We woke on the still river to the sounds of the monyet Belanda crashing through the trees, scared off by the fearsome early morning roar of Jack. We breakfasted on freshly-made banana pancakes, prepared by our captive cook, Mbak Ija (Miss Ija) as we cruised slowly along the river. Today we were heading further into Taman Nasional Tanjung Puting to Camp Leakey, the main research centre in the park and the workplace of Dr Birute Galdikas.
Galdikas has lived and worked in the area since 1971 and is considered the authority on orangutan research. Galdikas was the third member of “Leakey’s Angels”, a group of three researchers of the great apes, the other two being Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey. Camp Leakey is named after her mentor and supporter, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey. Prior to her studies in the Tanjung Puting National Park, very little was known about the “Red Ape”. It has not all been smooth sailing – she has attracted strong criticism in the past; mainly for the practice of reintroduction of orangutans to the wild and involvement in local disputes such as illegal logging and mining in the park – but her research is incredible, without peer and has proved invaluable in keeping orangutans on our planet. We had a very brief brush with her and she seemed a gracious and humble lady, willing to chat to anyone providing she had time.
We arrived at Camp Leakey and were immediately in the action. Cheeky young orangutan, “Atlas” and his mother “Akmad” were hanging out in the centre of the camp. Atlas was very playful and bold, trying to take fruit from our guide. Jack was completely confused at this small, childlike figure covered in red hair running around us, up to us and trying to grab things from us. We sat and watched Atlas play for nearly an hour, jumping up and grabbing things, racing back to his mother for reassurance, trying to steal the rangers shoes from outside the ranger’s station and so on.
Young “Atlas” entertaining us.
Camp Leakey has a strong population of orangutans that frequently appear. Most are former captives and orphans that have been re-released in to the wild. Their presence is controversial to many as it is seen as a lack of adaption to the wild. I know little about the orangutan psyche, so I have no strong opinion. What I do know is there are a lot of orangutans around Camp Leakey. They seem pretty interested in humans. They are in no way pets or trained performers.
We spent two full days at Camp Leakey, hanging out where ever orangutans happened to be around that day. Afternoons were spent at the feeding stations. A lot of the other groups were spending just the afternoon or perhaps a full day at the camp, so most of the time we were by ourselves in the camp. Afternoon feeding sessions were heavily attended and with good reason – up to 25 orangutans came swinging through the trees to make the session.
The feeding station is located quite deep in the jungle; the air thick and damp. A well trodden path leads to the wooden platform for the afternoon offering, the crowd segregated by a thin piece of rope that stretched only across the front of the platform. The rope is to ensure tourists maintain a suitable distance from the feeding orangutans, rather than the other way around – nothing so token and flimsy would slow down an animal five times stronger than a human that can also climb! We arrived both days just after feeding had started, the platform already having the boldest or biggest orangutan from the area in place enjoying the provided fruit. Dozens of other orangutans would watch and wait for their turn in the pecking order, or an opportune slip in concentration from the feeding orangutan to sneak down and grab a tangan pisang (hand of bananas), before darting back up the tree trunks to enjoy. Tourists watch in awe, almost oversaturated with the action – so many orangutans attend these Camp Leakey feeding stations at times when forest trees are not fruiting, that you don’t know where to look. Young orangutans swing wildly through the branches, testing new moves and techniques, sending tree debris dropping to the ground underneath them. Occasionally a rustle of leaves from behind the group of tourists would signal the arrival of another orangutan, that would slowly make their way through the quickly dispersing crowd to join the action. It’s impossible not to be slightly panicked as this happens – while these orangutans are used to humans, many have a history of biting people!
Into the jungle we go!
Often it is also interesting to watch other tourists in these situations. One Italian man in perfectly pressed shirt, chinos and boat shoes was snapping away wildly on his huge DSLR camera. He would not have looked out of place in a small street side cafe, but a bit overdressed in the jungle! A large group of American tourists associated with the organisation spent large amounts of time talking amongst themselves, often about the film industry and the difficulties associated with finding work in the current climate – seemingly oblivious to the orangutans. Their tour leader, a travel agent from LA, had an air of “knowledge” about her, loudly scoffing at the local rangers, Dayak people born in the jungle, calling for the orangutan “Princess” to join the feeding. “Oh, there’s no point them calling out for Princess today – she definitely won’t come” she declared, showing off her strong knowledge garnered over previous tour trips, to all within earshot. Moments later a loud rustle of leaves, a few branches part and Princess lopes in to the clearing – eager to join the fun. Sometimes life is so sweet!
Princess also provided us with a moment that we will never never forget. On our way back to the boat, up the narrow jungle path after the feeding, we saw Princess loping towards us. On the advice on our guide, we proceeded to try and walk straight past her, despite her stopping, almost as if to talk. Suddenly, this huge, strong hand gripped tightly around my arm – I was going nowhere. With similar speed, Princess reached out and grabbed Jasmine’s arm, then proceeded to walk with us out of the jungle. We felt like we were helping an elderly family member walk to the lounge room, except for the incredible strength in her hands. She was holding us gently, but there was no way we could have got our arms free had we wanted to. As we reached the edge of the thick jungle and into a cleared plain, Princess sat down and let us free – her job done, we were safely out of the jungle! Before we set out I was wondering how many orangutans we would actually see – I wasn’t expecting a guided jungle tour with one.
Princess helping us out of the jungle.
The closeness of the orangutans at Camp Leakey is incredible. You are metres away from them as they walk around the camp, sometimes having to step over them as they sprawl across walk ways. They are cheeky, but still wild – one large male, Pan, broke into the Ranger’s house the night before we arrived and stole 7kg of rice, bags of sugar and other food, by tearing a hole in the eaves and crawling through the roof. Pan is the orangutan in the photo with Jasmine and Jack in the clearing.
Pan getting to know Jack. Jasmine managing to hide her apprehension.
We also had the fantastic opportunity to meet Tom, the Raja (King) of Camp Leakey. He is the alpha male, a huge and imposing character that rules the camp through a mixture of aggression and intimidation. Tom is a legend of sorts, known for destroying Dr Galdikas’ front porch several times and forcibly copulating with any of the female orangutans he can find. In fact this was tweeted by Dr Galdikas yesterday:
@DrBirute: At Camp Leakey yesterday adult male Tom forcibly copulated with his mother Tut!! and then ate 30 durians. Yes, that’s our boy;food and sex!
Not everyone’s cup of tea I know, but that’s the way of the wild. Here is Tom below, looking for food at the Ranger’s station.
Our time at Camp Leakey was simply incredible, sleeping on the boat between each of the days in a secluded part of the river under the stars, watching the monyet Belanda swing through the trees, laughing at the macaques monkeys sneaking around, looking shifty, and of course the incredible orangutans. We also managed to spot a lightning fast gibbon (rarely spotted) while chatting to the Dayak Rangers during a tropical down-pour – us having so much time and being able to speak Indonesian lead to opportunities to sit and talk about culture and the jungle when the workers had time to spare, in turn leading to opportunities to watch the incredible wildlife moving around us.
To be continued…
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