It was nearly twenty years after my first encounter with orangutans when, in 2011, I visited Camp Leakey in Central Kalimantan. Accompanied by my son Oliver, his partner, Jess, and my two boys, Rory and Harry, we made the trip to Tanjung Puting National Park. The journey to reach Camp Leakey is an experience in itself. Leaving the wide muddy estuary of Kumai, our wooden klotok boat chugs up the narrow winding Sekonyer River.
An hour or so up river feathery nipa palms give way to coastal forest and eventually high jungle. Troops of proboscis monkeys leap about in the cool mornings and late afternoons; gibbons, squirrels and wild orangutan peer down as we pass. A bright orange kingfisher flashes in the green. Jessica teaches the boys to identify birds. I sit with Oliver as the jungle slips by. Turning up into a narrow stream overhung with vines, the water changes from muddy brown to a shining, inky black and a crocodile peers at us from the shadows.
Arriving at Camp Leakey we are greeted by Siswi, one of the first to be born at the camp. Now, lying on the iron-wood decking by the stream and flaunting her ample middle aged spread, Siswi gives barely a nod in recognition of our arrival. Camp Leakey was established in 1971 by Galdikas as both a scientific field station and an orangutan rehabilitation centre.
In the years since, over two hundred orangutans have been released here. The camp consists of a series of board walks through the regularly flooding river jungle, leading to a collection of dusty wooden buildings and an open, sandy area surrounded by dense lowland forest.
We meet a few of the characters that hang around the camp. These are the orangutans, their children and their grandchildren, who have been part of the Camp Leakey community for years, many of them born there. One or two, like Siswi, have been there since the beginning in the early seventies. Orangutans give birth to only one baby in eight years, the longest birth interval of any animal.
Open to the jungle, no barriers prevent the residents from leaving. And many of them do, spending time alone in the jungle. But daily feeds offer a good incentive to hang about, especially as their forest habitat is now so diminished that it can no longer support all the orangutans who live there. And this is their home. There’s Tutut and her clinging baby son, Tor; a friendly pair who amble out of the jungle to meet us as we walk the long boardwalk into the camp. Unyuk with her daughter Ursula hover about the edge of the sandy clearing at the end of the boardwalk.
‘Don’t get too close,’ we are advised. ‘Unyuk can be a bit naughty.’
Then there’s Gajah-Mada, known to all as Mada, the teenage son of Gara. Gita’s brother. Mada is a likeable show-off who enjoys the attention of visitors. Laying in the mid-day shade he quietly pleasures himself, embarrassing the visiting humans, who turn and look the other way. Later he seeks redemption swinging about on a springy sapling at the feeding station and plonking himself down on the bench next to my adult son. Taking Oliver’s hand, Mada looks into his eyes, grinning with a mouth full of mashed banana skin.
We also meet the Colonel, a hulking young adult male, at another feeding station. Here the mosquitoes are so thick and so fierce that I find it impossible to stay for more than a few minutes. Easy to imagine how one could go mad in the dark and damp of these swampy tropical forests.
The famous Kusasi, head of the Camp Leakey clan, had been gone for over six months when we visited. Kusasi, who has been described as having a steely look, ruled the group for many years. The dominant male made a name for himself with international headlines when he ended a filming session with Julia Roberts by sidling up and giving her a lengthy and rather amorous hug, which no doubt terrified the celebrity visitor.
Julia’s situation may have been even more serious than she realized at the time. There are a number of recorded instances of sexual encounters between orangutans and humans that highlight the blurring of distinctions between the two species. In one case, the young male orangutan, Gundul, raped a Dayak woman who was working as a cook at Camp Leakey. In the normal course of events, orangutan males do on occasions force themselves on female orangutans.
Should we regard Gundul’s behaviour as aberrant or immoral? In another case, the scientist, Gary Shapiro, spent many months as a young man at the camp, teaching the young female orangutan known as Princess to use sign language. Shapiro was conducting ground-breaking research for his doctorate. Princess was a good student and enjoyed the attention. Having bonded with her teacher, one day she took Shapiro to a ground nest she had prepared.
There she proceeded to lie down and very clearly invite the young man to have sex with her. Was Princess confusing the signs, or just acting within the norms of her own orangutan culture? When Shapiro turned her down, the orangutan was apparently confused and embarrassed, snubbing the scientist for a period until she got over it and the two of them got back on with the job of teaching and learning.
Around ten years after his encounter with Julia Roberts, Kusasi finally lost his throne. A few months before my visit to Camp Leakey the old king was defeated in a fight with a wild orangutan. Seeing the orangutan’s humiliation, Tom, Tutut’s thirty year old son, decided that it was time to take him on. He gave Kusasi a hiding. Since then the former ruler has not been seen at the camp, but park rangers report hearing his distinctive long call echoing through the dark forest at nights.
