The feeding time I had witnessed had featured three juvenile, orphaned orangutans: my playmate and a pair of tiny three-year-olds, who made their appearance clinging to the arm of one of the two Indonesian volunteers conducting the feeding. They clung to each other tightly all the time they weren’t actually feeding, like terrified children. I felt sorry for them; it must be hard to be orphaned babies in the jungle.
Suddenly there was a crashing, and a huge wild male orang swung effortlessly into the clearing through the treetops. Adult males are notoriously aggressive and very powerful, so the three juveniles scampered into trees behind us, while the two volunteers lobbed bananas in his direction so that he wouldn’t approach us too closely.
I snapped photos of him and watched him closely. He was magnificently tall and powerfully built, with much darker reddish-brown hair than the juveniles and females I’d seen. His face looked immensely wide because of the large, flat, black cheek flanges, flaps of skin that projected sideways from his face. He paid scarcely any notice to us as he greedily tucked into the bananas and slurped noisily at the milk, before lifting himself back into the trees and swinging off.
He was not a rehab patient, but rather a wild male who paid occasional visits, for free food and to mate with rehabilitating females.
Eventually feeding and playing time was over, and the reluctant youngsters were chased back to the trees. I walked back through the forest to my houseboat. Tanjung Puting is a low-lying swampy area, with the only viable roads being the rivers.
The best way to see the park is to hire a houseboat, or klotok, and putt-putt slowly around the rivers, watching the rainforest and its life pass by. The crew cooks your meals, and you sleep on the boat by night amidst the haunting sounds of the forest. Although the cost (Rp75,000, or US$35 at that time, per day for the entire boat, which sleeps 6) is expensive by Indonesian standards, it’s well worth splashing out on, and still cheap by Western standards.
Aside from the orangutans and their three separate rehab and feeding centres within the park, there are proboscis monkeys and gibbons to see on land, along with hornbills and kingfishers in the air and crocodiles in the water, although I didn’t see any, which was just as well as I went swimming in the river several times to beat the oppressive humidity. The almost-drowned landscape, the thick luxuriant plant growth in the forest and the misty mornings on the river, punctuated by the hoots of the gibbons and the grunting and crashing of proboscis monkeys in the trees, make for a magical wildlife experience.
I made it to two more feeding times, one at the main rehab centre at Camp Leakey and one at Pondok Tangui, and I also visited the proboscis monkey research station at Natai Langkuas. The Camp Leakey feeding was impressive, with 10 orangs, including four mothers with babies, swinging in arm-over-arm for the occasion, while one youngster climbed up on my back and got a piggyback ride to the feeding platform. Feeling his breath on my neck and his all-too-human forearm around my throat. I thought of how lucky I was to encounter one of my distant primate cousins under such circumstances.
I watched two unrehabilitated mothers, who had spent most of their lives refusing to leave Camp Leakey, begging for fruit from the boat crews on the dock, and watched one ill-tempered mother, carrying her baby on her hip, nimbly chase another mother and baby straight up an observation tower and keep her trapped at the top for an hour. I followed an orangutan through the forest on foot for half a kilometre, until she climbed a tree and was lost to view in the dense forest canopy. Five forlorn juveniles vainly tried to shelter from the rain (orangs hate the rain) as they waited for a feeding, which was cancelled because the downpour would cut down on orang attendance. A mother along the riverbank, far from Camp Leakey, picked jackfruit for her two youngsters.
As I chugged out of the park, in a blinding downpour, after three wonderful days, bound for the grimy port town of Kumai, I reflected that even if rehabilitation often doesn’t work – resulting in lifelong primate welfare mothers – Dr. Guldikas and her staff deserve congratulations for their efforts. They help preserve the dwindling population of these beautiful, gentle creatures with nearly-human hands and eyes, and longing, heartbreaking looks on their faces.