On the Trail of Orangutans

I confront them head-on in one of the few places where they still exist.


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For me, there’s never been a more chilling movie than Planet of the Apes, particularly the harrowing moment when a bedraggled Charlton Heston stumbles upon what’s left of the Statue of Liberty and realizes he’s trapped in a future where monkeys have enslaved mankind. Call me paranoid, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this is where we’re headed. Daily newspapers across Asia are filled with tales of simian outrage, from pick-pocketing apes to the shadowy monkeyman — an apocryphal creature whose rumored existence sparked widespread panic several summers ago in Delhi. If that’s not enough, a more recent warning came when a friend traveling through India needed to be pumped full of anti-bacterial drugs after a malevolent monkey sank its gnashers deep into his unsuspecting buttocks.

With this in mind, I’ve always given a wide berth to apes, chimps, gorillas, and their ilk — I know they’re supposed to be man’s closest relatives but, let’s face it, no one enjoys a family reunion. Unfortunately, my wife fails to share this point of view, pouring scorn on my claims that monkey scientists are toiling in jungle laboratories to further man’s downfall. Humans, she says, are the bad guys, driving apes to the brink of extinction by hounding them from the treetops and destroying their habitat.

It was with the hope of dispelling such monkey propaganda that I found myself aboard a narrow wooden klotok on the tidal waters of the Sekonyer River in Indonesian Borneo, chugging deep into the heart of a monkey darkness known as Tanjung Putting — a national park that is home to possibly the largest population of orangutans, one of the planet’s so-called “great” apes.

Despite a hair-raising ride on an ancient aircraft to Pankalan Bun, the tiny river port that operates as the gateway to the forests of southern Borneo, navigating the Sekonyer is a pleasure. Mangroves of nipa palm spring from the riverbank, forming the base of a lush and leafy canopy that echoes the rasping calls of hornbills. A cooling breeze keeps mosquitoes at bay while an equatorial sun overhead slips in and out of grumbling monsoon clouds.

All is not well, however, according to Nanang, our English-speaking guide who has some interesting ideas of his own about monkeys. (More on that later.) The river’s milky-brown color means that upriver, the jungle is being torn up by illegal gold miners. It’s a problem that has thankfully been eradicated further into Tanjung Puting, where natural tannin-darkened waterways run the color of freshly poured Guinness.

Our first stop is Tanjung Harapan, a rough collection of huts in a sandy riverside clearing. Harapan is one of a network of bases in the national park that have been set up to rehabilitate orangutans rescued from captivity, with the aim of preserving a species that is believed to have once roamed as far afield as southern China, but is now reduced to a few pockets on Borneo and the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

It’s feeding time at Harapan. We follow one of the park rangers into a deep jungle thicket, dodging armies of angry fire ants to a table where bananas have been laid out. Nanang joins the ranger in hollering out a series of Tarzan calls that are rewarded within minutes by something crashing through the nearby canopy.

“This is Kacong,” whispers Nanang, as a hairy orange beast swings down from the treetops.

Okay, I’ll admit it: My first encounter with a wild orangutan is a little bit exhilarating. This is due to the realization that Kacong’s muscular arms could rip me limb from limb if he so wished and, judging by the dark looks from under his crag-like brow, he might just wish.

The orangutan’s appearance at the feeding table is, says Nanang, a cause for concern. Ideally the apes should be able to sustain themselves from the surrounding jungle. But as more and more trees are lost to illegal logging and farmers’ clearing land for lucrative but ecologically dubious palm oil plantations, the orangutans have become reliant on handouts.

“You cannot say this is a success,” said Nanang, allowing us all to absorb the gravity of the situation before adding rather unexpectedly, “I was sexually assaulted by an orangutan once. It tried to have sex with my leg.”

As the sun begins to sink, we return to the boat, ploughing further upriver beside trees teeming with proboscis monkeys — an unfortunately snouted ape unique to Borneo that even I have to admit looks incapable of getting up to anything more malicious than a few high-spirited japes.

Our evening destination is the Rimba Lodge, a series of huts that rise on stilts from the mangroves to form a charming and, according to its owners, environmentally friendly 35-room hotel. Given its remote location, the lodge is surprisingly comfortable, but annoyingly is also home to an unruly family of macaque monkeys, who seem to take unbridled glee in scuttling loudly across wooden rooftops.

As the only place in the national park licensed to serve beer, Rimba is the perfect spot to sit and discuss the day’s ape sightings, and for Nanang to outline more of his own unorthodox studies into monkey behavior, which follow a familiar theme.

“I’ve been watching a lot of monkey sex,” he confides. “I’ve even made a video. Perhaps I could sell it.”

Apes, says Nanang, can be categorized according to their sexual preferences. Macaques have sex with anything that moves while proboscis are known as the “Viagra monkeys” — one male will mate with a succession of females in sustained bouts of promiscuity. Orangutans, meanwhile, “have sex with style.”

The next day, Nanang defers to more highbrow anthropological expertise when we run into Professor Birute Mary Galdikas. Galdikas is a Canadian-born scientist who has devoted her life to studying orangutans as a protégé of celebrated paleontologist Louis Leakey, whose legendary “Leakey’s Angels” also included chimp expert Jane Goodall and the late Dian “Gorillas in the Mist” Fossey.

Galdikas, who first arrived on the banks of the Sekonyer in 1971, returns regularly to Borneo to check on the orangutans she counts as some of her closest friends, and to oversee some of the programs to save them from obliteration. After accompanying her to watch another formidable feeding display, I drop by her house to ask what fuels her ape obsession.

“There’s something about their eyes, something eerily human about them,” she says, as Pedro, a 250-pound male lumbers up and glowers at me darkly. I stare back in a way I hope is eerily simian.

Our second night in Borneo is spent on board the boat after we sail downstream out of the national park. Comfortable mattresses are unrolled on the open deck, but our only protection from the jungle night is a rather ragged mosquito net.

Nevertheless, after 48 hours in their company, I’m feeling a little more relaxed in my attitude towards apes — perhaps they do have more pressing things to worry about than the subjugation of mankind. Also, Nanang assures me as he turns out the lights, we’re too far down river to attract any unwanted sexual advances from orangutans, macaques, or proboscis.

Then, from out of the inky void, comes a loud and ominous whoop.

“Gibbons,” says Nanang. “I’m not sure about gibbons.” • 5 October 2007




Barry Neild is a London-based journalist whose work appears on CNN, the BBC, as well as in the International Herald Tribune and many other global publications. Having reported extensively from Afghanistan, China, Indonesia, Iraq and Pakistan, he is currently writing a novel, but isn't too optimistic about it.