On our final day, we visit the Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine at Pasir Panjang, near Pangkalan Bun. It took a little doing to gain permission for the visit. Galdikas is not yet back from a stint at her university in America, and in return for a healthy donation to her Orangutan Foundation International we are given the go-ahead.
Around three hundred and fifty young orangutans are housed in the centre. Here they are nursed back to health, cared for, and provided opportunities to learn the ways of their kind, until at around nine or ten years of age they are ready for release into the park. A number of adults also live in the centre, nursing injuries and disabilities that would make it impossible for them to survive in the jungle. The young creatures are organized in age groups. Around mid-morning they are taken out for play in a large, open jungle area adjacent to their accommodation.
Here under the watchful eyes of local Dayak women – and a few men – the youngsters scramble about in the trees and the undergrowth; learning the skills they will need in the wild. The centre acts as a kind of orphanage, a half-way house. Here they can receive the emotional and physical care that they need as young. The seven and eight year olds, as with the five-six year olds, are segregated, males and females kept apart. This prevents fights and complications arising from early sexual explorations.
Up close, the individuality of the orangutans becomes more obvious. Each is an individual in the same way that human beings are. A few minutes with the orangutans and you begin to differentiate one from another and to learn their names. Each looks and behaves in a quite particular way. This one is slightly balding; big sad eyes and groping leathery hands reach for comfort. That one looks rather healthier, a confident ruddy growth of hair and a mischievous look in his eye as he darts this way and that.
‘Look out, here comes Abi!’ cries one of the carers. ‘Hang on to your glasses and hats!’
The eight-year old rascal swings down from a tree and attempts to steal the cap from my head before he is shooed off by the carers. Taking the advice of Ibu Sumi, who is showing us around, Jessica removes her ear-rings. Without the visual clues that confirm we are on a boardwalk leading through a Borneo jungle and surrounded by boisterous young orangutans, anyone listening in would assume that this was a playground for a nursery school full of teachers and human youngsters.
Some of the younger charges seem more frail and needy than their peers, sitting quietly with the carers on the boardwalk while their more confident playmates hoon around in the trees. One, I am told, has lost his appetite. His hair is sparse and his dark leathery skin shows the outlines of bone structure beneath. Is his a physical or emotional problem, I wonder?
Sitting on the edge of the boardwalk, it is not long before one of the young ones ambles over and, leaning against me, takes my hand and looks into my eyes. This is an extraordinary experience. The touch is tender, the eyes soft and round, a little watery. Returning that searching look, I wonder what he is thinking. What dreams does the little fellow harbour beneath those deep brown eyes? What sense does he make of his life in this playschool of young orangutans with its human parents and teachers; with its rules and routines?
Up close the smell of the orangutan is rich and earthy. Strong but not unpleasant. I find myself absently picking though his bristly scalp hair for non-existent nits; social grooming, a primal nurturing instinct. The carers laugh. ‘Don’t worry, they all get a weekly bath!’
Distracted by one of my boys, I glance away for a moment. The spell is gone, the connection broken, and the little creature looks away, reaching out with his long arm for another companion with which to share a little solace.
Before long it’s late morning and time to take the three and four year olds out for a play. Ibu Sumi explains that the playground was built by volunteers, visitors from the west. Pretty much like a playground for human children, under a large shade roof it consists of ropes, tire swings and various bits and pieces for climbing and swinging. Here the little ones get their daily exercise, leaping and clambering about in a great, joyous muddle. The Dayak carers seem happy to be with the orangutans.
Infant orangutans cling to their mother’s bodies, never leaving for the first six months. Unlike the tiny infants in the clinic who need constant nursing, these slightly older characters amuse themselves, only occasionally needing a bit of direction when one wonders away from the playground or a pair squabble over some plaything. For the most part, the Dayak women sit on a wide bamboo platform watching over their charges and chatting among themselves.
As we escort the young orangutans to the playground, I find I am carrying not-so-little Erianti, a four-year old female who apparently enjoys visits from western men and has draped herself about me. While Rory, my own eleven year old son, joins the young orangutans for a bit of play, Harry, three years younger, sits next to me on the platform. Not quite so sure of himself with the orangutans, he prefers to watch from the sidelines. Erianti, snuggling up on my other side, decides that she doesn’t care to share my attentions with another. Reaching with her long arm around behind me, she gives Harry a firm but gentle shove, pushing him off the bench. Harry is distinctly put out.
‘Hey, not fair! She pushed me off!’
