After an hourlong flight across the Java Sea from Jakarta, I landed at Pangkalan Bun, near the southern coast of Borneo, to be greeted by my forest guide, Erwin. The world’s third-largest island and slightly bigger than Texas, Borneo is shared by the Indonesian province of Kalimantan, the Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and the tiny, oil-rich nation of Brunei.
Until the second half of the last century, nearly the whole island was covered by inaccessible rainforest, home to a majority of the world’s orangutans. (The only other significant population, a different subspecies, is found in Sumatra). During the 1980s and ’90s, the forests were felled at an unprecedented rate, chiefly to clear the land for highly profitable oil palm plantations. (Palm oil is used in soaps and processed foods, as well as for cooking.) Today there are thought to be approximately 100,000 orangutans left in Borneo, of which around 6,000 live in Tanjung Puting National Park, a 1,200-square-mile reserve that lies directly to the southeast of Pangkalan Bun.
Erwin summoned a taxi, and 20 minutes later we were standing on a quayside in the port of Kumai, swaddled in humidity, surveying the muddy-brown expanse of the Kumai River, which seemed to be flowing directly from the pages of a Joseph Conrad novel. A colorful assortment of local trading craft was tied up along the riverbank, while the skyline was dominated by large, enigmatic concrete structures. According to Erwin, these generated the town’s principal source of income, being nesting houses for the edible-nest swiftlets that manufacture the essential ingredient — which sells for about $1,000 a pound — of the famous Chinese soup.
Our destination, Rimba Ecolodge, was situated three hours away up the Sekonyer River (a tributary of the Kumai), and to get there we would be taking our own klotok, a rudimentary wooden riverboat, usually about 40 feet long, with a shallow draft and a roofed upper deck furnished with a large dining table, folding wooden chairs and a double mattress for those inclined to spend the night in the open air beneath a mosquito net. As we chugged upstream, one of the three crew members appeared from below with a lunch of spiced local crab, a whole fried fish and a dish of spinach with bean sprouts.
A park ranger told me that he and his colleagues have to be careful when they tie up their canoes, as the orangutans will otherwise steal them and paddle off in search of food.
The name “orangutan” is a conflation of Malay and Indonesian words meaning “person” and “forest.” It was during the 19th century that scientists like the biologist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace first became fascinated by these strangely human great apes. Interest quickened after the discovery of Java Man, an early human fossil unearthed in 1891. Orangutans, it was speculated, might be the missing link between apes and humans. (In fact, their evolutionary line split off from the African great apes between 16 million and 19 million years ago.) Like gorillas but unlike chimpanzees, orangutans are peaceable vegetarians, with the bulk of their diet being made up by fruits such as lychees, mangosteens and figs. The most solitary and the most arboreal of the great apes, they are highly intelligent and have mastered the use of different tools for specific tasks. (Later in the trip, a park ranger told me that he and his colleagues have to be careful when they tie up their canoes, as the orangutans will otherwise steal them and paddle off in search of food.)
Despite the humidity, the progress of the boat created a pleasant breeze, so Erwin and I sat at the prow watching the impenetrable forest scroll past. “Here, we have four types of weather,” Erwin said. “Dry, wet, very wet and extremely wet.” The dry season in southern Borneo extends from June through August, but despite this being mid-March, the sun shone relentlessly from a virtually cloudless sky. Erwin rolled off a list of gloomy facts, most of which were supported by subsequent research: “From 1960 until the present, the production of palm oil has risen 200 times; 48 percent of Borneo’s orangutans have been lost in the past 20 years; after having been felled, tropical forest will take 500 years to recover its primal state.”
Troops of proboscis monkeys chattered at us from the treetops, but most of the park’s other creatures were invisible. Tanjung Puting contains crocodiles, gibbons, macaques, wild boars, porcupines, pangolins, sambar deer, sun bears and clouded leopards. The latter two animals are extremely elusive: After more than 20 years in the forest, Erwin told me that he had glimpsed a leopard on just seven occasions.
