Orangutan Encounters (1): East Kalimantan

Mark Heyward


I first came to Indonesia in 1992 to join a group of Australian teachers at Sangatta in the jungles of East Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. I expected an adventure but I did not know the extent to which Indonesia would change my life.

Access to Sangatta was via light plane from the nearest commercial airport, an hour’s flight away in Balikpapan. Every day brought new experiences. Wild orangutans nested in the trees and from time to time raided gardens to taste the fruit and young palms, or disturbed classes as they romped through the playground. Sunrise was frequently accompanied by a chorus of hooting gibbons.

Hornbills flew overhead, their great wings thumping the moist air. I once saw a sun-bird the size of a fingernail and wood-eating bees the size of a thumb. A three metre monitor lizard scampered through the school yard and huge saltwater crocodiles lurked in the mangroves, occasionally giving a fright to kayakers and sailors – until eventually a local witchdoctor who specialized in crocodiles was engaged to perform a ceremony and encourage them to leave.

Among the most remarkable aspects of life in Sangatta, were the daily encounters with local wildlife. And among these, the most remarkable of all were the encounters with wild orangutans. Sangatta borders the Kutai National Park, a two thousand square kilometre reserve wedged uncomfortably between the Kaltim Prima Coal mining lease in the north and the liquid petroleum gas plant of Bontang in the south. The area is rich in natural resources; not only fossil fuels but timber, much of which has been burnt out or illegally logged in recent years.

The Kutai area is mainly coastal mangrove, fresh-water swamps and lowland forest. It is home to a diverse range of creatures: sun bears, barking deer, wild boar, native cattle known as banteng, various monkeys including the extraordinary proboscis monkey, gibbons, clouded leopards, massive reticulated pythons, squirrels, civets and otters. Although reports vary, a survey conducted in 2010 found over two thousand orangutans living in the park.

Orangutans live rather solitary lives in small groups or extended families, ruled over by a dominant male. Coming together for play and social activity, they range over a large area, most of their time spent in the forest canopy at rest or in search of food. Only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, populations have declined dramatically. Many believe that we are witnessing the end of the orangutan, probably our closest relative.

And this is part of what makes an encounter with these creatures so remarkable; that and their extraordinary intelligence, human-like emotions and behaviours. In the orangutan we perhaps recognize something of ourselves; something of what makes us who we are as human beings in a purer and wilder form. A close engagement with an orangutan is a profoundly moving and immensely sad experience.

Around Sangatta life was a little easier for a few of the wild orangutans of the Kutai. Food was easy to obtain in gardens and, for the most part, the human residents seemed not to mind. It was not uncommon to see the red apes constructing their nests high in the trees around the camp, a new bed each night, sometimes single males and sometimes females with babies or youngsters in tow.

But it was the reigning king of the group who made the biggest impression. Ralph, as he was christened by some local wit, was a fully grown dominant male, at around 120 kilograms over twice the size of an average orangutan and with enlarged cheek pads to help him produce the distinctive long call of the dominant male. At this size, he found it easier to spend time on the ground rather than clambering about in the upper forest story with his subjects. That and his fearlessness led in the end to his overthrow.

On one memorable occasion, I was at home alone enjoying a little peace and quiet, when a frantic pounding on the front door had me up in a rush. Opening the door, I found Sandra, the nine-year old daughter of our Canadian neighbours. Sandra was in something of a panic.

Ralph was at that moment squatting about two metres away where he was making a meal of a young ornamental palm. Grasping the stout base of the palm and with a casual twist of his leathery wrist he ripped it apart and set to, chomping into the soft pithy flesh inside. Up close he was quite an intimidating sight. Glancing in our direction he didn’t seem to be too bothered by the presence of a couple of humans. So, with a few words aimed at calming Sandra down, I fetched a camera and took some shots as Ralph finished off the palm, wandered across the front lawn and climbed a papaya, lunching on its sweet fruits.

