The Wild Orangutans of Borneo

It ought to be easy to spot an orangutan in the wild. How could you miss a huge, hairy, orange-brown blob lumbering out of lush green rainforest or swinging overhead like a trapeze artist from tree to tree? But to find these critically endangered creatures at all, you first must travel to Borneo or Sumatra, the only places on the planet where they can be found. In Borneo that means booking a tour on a traditional Indonesian riverboat called a klotok from the town of Kumai into Tanjung Puting National Park. Eric and I opted for the 3-day tour, and with a captain, mate, cook and tour guide, our own private upper-deck accommodations and bountiful meals, we weren’t exactly roughing it.

Our klotok. We had the upper deck. The crew ate and slept below.
Morning coffee
Lunch. Indonesian meals center on rice with accompaniments.
Our elegant bedroom. We had sunny weather and no mosquitos.

Originally established as a wildlife reserve in 1936, Tanjung Puting covers over 1 million square acres. It is the second largest tropical rainforest in the world, and it protects not only the orangs but an array of flora and fauna that are vital components of our natural world. The tourism, alongside research, education and community involvement, helps spread the word.  

The park has three camps with feeding stations at which to view the orangs, and to reach them the klotoks wind their way upriver at a peaceful pace. The color of the river segues from milky coffee to black tea as you go, according to the leaf litter and forest matter than leaches into the water. We passed a few small villages en route and shared the narrow passage with other klotoks and friendly fishing boats. Fishing is good here, our guide Anissa said, and the villagers can cross over to Kumai for other supplies. We saw one homeward-bound boat proudly carrying a bright lime-green wheelbarrow, while another delivered two spiffy new motor scooters.

Heading upriver. My hand sign is a Muslim symbol for “love.”

But on to the orangutans, the stars of the show. The three camps were formerly rehab and release sites for animals rescued from captivity, and although orangutans are no longer released into Tanjung Puting, daily feedings for the ex-captives and their descendants continues. Wild orangutans also may turn up. Neither group is dependent on the heaps of bananas set out by the rangers. Orangutans are primarily fruit eaters, and when fruit is plentiful in the wild, they may not appear.

Camp Leakey, one of the three feeding stations
The welcoming committee

Unlike other primates, orangs are semi-solitary rather than social. The males take no part in child-rearing, and the largest group consists of a mother and two offspring. The young stay with mom until age five or six, and by age eight they make their own nests and live independently. At age 15-20 the males start to develop the distinctive cheek pads and bulk out. Massive adult male orangs can weigh upwards of 120 kg, females about 50 kg, and they may live to age 50 and more.

The feedings are at set times each day, and once the audience was in place in the viewing area, the banquet got underway. The rangers upended baskets of bananas on the feeding platform and let out a call. Then came movement in the surrounding bushes and tree branches, the swishing and swaying of greenery as unseen bodies advanced to the feast. Among the audience, heads turned and fingers pointed as our primate cousins appeared. You can tell who is coming by the size of the rustling. Young adults and moms with babies arrived first, hoisting themselves up onto the platform or descending from the branches above. They sat down and munched contentedly with little pushing and bananas to spare.

Come and get it!
Though the orangutans are not aggressive, a safe distance is maintained.

But after ten or fifteen minutes, a really big swishing announced the approach of His Highness the Alpha Male. He was in no hurry. He’s the boss and he knows it, and so does everyone else. Immediately, a comedy act broke out on the feeding platform. First, the other diners stuffed as many unpeeled bananas into their mouths as they could fit. Then, with a dozen yellow fruits protruding from their lips, they grabbed a bunch in each hand and sped away via the nearest escape route. Since it’s hard to scramble up a tree with your mouth and both hands crammed with bananas, some of the booty got dropped along the way. This scenario was repeated at all three feeding stations, and it reminded me of a pack of guilty burglars caught in the act. He’s coming! Quick, grab the loot and scram!

Trying not to look guilty

Unperturbed, the king ambled in and took his place among the abandoned goodies, and the others gradually ventured back. As long as they gave His Majesty plenty of room, he allowed them to resume eating nearby. At one station, however, the king was a bit of a bully and when a mom with a baby clinging to her back got too close, he snatched her hand and repeatedly jerked her arm until she struggled free. Some yelps and noise were also exchanged. The female was feisty, however, and returned several times to a remonstrance until a compromise on an acceptable seating distance was agreed.

Don’t get too close
All happy now–let’s eat!

At one station, after sauntering out of the bushes and spotting a ranger with a basket of bananas among the audience, the king made straight toward the incoming food, ignoring the people all around. The ranger beat a long pole on the wood benches to turn him back, then he escorted His Majesty to a separate park bench inside the feeding area. It seems the finicky diner expected a private meal, and once the ranger dumped the bananas on the bench, the king took his throne, and with his royal back to us, calmly ate his way through the pile. As the ranger turned to leave, he gave the big guy a comradely pat on the shoulder as if to say, “There, there, it’s all right.”

A feast fit for a king

The greatest threat to the Borneo orangutans is ongoing habitat destruction, mostly due to the conversion of land to oil-palm plantations. Forest fires—both by land clearing and natural causes—logging, and mining for gold, coal and zircon also are to blame. The park protects the forest with manned guard posts, routine patrols, and tree planting to restore degraded habitat. Of course, this protects not only the orangs but all the other flora and fauna as well.  

And in the wonderful way that Nature works, the orangs in turn contribute to the survival of their rainforest home. By excreting the seeds of the fruit they eat, they are constantly replanting. Their movements through the bushes and trees, breaking off branches as they go, helps open the forest canopy and allows sunlight to reach the plants on the forest floor. In return for their services, the orangs are fondly dubbed the “farmers of the forest.” Well done!

In between the feeding stations, we enjoyed our journey along the river, spotting other orangutans, macaques and probiscus monkeys, glimpsing birds, and exchanging waves with other klotoks. We especially enjoyed chatting with Anissa, learning more about her background and culture and answering her questions about America. She had earned a degree in tourism from the university in Kalimantan, Borneo, and when I asked her what guides were trained to do when dealing with a difficult tourist, she laughingly confessed, “Keep smiling.” For anyone interested in visiting Tanjung Puting, we booked our tour through Kumai tour agent and hotel owner Majid. He and his wife Liesa also helped us arrange diesel, water, provisions and laundry, and we recommend them highly.

As always, Eric and I understand how fortunate we are to be having these experiences. So little of our planet is truly wild anymore, and our journey into orangutan territory was hardly strenuous. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with a remarkable place and a meshing of all that is wise and beautiful in Nature. If we can only keep it so.

You can never have too many bananas.