The Orangutans of Borneo

I have just returned from what I can only describe as a life changing experience. A group of us from work have just spent a week in the jungles of Borneo, immersed in the world of orangutan and forest conservation.

About a month ago I was asked if I would be interested in joining a team from work to go to Borneo and to help the orangutans after someone pulled out last minute. Without hesitation (and a quick call to sell the idea to Kath) I said “absolutely yes”. Salesforce encourages all employees to participate in VTO (volunteering time off) each year and I had been trying to find something that I would be passionate about. I also wanted to make sure that what I was dedicating my time (and money) to something that I was passionate about and would actually make a difference. This was definitely something that fit that profile.

The initial stage of the process was for the team to raise $12,000 that would go directly to The Orangutan Project (TOP) to support their efforts in saving orangutans and their habitats. Through the wonders of social networks and very kind family and friends, we were able to raise the money. The purpose of the trip was to go to the frontline of orangutan conservation to learn about what is being done, see what our money was going towards and to discover what we can do to help even more in the future.

Leading up to the trip, I did a lot of reading about TOP and their founder, Leif Cocks, and I realised that what they are doing was pretty extraordinary. In their own words, they are…

“We a passionate group of people dedicated to saving the orangutan, led by an experienced set of wildlife experts that have been working for over 20 years to protect orangutans. Together our brand, staff, supporters, partners and the community are working to protect orangutans from extinction.”

We were very fortunate that have Leif come along on our week long trip to Borneo as our guide and teacher. His knowledge, experience and reputation in the conservation and rehabilitation of orangutans is truly amazing. We were so lucky to be able to spend a lot of time with him hearing about his experiences and learning about what we humans can do to help fix up what we have destroyed. I really like the quote below from Clare Campbell, Executive Director Wildlife Asia in Leif Cocks’ book Orangutans – My Cousins, My Friends

“As humans, each of us share 97% of our genetic make-up with orangutans, therefore we are literally 97% orangutan and 3% human. However this uniquely human 3% does not grant us superiority, but rather responsibility.”

Leif himself describes the orangutans as our “Orange Cousins”. You only have to look in the face of an orangutan to realise how human they are.

So with the money raised and our vaccinations in order, we flew to Indonesia to start out adventure. On arrival in Jakarta we headed straight to an airport hotel for the night, where we had dinner with Leif and were briefed by Garry, from Orangutan Odysseys (who organised the tour), about the week’s activities. We then headed to bed ready for a very early start the next morning.

Day 1 – Palangkaraya

At 4am we headed to Jakarta airport and got on a flight to Palangkaraya, which is the main city of Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). This was where we met our BNF guide and our new friend, Yun Pratiwi. She was an absolute superstar and made our trip very comfortable and very informative.

After a quick breakfast in a local cafe we headed down to the Rungan River and climbed into some beautifully painted powered canoes. We sped up the river to visit a number of rehabilitation islands where they release and monitor orphaned orangutans. They are initially released on these islands to prepare them for their eventual release into the wild. We were lucky to see two 7 year old female orangutans on the beach, happily feasting on bananas and minding their own business.

We then headed to the nearby Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) centre, where they have created a school to help orphaned baby orangutans prepare for eventual release into the wild. The staff provided us with a presentation about what they do and how their program works. It was very distracting watching the presentation, because behind the windows on either side of the screen, baby orangutans were playing around. There is a TV series (on Stan in Australia) called The Orangutan School that shows how their rehabilitation programs work.

Orphaned orangutan baby at BOS

After a long day, we headed to our hotel for the night and Leif gave us the first of his daily talks, during which he shared his stories and taught us about all sorts of information about orangutans and their conservation. There were so many interesting facts about orangutans, but the thing that really hit home with me was how important it is to save them because they are essentially an umbrella species. So basically, if we focus on saving the habitat of the orangutan, we will also be saving the habitats of all the other species that are native to the forests of Borneo.

Day 2 – Sebangau National Park

Our first stop for the morning was to visit Center for International Cooperation in Sustainable Management of Tropical Peatland (CIMTROP) at the University of Palangka Raya. We were met by the director of the organisation and heard about some of the things they have been able to achieve with the money that they had been provided by TOP. Their main activities recently have been in the fighting of major fires that have been destroying the forests and peatlands. There is a massive problem in Borneo where forests and peatlands are being cleared to make way for agriculture, especially for palm oil plantations. This is not only destroying the majority of the habitats of orangutans and other species, but is also having a much broader impact on the global climate because these areas are essential for the maintaining of carbon balance in the environment.

Don’t we look like an important delegation – Photo: Rob Colborne

One of the interesting ways they have been using the money from TOP is for the use of drones and thermal imaging to find fires. A big problem with fires in peatlands is that the fire essentially burns underground. The thermal imaging can help firefighters find these fires much easier and quicker before they get out of control.

After a few formalities (lots of hand shaking and photo ops) the meet and greet with CIMTROP was over and we started our journey to our jungle camp. We headed down to the river and jumped in some more powered canoes and made our way to the Sebangau National Park. Normally the canoes can make their way right up to the jungle, however because the area is currently in the middle of a severe drought, we landed at an old jetty attached to a crazy old trolley track. This old track and trolley is a remnant of the old logging days and was the only way to get to the camp. With its rickety wheels and ridiculously crooked track, it really was like something out of Indiana Jones.

The Borneo Nature Foundation (BNF) were our hosts for the next 4 days and they operated an amazing (and very picturesque) research station and camp just inside the Sebangau National Park. This was the base for many different BNF staff, who carry out various research and forestry activities and is also the base for some university researchers. The accommodation was very basic but very comfortable and the resident cooks feed us very well over the 4 days.

