, Indonesia and Malaysia are first and second in the world for rainforest degradation. So it is easy to see why orangutans numbers are rapidly decreasing. It is not just orangutans. Indonesia is listed as third in the world for having the most number of critically endangered species. By the way, the United States is first on that list.

View Larger Map

Mika and I arrive Friday evening in the city Palangka Raya. We are now closer to the jungle, but still not quite sure the best manner to see the only large primate not in Africa. Farther east from Palangka Raya is Tanjung Puting national park where we can definitely see orangutans because they have feeding stations for rehabilitated orangutans. But the tours there are expensive, and we would like to see wild orangutans if possible.
Borneo Orangutan Society has a program at Nyaru Menteng near Palangka Raya to take orphaned orangutans and teach them to survive in the wild at their orangutan school. Orangutans are naturally solitary animals, but because now of the lack of natural habitat the founders of BOS have also taught the young orangutans to live as a community. When the orangutans are ready to leave the school and their frequent human contact, they are placed on Orangutan Island as rehabilitated orangutans. This is the next step at being reintroduced into the wild. This organization is very successful. They have hundreds of orangutans at Nyaru Menteng, each with their own adopted human mother and orangutan survival class. The television channel Animal Planet has even made a program called Orangutan Island which documents the life of young orangutans learning to live on their own with minimal human contact after being placed on the island.

People are not allowed to visit Orangutan Island, just pass by it on an overpriced river cruise, so we decide to skip it and just go to Nyaru Menteng. We get the permit from the government office and hire a taxi to take us to the center outside of Palangka Raya. The information center there is quite uninteresting. Through a window we can view a group of about 15 adolescent orangutans in a cage. This group is actually ready to be taken to the island, but unfortunately the island is full to capacity. As of now they do not know where they will put these guys or any of the following groups. This is a major problem for organizations and the government that we hear many during our stay in Kalimantan: With limited rainforest options and competition from big business and local communities for resources, where do we put the rehabilitated orangutans?

I'm with you buddy! We are not so excited to be here either.
At the information center they play an episode of Orangutan Island for us on a large screen. We also find out that we cannot get any closer to any other orangutans. What? Our dreams (and unrealistic expectations) of cuddling baby orangutans in the nursery are dashed completely. Nyaru Menteng is a quarantined area because orangutans are susceptible to human diseases. To visit the nursery one needs a slew of shots and a special permit from Jakarta.

Obviously this organization is quite successful and, understandably, they are busy worrying about orangutan survival, not foreign visitors. Their information center is more for groups of local Indonesians and children to learn about the plight of the orangutans. Regardless, we are severely disappointed. Not to mention that we hired a private car to come out here just to see some orangutans in a cage and a TV episode of Animal Planet. So we decide to just take a short walk. There is a boardwalk running along the outside of the quarantined, fenced off area.

We walk a little with an escort. We get to a bench where three employees are sitting, and we can actually see an orangutan a short distance away hanging in a tree. I am very excited. Apparently, there is an orangutan class going on and this one is playing hooky. Then suddenly we here a rustling in the nearby bushes and we see a smallish orangutan approaching our watching area.

It is hard to keep a boardwalk intact with so many adolescent orangutans around
The workers tell us that this four year old is in a biting mood. He keeps trying to get closer to us and the employees shoo him away. He takes to the trees and makes a puckering sound that signals his testy mood. This is of course a bit of a contrived setting to see animals. However, the orangutan is roaming freely near us and we are in Borneo, so I am giddy to watch him for a while even if it is a temperamental adolescent in a rehabilitation clinic.

A cheeky 4 year old playing hooky from school

We leave Nyaru Menteng happy to have our first glimpse of these wonderful creatures in the jungle. This first taste also gets us excited for our next attempt to see them which will be in the wild at Sebangau National Park.
This larger one came by just as we were leaving