Harry doesn’t seem to allow for the fact that it was a four-year old orangutan who shoved him, not another human child. But then, Erna also makes no distinction. It’s a weird situation. Harry, hot and tired and annoyed at having been pushed out of the way by Erianti, sulks a bit.
‘I want to go now.’
But Rory is having too much of a good time with the others. It is both charming and a little unnerving to see them at play together; the orangutans’ gentle aggression, sandal stealing and sense of fun, Rory in amongst them, the way the Dayak women treat the young orangutans as if they are their own children. I find it fascinating just to watch and chat with the women until eventually it’s time to leave, to drive into town and on to the airport and our flight back home.
On the plane somewhere over the Java Sea, Rory turns to me. ‘I want to touch the orangutans. I miss them already. It will be ages before we see them again,’ he says. I smile sadly. It was nearly twenty years between visits for me.
‘Why aren’t they with their mothers?’ asks Harry. His innocence hurts. The answer is hard.
‘It’s because people are so brutal,’ I begin to explain.
The encounter with orangutans in Camp Leakey and Pasir Panjang made a huge impression on me. And a big part of what makes the experience so memorable is the great sadness that lies behind it. Our planet now hosts nearly seven billion human beings. Meanwhile the wild orangutan population has declined from an estimated three hundred thousand at the beginning of the twentieth century to around fifteen or twenty thousand now. With our greed and appetite for ‘progress’, our cruelty and inability to share the planet with other creatures, we have become a destructive plague. Looking into the eyes of a young orangutan throws this sad truth into stark relief. Is his the last generation?
The biggest problem for the orangutan now is habitat destruction. At least two thousand die each year as a result of forest fires, logging and clearing for palm-oil plantations. Indonesia’s exports of palm oil have increased around three hundred per cent over the last ten years. The country has lost an estimated seventy five percent of its natural forest. Half of the planet’s tropical rainforests have gone. And what is left is disappearing at the rate of around twenty eight hectares a minute. According to information provided at the interpretation centre in Camp Leakey, each year around one thousand, seven hundred, species disappear for ever as a result of tropical deforestation. What the hell are we doing? When will it stop?
Developers routinely use fire to clear forest for palm oil plantations. In 1997 and 1998, the dark years when Indonesia’s President Suharto fell from power, forest fires in Borneo and Sumatra destroyed over four hundred and fifty thousand hectares of forest, resulting in the death of one-third of Borneo’s orangutan population and producing more carbon dioxide than the entire output of Europe for a year.
Almost the whole of Kutai National Park and Willie Smits’s Wein River orangutan sanctuary was burnt out. Airports in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur closed and residents of the cities wore masks to protect themselves against the choking smoke. Living near Jakarta at the time, I realized after a year that I had not seen a shadow, the combined effects of urban pollution and smoke from the fires cast such a pall over the island of Java.
Between them, Indonesia and Malaysia produce around ninety percent of the world’s palm oil. The product is used in food stuffs, soap, detergents, cosmetics, paints, lubricants and bio-fuel. Now you know why the cheap Blue Band label margarine used throughout Indonesia, tastes and smells rather like petrol. And perhaps you will think twice before switching to bio-fuel for your car in order to save the planet. Of the six and a half million hectares of plantation across Borneo and Sumatra, about four million hectares is newly cleared forest.
But this is only the beginning. Unscrupulous developers frequently acquire leases for palm oil only in order to extract the timber, leaving the land degraded and bare after they are finished. When they do establish plantations, the monoculture system destroys forest diversity and introduces poisons and chemicals which pollute river systems and surrounding land. Once wild rivers flowing clear and dark with natural tannin are now clogged and muddy from illegal mining and deforestation, their fish populations lost. As a result of corrupt deals with greedy officials, the indigenous Dayak peoples lose their traditional lands with no compensation, and plantation workers are exploited and paid below minimum wages.
The impact of this deforestation on global warming is hard to estimate. In amongst all these frightening facts and figures, summarized on display boards for visitors to Camp Leakey’s dusty interpretation centre, the face of a single orangutan serves as a reminder of the cost of this wanton destruction. If forest conversion continues at the current rate, the orangutan will without doubt pass from the earth and our lives will be changed forever.
It is hard to shake it off. After Kalimantan I find it difficult to get back into routines and to concentrate on my work. Images of the orangutans; of Siswi lolling about on the deck, of Tutut and her baby, of Mada and his tricks, strolling down the sandy bush track hand-in-hand with my son, of the youngsters messing about in the jungle at the care centre, of Erianti and her competition with Harry for my attention; these images return again and again over the following weeks. There is so much of them in us; of us in them.
But most of all, the look of that little guy as he leaned into me on the boardwalk and gazed into my eyes; that moment will stay with me for a lifetime.