Our first activity was to hike into the jungle along rickety boardwalks (planks of wood) to find some orangutans. We were led by the founder of BNF, Simon Hussan, who kindly timed his regular trip out from the UK to meet us. After half an hour of crashing through the bush, we saw our first orangutan in the wild. Unfortunately it is really hard to see and get photos of orangutans in the wild because they sit in nests in the top of the canopy. All you really can see are glimpses of orange hairy butts through the leaves. However it didn’t really matter, because there was something magical about standing under them, knowing they were there. You can hear them munching on their food and you get showered with the twigs and leaves they drop down from the nest.

It was really interesting chatting to one of the university researchers, Abby, who was spending 9 months in the jungle observing the behaviour of the orangutans. She would get up and head into the jungle every morning at around 4am with one of the BNF team (for safety). She would then sit there all day recording what the orangutans were doing every 5 minutes. Her data pretty much consisted of “eating, eating, eating, scratching, eating, sleeping, sleeping etc.”. You could tell she absolutely loved it, because it takes a lot of dedication to do that for such a long period.

That night Simon took us back out into the jungle to look for night animals by the light of head torches. We didn’t see anything other than a lot of spider eyes reflecting in the torch light, but it was really peaceful spending some time sitting in the complete darkness listening to the night sounds of the jungle.

Day 3 – Sebangau National Park
Having been woken up very early due to jet lag, I got up around 3.30am and sat in the dark listening to the sounds of the jungle waking up. I have decided my new favourite sound is the sound of gibbons calling to each other across the jungle in the morning. Every morning we would sit in the camp, drinking cups of tea and listening to these beautiful apes. Here is some of the sound I recorded one morning.

We spent the morning back out in the jungle, sitting in the forest watching and listening to the orangutans in their nests. We had our first and only rain storm while we were sitting out in the jungle. The rain really didn’t bother us because the 100% humidity meant we were pretty much wet all the time anyway..

We also saw our first gibbons. The gibbons are much more active than the orangutans and come a lot closer to the camp. Everyday we were able to watch them swinging around in the trees. Again photos were very difficult to get because of the back lit sky, but they certainly put on a show for us.

Gibbon in the trees

In the afternoon we headed out with the BNF team to help set up a number of butterfly traps. They do a lot of studies of the butterfly species and their distribution, because the butterflies are good indicators of the health of the forest. This activity consisted of adding a mix of banana and fruity red wine (which we managed to get a bottle of for the evening) to a plate and then hoisting it up in a net into the canopy. These nets are then checked daily by the team.

Day 4 – Sebangau National Park
After waking up really early again, a couple of us (the early rises) heard some crashing noises in the trees. So we quickly ran down the rickety railroad in our pyjamas and found a large gibbon playing around in the trees and crying out to its mate. It was so surreal sitting in the middle of the jungle, in pyjamas with a cup of tea, watching this incredible animal swinging around. He must have thought we looked pretty strange.

Once the team were all awake, the BNF team took us to their plant nursery where we were loaded up with handwoven backpacks, each containing a number of tree saplings. We then proceeded to hike through the forest (in extreme heat and humidity) for about 1.5km to the site of the burn area. This is a huge expanse of land that had been cleared (read “destroyed”) for crazy political reasons. The BNF team and CIMTROP are slowly in the process of trying to reforest the area. To date they have planted over 7000 trees, which did not sound like a lot until we had spent an hour planting our 100 trees and we all were on the verge of passing out from heat exhaustion. Talking to Daniel, the leader of the revegetation program, he explained that it is really hard to get the locals to do the work because it is so exhausting and everything needs to be carried in by hand.

After a long rest from our hour of hard labour, Yun organised a special surprise for us. She had organised a sunset river cruise in powered canoes. It was lovely speeding down the river and having a breeze (which we had been missing) in our face. The sunset was amazing and a chance to get some nice photos.

Day 5 – Back to Palangkaraya
This was our last morning in the jungle camp. Rather than being treated to gibbons at dawn, we were lucky enough to see a Red Leaf Monkey jumping around near the camp. They are large monkeys of a similar orange colour to orangutans, but have a long tail and move very quickly through the trees.

Red Leaf Monkey – Photo: Karli Amber Smith

After packing up our belongings, we piled back into the rickety trolley and headed back to the river. Yun had organised for us to go for a walk in a different part of the Sebangau National Park. After the hour long boat trip in the intense sun, we were all pretty exhausted, which thankfully she picked up on and proceeded to take us on a short cut to shorten the walk.

We then headed back to the luxury of the hotel to spend the afternoon sitting in the bar listening to our final daily talk by Leif and catching up on some much needed beer drinking. After an early dinner we headed to bed as we had an early flight in the morning back to Jakarta and a flight home that the following evening.

Back in civilisation

The trip was truly wonderful. The whole team got a huge amount out of it and are now all very keen to find ways that they can help more. Leif is looking to run another trip next year and if the same group go, he is looking at heading to another location. I am pretty sure that we will all put our hands up to go again.

Personally, it could not have come at a more perfect time. I have been looking for something new to be passionate about and some new projects to get involved in. This has really sparked a lot of ideas and has my mind is running at 100kmh.

If you want to learn more about everything we experienced, I highly recommend reading Leif’s books…

Orangutans My Cousins, My Friends: A journey to understand and save the person of the forest

Finding Our Humanity: An inner journey towards understanding ourselves and our way forward.

If you want to donate to The Orangutan Project, please go to their website below.


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