11 December 2012
The orangutan family of Kalimantan
For the first seven or eight years of his life, Fred Galdikas had a best friend called Apollo Bob. Like most friends at that age, they would play together outside. And like most children at that age, their differences seemed immaterial. Kids have an ability to look beyond race, religion, or language and just see a friend for who they are.
That was probably lucky for Fred. You see, Apollo Bob was an orangutan.
Thirty years ago, when Fred was born, his mother was living deep inside the jungles of Kalimantan in Indonesia. Dr Birute Galdikas had set up a refuge for orangutans – somewhere to protect them and to research them. And while she was there, her family grew. What she didn’t realise at first was that the family would end up including the animals around her.ï¿½These days, more than forty years after she first arrived in Borneo, Dr Birute Galdikas still spends most of her time living and working with the orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park.
I first meet Fred as we sit on the wooden deck of a ‘klotok’, the traditional Indonesian boat that is taking us up the river to Camp Leakey, the heart of the orangutan conservation efforts. In the trees on the water’s edge, monkeys sit in branches and watch us go past. The river winds its way through the dense jungle and the boat lethargically makes its way upstream. Around us the dense jungle is never silent – a reminder that we’re not alone out here.
“Just remember, we are going into their world”, Fred explains.
“We’re going into an orangutan’s world, we’re not going to our world. This is where they stay, where they live. So when we interrupt that flow, it’s interrupting nature a little bit.”
It’s an interruption that is needed, though. The orangutans are under threat from a number of fronts, but mostly from a shrinking habitat. Many local Indonesians are destroying the natural forests in Borneo to create palm oil plantations – one of the easiest ways to make money on the island.
After staring out at the endless jungle of trees along the river for the past few hours, it’s hard to imagine the devastation that’s happening just kilometres away. But Fred knows the reality all too well. “There just simply isn’t enough forest for the orangutans to roam and live”, he tells me.
It takes four hours to get to the main base, Camp Leakey, by boat these days. It feels so remote but I can only imagine what it was like 40 years ago when Birute set it up. There was no electricity or phones and, more importantly, she was under immense pressure after being told by academics that she had no chance of success – that the orangutans were too elusive to be studied in the wild.
How wrong they were. Or, to put it better, how wrong Dr Birute Galdikas proved them to be. And if you need reminding of that, the evidence of her success is right in front of me at the feeding station.
A local assistant puts a large bunch of bananas on the elevated wooden platform in the jungle, a ten minute walk away from the camp. He also leaves a bucket of milk and then walks away. Then the animals come. One orangutan appears high in a tree and slowly lowers itself down towards the platform, watching the surroundings as it descends. There’s a rustling sound on the ground behind me and I turn around to see another orangutan lumbering towards the bananas, right through a group of humans. More follow from all directions until there are about half a dozen.
There’s a nonchalance from the animals, seemingly aware of the people and the role we’re playing, but without any deference. This is indeed their world and they know it. As we’re watching the orangutans grab the bananas and then climb the trees to eat them, I chat with Fred. He explains how the animals are free to come and go as they like – there are no fences here. The food is offered in case the animals need it.
“We supplement their food intake”, he says.
“If there’s no fruit in the forest, they’re not going to eat naturally, so they come here. But sometimes visitors come, spend all this money, spend four hours getting here and they don’t see an orangutan. Well that’s a good thing – it’s because they’re off feeding from their natural wild fruit.”
But there is a bond here between human and animal that is unusual and unlike anything I have seen before. There’s almost a magic in the way the orangutans behave with Fred and the workers. Many of these animals were rescued as baby orphans and have been brought up by humans. Although they are now free and behave as such, they’re emotionally connected with their guardians.