The rainforests on the islands of Borneo and neighbouring Sumatra are the last wild refuges of the only great apes to originate outside of Africa – the "men of the forest". According to legends of the indigenous Dayak people of Borneo, orangutans were once men who blasphemed the gods and subsequently devolved. In Indonesian, orang literally means man, and hutan means forest. As the Dayak are driven from their forest by the encroaching demands of logging and mining, so the orangutans have become critically endangered. It is estimated that more than 1,000 orangutans are lost every year on Borneo alone.
We set out on an arduous journey over the world’s third largest island to meet these human-like creatures in the precious remains of their habitat. From the window of an old plane, the forests below at first appeared impenetrably dense. We could see logging roads, slicing these "lungs of Southeast Asia" with linear precision, leaving vast barren fields on which felled trees lay scattered like matchsticks.
The red scars of the logging fields gradually advanced to the anemic stubble of young palm oil plantations. The plane settled down through the heavy equatorial air to land at small Pangkalanbun airport in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo), the first port of call to enter Tanjung Puting National Park. The Orangutan Foundation International has done valuable work to rehabilitate ex-captive orangutans, to preserve the habitat and lives of the 6,000 orangutans surviving in the park.
As Jane Goodall was for the chimpanzee, Diane Fossey for the gorilla, so the champion of the orangutan is Birute Galdikas, who has researched them at Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting since the early 1970’s. Camp Leakey is named for the American paleoanthropologist who inspired the work of these three women. Deep in the remaining primary forest, Camp Leakey can only be reached by small river boats. The orangutan’s habitat is in the forest lowlands, also the areas most attractive to loggers and agriculture.
The slow-chugging klotok we chartered for the four-day trip took us up the Sungai Sekunyer River, magnificently lined by trunkless palms, but sadly polluted with mercury from goldmining upstream. Palms gradually give way to dense forest and the riverside hosts macaques and indigenous big-nosed proboscis monkeys.
Camp Leakey is situated off a narrow tributary whose coke-coloured water is pure enough to bathe in. Swimming was out of the question, even in the oppressive heat, as the river is full of crocodiles. At twilight our boat roosted amidst swampy vegetation while eagle-sized bats filled the sky. Thunderclouds gathered in the distance and an electrical storm sparked across the last light until an intense downpour snuffed out all stars and jungle sounds. By morning the storm had passed without a trace, we were woken up by the alien cries of gibbons, and what we imagined to be the eery splashes of crocodile tails.
As we moored into Camp Leakey, a resident wild orangutan female, Siswe, approached the boat and sat an arm’s length away against a thick jungle backdrop. She reached out her calloused hand, remarkably human, complete with nails and fingerprints. At first we were cautious of her strength because orangutans are reputedly seven times as strong as their human counterparts. We soon made Siswe’s acquaintance with the wonder of enraptured children. She took my hand and played with the velcro on our sandals. Then she contemplated our boat captain, Yono, like a cunning old lady.
Siswe's addiction drew her to the boat. The orangutans around Camp Leakey have developed a peculiar fondness for soapy foam. Yono offered her a small piece of soap that she wet in her mouth and foamed along her forearm. She ate the foam like a fine delicacy.
Most of the Camp Leakey orangutans are semi-wild. They consist of ex-captives who are in the process of rehabilitation, wild orangutans and the offspring of both of these groups. Camp researchers feed the orangutans bananas and a sweet milky gruel once a day. The menu never changes so as not to discourage the orangutans from foraging for tasty tidbits in the 24-hour convenience store, the jungle. Professor Galdikas lists the priorities in an orangutan’s life as food, food and food. It is estimated that they spend half of their wakeful state eating.
We accompanied the camp staff on an hour’s hike into the forest. As we neared the feeding platform, the staff started to call out to the orangutans in whooping howls that sounded like the opening bars of "Day-oh". We watched from a safe distance, in fascination as the mothers and their cute little ones negotiated vines and trees toward the stash of bananas. They climbed with a fluent hand-over-foot motion in which neither hand nor foot predominated. They used vines and the elasticity of young trees to vault themselves across the forest canopy. In doing so, they appeared to be walking through the air, like brilliant trapeze artists.
A loud crashing of vegetation behind us made our small group jump. We could sense rather than see the slow approach of a large creature through the thick underbrush. The experienced researchers backed away quickly, whispered we might soon be graced with the appearance of "the king", the dominant male. A large shape loomed through the green twilight – a veritable King Kong.
Amidst the orangutans on the feeding platform, a nervous scurrying broke out as females and young ones scampered up and away. Then the bulk of the 120-kilogram male came in full view. We need not have been told that his huge arms could tear our limbs apart. His big cheek pads flared out dramatically. And he was in no hurry. The orangutan population watched him from the treetops. There were no challengers as he moved up to the platform.
One juvenile remained on the platform. As his mother hastily tried to scoop him up, the king brushed both off onto the ground below, where they remained motionless. The moment stretched on. Then he advanced back into the thick foliage. We had witnessed a primal statement of power.
Orangutans are solitary creatures in the wild. They do not socialize, males keep to themselves. A female produces a single baby once in every eight years. Babies are suckled until they are about four years old. The slow rate of reproduction adds to their vulnerability.
We trekked further into the primary rainforest. The forest floor was dark and muddy. The carnivorous pitcher plants, of which there are 28 species indigenous to Borneo, are omnipresent between moss, ferns and vines vying for life amidst the imposing trees.
We were surprised by a mischievous juvenile orangutan who swung from the vines around us, defiantly breaking branches above us and over the narrow path. We noticed his mother on the ground a few meters in front. It is unwise ever to come between a mother orangutan and her baby. With no retreat and an advancing mother orangutan, there was little to do but stay still and silently will him on his way. Bored with his game, he finally swung away toward his mother and clung to her as she disappeared before our eyes. The orange-red hair of the orangutans in the dim green light of the jungle can cause these great primates to vanish.
By sunset the orangutans had made their nightly nests on treetops. Back on the boat Yono promised us a "discoteque" downstream. We drifted down from Camp Leakey in the dark. Reflected off the water and glittering in the palm groves, flocks of fireflies created twinkling Christmas trees. We stood surrounded by magic in a deep green place, filled with life. And we wished the magic could remain.
On our departure, we flew over the scars and pits marking Borneo’s topography. A local newspaper reported another logging agreement. China had just placed a rush order for 800,000 cubic meters of wood to be used in the construction of its sports facilities for the 2008 Olympic Games. As much as four to five million acres of trees will be cut down. We feared there would be nothing left soon as we looked at the irreplaceable jungle below, silently bidding farewell to the men of the forest.