As expected, given its location and the modest nightly rate, the Rimba Ecolodge turned out to be adequately comfortable, but nothing more. A network of boardwalks crisscrossed the swampy riverbank, connecting the reception area, restaurant and office to a number of elevated wooden pavilions. My room was clean and air-conditioned and came with a functioning shower, but it was charmless and utilitarian. “Look out for snakes after dark,” Erwin remarked as he departed. “There’s lots of them around here. And if it sounds like the roof is about to collapse, don’t worry, it’s just the macaques.” Looking forward to a restorative cocktail before dinner, I wandered over to the restaurant, only to discover that the sale of alcohol had been forbidden by a pious local administration.
The following morning I rejoined Erwin on the dock, where he was making friends with a large and surprisingly tame monitor lizard. We then boarded our klotok for the two-hour trip upriver to Camp Leakey. The famous Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey facilitated the careers of three female protégés, known familiarly as Leakey’s Angels. Thanks to his encouragement and support, Dian Fossey studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda, Jane Goodall did pioneering research on chimpanzees in Tanzania and Biruté Galdikas, a Lithuanian-Canadian researcher who had met Leakey while a graduate student at UCLA, became the world’s leading authority on orangutans. Galdikas arrived in Borneo in 1971 and settled into a remote thatch hut that she dubbed Camp Leakey in honor of her mentor.
Little was known about orangutans before Galdikas began her research, but her project soon attracted sufficient attention for it to make the cover of National Geographic in October 1975. As well as observing behavior, Galdikas reintroduced captive orangutans to the wild (a practice that ended in 1995). Before becoming accustomed to their new forest home, the creatures had to be fed. Unsurprisingly, this attracted their wild cousins, with whom, over time, they interbred. Today both reintroduced and wild orangutans reliably come to feeding stations in the national park, and being habituated to human presence, they are easy to see.
Erwin and I alighted from our boat and headed along an elevated boardwalk into the forest. Even though it was constructed of ironwood, sections were rotting away, and I recognized the pervasive odor of decay familiar from rainforests around the world. Erwin pointed out where the dark earth had been excavated by wild boars, which had been digging energetically for roots and tubers overnight. After about 15 minutes we came to Camp Leakey, a collection of modest huts, one of which contained a small museum with faded photographs and miscellaneous artifacts from the early days of the research project. Galdikas’ house, where she still lives when not fundraising or lecturing around the world, could be glimpsed through a screen of trees.
Another 20-minute walk brought us to a clearing, at the far side of which a wooden platform had been erected. A rope was strung between the trees to prevent visitors from coming too close. No orangutans could be seen, but a pile of plantains awaited their arrival. Erwin began making long whooping calls, refined by two decades of practice, which seemed extremely realistic to me. Apparently I was not alone in thinking so, as a succession of answering calls soon echoed from the forest.
Orangutans move through the trees with astonishing fluidity, which is not surprising, as they spend far more time in the canopy than they do on the ground. Opposable big toes, as well as opposable thumbs, mean that branches can be grasped equally firmly with both hands and feet. And their hip joints have the same degree of flexibility as those of their shoulders and arms.
The apes’ approach was first revealed by the sudden swaying of distant treetops, and within five minutes an alpha male and seven females, two with young offspring, had arrived at the feeding platform. Orangutans are dimorphic, with males generally being double the weight of females. Fully grown males stand about 4 feet 6 inches tall and weigh up to 220 pounds. And at approximately the age of 20, dominant males grow a large facial disc, which makes them extremely impressive.
Inevitably, watching orangutans at a feeding station was a somewhat zoolike experience, even if many of the creatures are fully wild and all of them are free to roam throughout the vast forest. Certainly, it cannot be compared to a close encounter with mountain gorillas in Rwanda or Uganda. But without the feeding stations, the orangutans would be virtually impossible to observe; the jungle is just too thick. (During my four days in Tanjung Puting, I did glimpse one wild orangutan in a tree beside the river, but Erwin said that such sightings are unusual.) However, even at the feeding station, seeing the orangutans swing effortlessly through the trees, or climb vertical tree trunks with complete insouciance, made the trip entirely worthwhile.
Overall, I would recommend the experience only to those who are genuinely interested in wildlife and who are not too concerned with personal comfort. In southern Borneo, there are no places to stay equivalent to the upscale wildlife lodges in Africa or India, the weather is invariably hot and humid, afternoon downpours and thunderstorms are the norm, and the biting insects can be tiresome. But sitting quietly with the orangutans, watching the interaction of the various family members, surrounded by a vast tract of primeval forest, I found myself blissfully at peace.