Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Forest People

The best closeup I took.  She was 5 feet away.
I have had a hard time and have been procrastinating writing this blog.  I have also reached the limits of my Olympus Point and Shoot camera on this trip.  A proper digital SLR camera is really needed for wildlife. 

The path to Camp Leakey

Mom with baby.  Mom's drinking the vitamin milk.
Just like the Komodo dragons, I find it difficult describe our experience with the orangutans to the extent that it deserves.  It's one of those 'need to be there' type of places and was for sure one of the coolest things we have ever done.  Fortunately, this is one of the places that non-boaters can actually get to.  There are daily flights to the Pangkalan Bun Airport (PKN) from Jakarta and a few nice hotels to choose from in Pangkalan Bun.  From there, Harry's Yacht Service will set you up with whatever you need for your 2 or 3 day trip.

Junior, Mom, and Baby
The word orangutan comes from the Malaysian language.  Orang means Person, Utan means Forest.  Orangutans are only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.  We did a two day trip to the Tajung Puting National Park to see these Great Apes in their natural habitat.  Unfortunately that habitat is rapidly disappearing due to deforestation.

Trying to squeeze around the fence post
Orangutans share 97% of our DNA which is actually less than the chimpanzee, but the 97% appears to be in the parts of the human genome that actually matter.  So orangutans appear to be much more closely related to humans than chimpanzees.  They are among the most intelligent primates, orangutans are adept at using a number of sophisticated tools to gather food and also make sleeping nests each night from branches and leaves. research suggests that different orangutan groups acquire different skills which are maintained and transmitted in a population through social learning.

The babies never let go of their mothers

We visited 3 park stations.  The rangers put out bananas and vitamin milk at the daily feedings.  During the dry season, there aren't many forest fruits to eat so there are many more orangutans visiting the platforms at feeding time.  During the wet season when forest fruits are more plentiful, there may not be any visiting apes. 

When you can't carry baby and bananas, just shove the bananas in your mouth
Orangutan rehabilitation used to be done here but now is only done at Sepilok, Sabah in Malaysian Borneo.  Baby orangutans are illegally poached for pets.  The mothers are killed by the poachers since they will fight to the death rather than give up their baby.  These babies are sooner or later found and returned for rehabilitation.  Babies are also orphaned because their mothers were killed intentionally by illegal logging and deforestation.  They haven't learned the necessary skills to survive in the wild from their mothers so caretakers raise them like their mothers would have done.  

Moms take the kids for a snack

Princess, an orphan rehabilitated  in the 80's was taught sign language by her caretaker.  She is now a mother and still lives in the Tajung Puting and comes for feedings.

They should get rid of these pigs
We went to Camp Leakey on our first day.  We were the only ones there since all the flights had been cancelled for the past two days due to poor visibility from the smoke.  There were wild boars by the feeding platform eating scraps and peels that fell on to the ground.  The orangutans seemed to be bothered by them and we did hear that a baby was killed by one a year ago.

Ready for the Olympics?
It's difficult to describe the feeling when waiting for and watching these great apes.  Initially you will see a tree moving in the distance.  As the female orangutan, who weighs around 85 pounds, swings and climbs closer and closer to the platform, the trees are bending, shaking, and cracking.  They may sit on a branch, watch, wait, look at us, look at the boars, look at the bananas, and finally just saunter on down.  They seem to not want to touch the ground and will go out of their way and even use tiny trees, that look like they wouldn't even support a bird nest, to make their way across the jungle.  

 Their balance is incredible and they are ten times stronger than humans.  Their feet are just like their hands.  They have four fingers and opposable thumbs. They will hang from anything available from any available appendage.    Like humans, they have no tails.

A few times, they came right through our group from behind.  We were mere feet from these big hairy apes but there was never any sense of fear from either us or these apes.  There was a sense of calm and peace as they worked their way through us toward the bananas, carrying their babies, or holding hands with their adolescents.

More bananas 'to go'
On our second day, flights were again operating and there were more people at the morning feeding at the Pondok Tanggui Station and the afternoon feeding at Tanjung Harapan.  We saw the dominant male, Gundal, at Harapan.  I missed the photo of a lifetime because my camera's memory was full.  With all that hair and weighing close to 200 pounds, he looked tremendous.  Giant trees bent under his weight.  Treetops shook like King Kong was moving through the jungle.  All other orangutans left the platform when he came.  He stayed just a few minutes then moved on into the jungle leaving only the sound of breaking branches and shaking leaves.

It is a real shame that these gentle, timid forest people are being driven to extinction like many other species on earth.

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