But some time later Ralph got just a little too brazen for his own good and did something that rattled the camp administration. There was no sign of aggression in the great orangutan; it was simply the possibility of a mishap that worried them. With one hand, Ralph was capable of breaking the arm or snapping the neck of a human being. What if something went wrong? What if he got cornered, scared or confused?  Was Ralph an acceptable risk? Eventually it was decided that the answer was ‘No’.

A group of women, wives of Australian mine managers, were back from a round of golf and relaxing over a drink at the pool bar. A gaggle of their children; little blonde girls on the other side of the resort style pool were busy clambering about on a rock garden feature.

The sun shone from a blue sky. A pleasant scene, until one of the mums looked up and spotted Ralph lumbering across the lawns and up into the rock garden behind the girls. Oblivious to his proximity, the girls were no doubt as confused as Ralph by the screams from across the pool. The panicked mothers ran towards their children, snatching them up while the puzzled orangutan looked on from a few feet away. Too close for comfort. It was decided that Ralph had to go.

The experts were called in from Wanariset Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre at Samboja, south of the Kutai National Park. It was decided that Ralph should be tranquilized and relocated; taken far away into the jungle where he would no longer pose any threat; too far to return to Sangatta. Armed with a tranquilizer dart gun and a net, the experts gave chase. When finally cornered, the outlawed orangutan scrambled up a tall tree to escape the humans and there he sat, glaring down at them with his dark eyes.

Ralph had presented the experts with a problem. He was much larger than any orangutan previously sedated in this way. Too much sedative would kill him. Too little might just make him angry and dangerous. After some deliberation, the dart was primed and, with a single shot, Ralph was sedated. He sat for a few minutes while the sedative entered his blood stream, looked a little surprised, then reeled and fell some distance into the net erected at the base of the tree. The great red ape was bundled up and shipped off to his new home, a sad end to his reign as King of Sangatta.

But that was not the end of the story. With no one to rule the group, it was not long before another male began to grow, developing the distinctive cheek pads of the dominant male. The dance of hormones recreated the same problem. Within six months, a new dominant male was exhibiting all the same behaviours as Ralph.

A visit to Wanariset provided a chance to get to know the local orangutans a little better. Willie Smits, a Dutch forest researcher, had recently set up the centre. Orangutan babies make cute pets; until they start to grow up and become unruly. Tragically, the only way that poachers are able to obtain them for the market is to kill the mother and snatch the baby from her dead body. Smits was drawn into what became a lifetime vocation after seeing baby orangutans for sale.

Although the trade is illegal, it nonetheless continues, and rehabilitation centres like Wanariset receive a steady intake of orphaned baby and young orangutans. More commonly in recent times the infants are orphaned as a result of forest destruction; fires, logging and clearing for palm oil plantations. Forced by habitat loss to the fringes of human habitation, the orangutans find themselves in conflict with people, raiding gardens and fruit trees for food. Adult orangutans are killed and the babies end up in care centres like Wanariset.

I never met Willie Smits or Birute Galdikas, his counterpart in the south of the island. But I do have friends who spent time, respectively, with both. I have visited their rehabilitation centres and I met some of their orangutan charges. Both have big reputations. It’s a challenge to sift the facts from the fantasies.

Willie Smits held some rather different views to Birute Galdikas, who twenty years earlier had founded the better known Camp Leakey orangutan rehabilitation centre at Tanjung Puting on the south coast of Kalimantan. Now in her mid-sixties Galdikas is one of the ‘Leakey Angels’. Back in the sixties and seventies, archaeologist, Louis Leakey sent three young women off into different corners of the world to study primates in their natural environment.

Along with the other two, Jane Goodall, who studied chimpanzees in Tanzania, and Diane Fossey, who ultimately gave her life for the gorillas in Rwanda, Galdikas gained international renown for her work. All three dedicated their lives without reserve to the study and defence of the apes.

