Orangutan Encounters

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
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Flag of Indonesia  ,
Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Jungle trek, jungle trek
in Bukit Lawang
See the monkey, see the bird,
See orangutan!
--Sung by local guides to the tune of "Jingle Bells"

Karen, project manager of the Oranguatan Health Project, said it was the best day that a group of volunteers has ever had in the six months she's been here. Today we saw all kinds of creatures in the jungle, including what we came to see: orangutans.

Bukit Lawang is a small village that ends where the jungle begins--at the end of a rough and winding, partly paved, mostly dirt road. A large river, the Bohorok, runs through it from high up in the mountains. As we walked along the river to the Jungle Inn and Restaurant, at the entrance to Gunung Leuser National Park, the sound of hammering rang out and saws busily buzzed away as the villagers worked to rebuild the cafes, shops, inns and houses that had been swept away in the flash flood of November 2003.

My Lonely Planet guide describes the Jungle Inn, across the river from the Orangutan Feeding Center, as a quirky place with bizarre "Tarzan-meets-Hansel and Gretel architecture," an accurate description to which I would add that the inn is built like a rustic jungle palace, with batik banners waving, a stone bridge inlaid with whimsical pebble designs, and an excellent food that comes decorated with its own ecosystem of flowers and ferns. Here is the jumping off point to Gunung Leuser National Park, a protected park (though still illegally logged) and the last refuge of the Sumatran orangutan, which the UN says is destined to be extinct in the next 10 years.

Our volunteer team--Brettany, a marine biologist from Florida; Briony, a nutritionist from London, England; Donna, a Cirque du Soleil acrobat from Australia, and Dan, an American expate now living in Pedang, all took turns crossing the Bohorok in a dugout canoe operated by a local man in teensy tiny swimming shorts who swings the canoe over on a cable to the other side in under a minute. It's a 30-minute walk on the other side to the Orangutan Feeding Center, where semi-wild orangutans come in the morning and afternoon for bananas and milk. These animals, once kept in captivity, were once taken from their mothers at a young age--the mothers are shot out of the branches, the babies fall, and, if they survive, are sold into the underground pet trade. God knows why anyone would want to take part in this, but of course these wild creatures cannot be kept for long, and they end up here, caught between the world of man and their own disappearing world of the jungle.

The effect is devastating. The first thing we saw was a female orangutan, Sasha, in a rusty old cage, draping her long, shaggy arm through  a hole in the bottom to collect food strewn on the ground. Sasha must be kept in confinement because she is so used to people that she goes into farmers' fields and eats their crops, or even enters houses and steals food.

At the platform, we saw a mother and her baby. The baby appeared extremely ill--her jaw was dropped open, her eyes glassy and unseeing, her tiny face withered to that of an old woman. The ranger kept trying to give the baby a bit of banana, but the mother wouldn't have it, and kept pushing his hand away. We found out a few days later that the baby had died, and the mother was eating the body. This was the third baby to die in a month, and Karen suspects it could be due to disease from contact with humans. Because we are so closely related (we share 96.4 percent of our DNA), we can easily pass diseases on to each other. 

Herein lies the plight of the orangutan. Tourism is desparately needed to further the cause of keeping the jungle intact, as well as provide locals with an alternative occupation to working the palm plantations. Yet such close human contact with humans can have gravely detrimental effects on the remaining orangutans.

Out team pressed on into the jungle for a three-hour practise trek with our guide Wanda, a tiny little man with an elvin sparkle in his eye, a great mass of curly hair and a vast, encyclopedic knowledge of jungle flora and fauna. He showed us the lacy leaves of the peacock plant, which can be chewed and placed on snake or centipede bites (lots of poisonous critters live here, including massive red centipedes whose bite isn't fatal, but you still don't want to mess with them!). Wanda also scraped the bark off a Cipcipan tree and gave it to me to taste: it was bitter and medicinal. "Quinine," he said. "People take it for anti malaria." I saved the bark to make tea with it later.

