Face to face with the venerable old man of the forest.
Catherine Lawson and David Bristow journey into the oragutan's rapidly diminishing habitat 15 years after the World Wide Fund for Nature warned urgent intervention was required to head off their extinction.
Our tippy wooden canoe forges upstream, snaking up the Sangatta River towards a remote patch of Indonesian Borneo where wild orangutans roam free. We dock and drag our gear to the Kutai National Park rangers’ hut and minutes later are on the trail, sweating along skinny paths that peter out until we are wading waist deep in vegetation, lured by the distant calls of orangutans booming through the forest.
Sightings in Kutai National Park are far from guaranteed. The logging and poaching that have kept our closest animal relative on the endangered species list for decades continue to threaten Indonesia’s orangutans and none of its reserves are truly protected.
According to the Orangutan Conservancy, Asia’s only great ape is dying at a rate of 2000-3000 individuals a year, their diminishing populations defenseless against an onslaught of deforestation. Critically endangered, their extinction is expected within the next 50 years as right across Indonesia, palm oil plantations, mines and illegal settlements encroach on national park boundaries and destroy trees. But there’s good news coming out of Kutai National Park in the little-visited state of Kalimantan.
It’s in this sanctuary, written off as a conservation disaster after decades of plundering and two massive, devastating forest fires, that we get lucky. We follow Pak Supiani - machete in hand - who leads us swiftly off trail and through the undergrowth. Three decades as a national park ranger has turned Supiani into a seasoned tracker and through the noisy chatter of long-tailed macaques and hornbills, he picks up something inaudible to us and picks up the pace.
Sweating silently in his wake, we finally catch up and follow his gaze to the very top of the towering canopy. There’s a distant, blurry blaze of orange swinging in and out of view, features indistinguishable, and a wave of excitement hits me, followed by a tiny, premature pang of disappointment as I wait and wonder if this faraway encounter is as good as it gets?
Suddenly, she appears: swinging down daringly towards us, a tiny, fuzzy daughter at her hip. She closes the distance between us in seconds, and a stab of fear grips me until she stops just metres away, arms stretched overhead, watching her watchers with calm, curious intent. Her lingering gaze leaves me awestruck and utterly gripped: this close, fearless encounter is far more than I could ever have hoped for.
As the world’s largest tree living mammal, orangutans eat, sleep and travel almost exclusively in the treetops, rarely venturing to the far-less-safe forest floor. Why then do we manage to lure this mother so close? Is it the small, blonde-haired daughter cradled on my hip that piques her curiosity? I wonder.
Slowly and with ease, she makes her way to a favourite feeding tree, staying within mesmerising, clear view. Above her in the canopy we spot her more independent, seven-year-old son, building a fresh leaf nest and settling in for the night.
He’s more wary than his curious Mum and has at least three to four more years by his mother’s side before one of the longest apprenticeships in the animal world will be over and he will be ready to strike out on his own. Learning to navigate and survive in what is considered Eastern Borneo’s worst forest habitat takes time and tuition, and Kutai’s orangutans are known to be the most durable of all.
We watch on, necks craned, hours slipping by until mother and baby climb effortlessly into the canopy to nest, and we finally retreat to our primitive digs in the park’s ranger hut at Prevab for the night.
There’s a mattress under a mossie net, a barking owl at our open window and a room lit up by fireflies that sparkle across the ceiling throughout the night. Dinner is conjured in the hut’s communal kitchen with ingredients we’ve brought with us: noodles and vegetables and potent Javanese coffee. Coolness descends on a still night and we sit on the balcony, slurping soup beneath a single light bulb that glows until 10pm when the entire hut is plunged into darkness.
A troop of macaques wakes us at dawn and we hit the trails again, trekking further and deeper into the forest. It’s impossible to measure distance and we are too distracted anyway, but the terrain is level, the undergrowth easy to push through and when we are finally reunited with the same matriarchal trio, the oppressive heat and humidity is forgotten.
Just like the day before, we discover the orangutans far from view, more than 50 metres above us in the canopy. I struggle to get a view and fail. There is nothing to do but sit and wait and hope that these exceptional creatures sharing 97% of our human DNA, recognise this intrusion as benign and venture down to encounter us too.
Sure enough, patience rewards and the orangutans swing down for breakfast, watching us, selecting the choicest of fresh leaves and allowing us to observe in minute detail the deep auburn of this orangutan’s arm, strong curling fingers, fuzzy, barely-there baby hair.
These are the orangutans that conservationists gave up on when they declared Kutai National Park a wasteland, ruined by logging and mining, illegally settled, it’s orangutan population decimated by wild fires, they said, from a priority population of 600 to a woeful 30 individuals.
Hard work has made a better future.
Thankfully they were wrong. Field surveys by the Orangutan Kutai Project in 2010 painted a much brighter picture of forests in good shape and an orangutan population numbering upwards of 1000 to 2000 individuals. Headed by eminent Orangutan Conservancy director and researcher Dr Anne Russon, this field station upriver on Kutai’s northern boundary overlaps the site of the world’s first study of wild orangutans.
The forests were pristine then, abundant and home to thriving populations that are unlikely to ever return. Even today, Dr Russon’s team is perplexed by the disappearance of orangutans from their study area, likely to have moved on in search of ever-diminishing food sources after cycles of excessive rain and prolonged drought take their toll on the national park.
A quarter of all natural forests in Kalimantan have already been wiped out and Kutai harbours the only remaining large wild population of East Bornean orangutans in the world: a robust, resilient subspecies of endangered Bornean orangutans, pongo pygmaeus morio to be precise. These are the world’s most durable orangutans and to thrive, they will need to be.
Mere handfuls of trekkers find their way to Kutai National Park every year and in 2017 we were the only Australians to spend a night at Prevab. It’s true that this remote national park demands determination to reach and the accommodation on offer is most certainly primitive, but for your best chance of encountering genuinely wild orangutans in Borneo, this place is nirvana.
The bonus is what your money can do in their precarious wilderness, funding a business around the conservation of Kutai through guiding wages and national park fees and giving the Indonesian government a good reason to enforce boundaries and protect what’s inside.
Elsewhere on the island, Borneo’s more famous (and accessible) orangutan rescue and rehabilitation centres entertain a steady stream of ecotourists with milk-and-banana feeding station shows, but only in places like Kutai National Park can you encounter wild orangutans on their own terms, in their own habitats and actually conserve the creatures before they end up in rehab.
Ultimately though, what will lure you to Kutai is that photograph that pulls you in and leaves you wondering what it’s like to stare into the eyes of the only creature that rivals your own intelligence and compassion, and whose survival hangs in the balance in a fascinating, faraway Bornean forest.
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