Willie Smits arrived in East Kalimantan in the eighties and established his centre in the early nineties after a chance encounter with an orphaned baby orangutan offered for sale at a local market. Smits cast himself in opposition to the famous Galdikas; two big egos, big intellects, big hearts. Opposite characters at opposite ends of the island; both committed with a passion to the same cause: rescuing orangutans and returning them to their jungle homes; each with their own firm views on the right way to do it.

Galdikas is a colourful character, who seemed to enjoy the limelight, sometimes inviting controversy through open conflict with authorities. Smits took a cannier political approach, forming alliances with senior officials and politicians in the Suharto government, some would say ready to compromise in order to gain concessions for his orangutan programs. Galdikas encouraged visitors to Camp Leakey, pioneering what later became known as ‘eco tourism’ and gaining widespread exposure and international support for her Orangutan Foundation International.

Smits restricted access, believing that orphaned orangutans need to learn to be orangutans and should be returned to the jungle as soon as possible; an approach that is not helped by uncontrolled interaction with humans. Ultimately his Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation grew larger than Galdikas’ empire in the south.

One of Galdikas tricks is to keep people waiting. She is famous for it. Visiting journalists, scientists, government officials, even commercial airline flights; all must wait for Galdikas, the ‘queen’ of the jungle. Smits, who now holds a knighthood from the Netherlands, is known for his mood swings, quick to anger and quick to tears, all in defence of his orangutans. A queen and a knight; it takes a particular kind of person to dedicate a life to the damp green jungles of Borneo and to the orangutans that inhabitant them.

It was a rare treat indeed to be given the opportunity to visit Willie Smits’s Wanariset orangutan rehabilitation centre in Samboja. South of the Kutai, the road from Bontang to Samarinda is flanked by wide rolling hills stripped bare of their native forest and cloaked in pale green elephant grass. The grass, known to scientists as imperata and to locals as alang-alang, is a tough roof thatching material. It secretes toxins into the soil rendering it infertile for any other plant and thus creating a sterile monoculture.

Located in a patch of remnant forest off the main road, the centre had been open for less than a year. Notwithstanding the conflicting approaches, the methods employed at Wanariset, I discovered later, were similar to those used at the centre established by Galdikas at Pasir Panjang.

As babies and youngsters, orangutans live with their mothers. Like humans, they need years of parenting and teaching to learn the culture of their group, to learn how to behave and how survive in their patch of jungle. Up until five years of age they are carried by their mothers when moving about. After this they begin to follow along behind, gradually gaining independence, but still never straying far from their mother’s side.

Over time, in the wild, the young orangutans internalize a detailed and comprehensive map of their jungle territory; where to find the fruit trees and other food sources in different seasons, the good nesting spots, water sources, nesting trees, meeting places, dangers to avoid. And young orangutans need affection, physical closeness, loving. Taking care of infant orangutans, preparing them for later release into the wild, is a labour intensive operation. Teams of women, many of them local Dayaks, act as surrogate mothers for the youngsters.

Arriving at Wanariset, we were screened for common cold, flu and similar infections. Orangutans are easily infected as we share many of the same diseases. Then followed a tour of the centre; a smart new clinic funded by the mining company for which I worked, an open playground for the growing youngsters, and large open cages for orangutans of various ages. I was handed a tiny big-eyed baby orangutan for a brief, magical cuddle. It is an extraordinary experience to look into the eyes of one of our nearest relatives, to see the familiar intelligence and emotional need that lies there.

It was nearly twenty years before I would return to meet the orangutans of Borneo and see that look again.


Mark Heyward

May, 2011


Admin Note:

Welcome to your new home, Mark Heyward. It is nice to have you as our new family member in Baltyra. Thanks to pak Handoko who introduced Mark to Baltyra. Make yourself at home, Mark. Hopefully more articles to come…




21 Comments to "Orangutan Encounters (1): East Kalimantan"

  1. Handoko Widagdo  26 May, 2011 at 10:48

    Teman-teman Baltyrans, meski avatarnya Mark juga berewokan, tapi dia bukan dari spesies yang sama dengan Faisal lho…

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