We saw a massive river of termites flowing across a log like a great river; giant but harmless ants I let run on my arm (they, like so many other creatures here, seem either microscopic or absolutely huge); and, finally, what we had come for. Wanda's practised senses found a wild orangutan high up in the canopy, and we went crashing off the path and into the undergrowth without hesitation, tripping and tumbling down the hill, our feet not yet sure in the slippery mud.

We gazed upward. There he was, an orangutan male, a blob of orange in the greenery of a giant Damar tree, happily munching on ficus leaves, an orangutan delicacy. Orangutans are smart; it didn't take long for him to sense our presence--our clumsy crashing through the bushes didn't help--and he swung off to the right, out of the way of our prying eyes. But the Damar tree was a popular gathering place. Soon a pig-tailed macaque appeared, a large grey monkey and more rare relative of the long-tailed macaques that plague the local restaurants in thieving gangs. Then, the rattling croak of a hormbill, a magnificent bird the size of an eagle, swooped onto the same branch for a preen and a snack.

Some Thomas leaf monkeys also came to visit. Indigenous to Sumatra but not endangered, they look and act like little rock stars, with bushy, striped punk rock hair and curious little faces. Four of them came down from the trees to hang out with us--they were just as curious about us as we were about them. They sat contemplating our presence and posing for us as we clicked away with our cameras, making sure we had all their best angles before swinging off into the trees.

It was on our way back to the Bohorok River that we had our most exciting orangutan encounter of all--with Ucok (pronounced Oo-chock), a massive wild orangutan with the face pads of an alpha male. Ucok has been coming to the feeding platform to pick up chicks, and many of the babies are thought to be his. We caught him hanging suspending fairly closely above our heads, and we got a good look at him before he got really pissed. He swung down so fast that Wanda yelled "Run!" and we all duly complied, scampering down the trail, hears beating with excitement and fear. Dan said he looked back and saw Ucok gazing down the trail after us, just to make sure we were good and gone.

But down the path we came across another orangutan, about seven years old and likely his daughter, and we couldn't resist lingering with our cameras. She was happily munching on a banana, and I got some video footage of her before Wanda again yelled, "Run!"--on the film you can see her sweet little face reduced to a blur of greenery as I beat a hasty exit from the wrath of Ucok. Luckily we didn't run into her mother, Meena, who was mistreated in captivity and now has a hate-on for people. Today, she was too busy strangling a guide his first day on the job, poor guy. She lept out of the bushes at him and got him by the neck, nearly strangling him to death as some terrified tourists looked on. He had to go to the hospital and get about 20 stitches. I don't think he'll be back to work very soon.

Just when we thought the excitement was over, I got groped by a male orangutan by the name of Abdul. Earlier in the day, he'd been hanging around Sasha's cage at the entrance, but he came up for some bananas and milk at the afternoon feeding. Lots of tourists were out, including one annoying Swiss man who kept barging in front of everyone with his camera. When Abdul appeared, hanging over the trail to ham it up for the cameras, the Swiss man stepped right in front of me, blocking my view. "Screw that," I thought, "I'm just going to go around him."

I thought there was enough room for both me and Abdul on the trail, but I was wrong. As I walked past to join Brettany on the other side of him, he swung out his big hairy arm and clamped his hand right on my posterior. Now I've been groped in my day, but never have a felt such a grip of steel...it was like the strength of ten men. For a moment my life flashed before my eyes as I imagined him carrying me away like King Kong to his nest in the trees. But then I got my wits about me; I just jerked my leg away and kept on walking. He simply let go and smiled for Brettany's camera.

"Oh my god, you should have seen the look on your face!" she said. 

 "Maybe he likes blondes," quipped a German tourist.

Wild orangutans, angry orangutans, randy orangutans...all in all, an exciting day that none of us will soon forget!

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