People Of the Forest

tour-orangutanHeading to the last camp, perched on the bow of the klotok, we were serenaded by assistant captain Ohan. As is the case with sidekicks everywhere, the onus of being chief entertainer was down to Ohan – and he proved that he was totally up to the job with his distinctive live act based on Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham!

Watching the scenery unfold with the wind in your hair and a cup of steaming coffee by your side, it was easy to lose sight of the disturbing reality that orang­utans are faced with. Besides Sumatra, Borneo is the only region in the world where orangutans are found in the wild. There are about 54,000 orangutans in Borneo today and this number is dwin­dling alarmingly as forestland steadily gives way to palm oil plantations. Mining is the other major threat the national park authorities have to contend with.

In fact, the Sekonyer’s waters have taken on a permanently muddy hue because of the residual mercury released into the river from the mines. Interestingly, as the klotok made a right turn towards the last camp and away from the mining precinct, the water colour instantly and very distinctly turned to a clear black-purer and devoid of any mining residue. The stark contrast in water colour was a graphic indicator of things to come if the mining continues unchecked.

As the most high profile camp, Camp Leakey is often synonymous with Tanjung Puting itself. This camp was started by noted orangutan activist and founder of Orangutan Foundation International, Dr Birute Galdikas. Her unconventional methods were often questioned, but are now acknowledged as being highly suc­cessful in rehabilitating captive orang­utans. Day-trippers who zip in on their speedboats for a bite-sized orangutan adventure usually skip the other camps and head straight to Camp Leakey. The near-constant human presence means that the orangutans here are a lot less re­clusive and wander around freely – one cheeky young fellow even attempted to hop onto our klotok!

Rainforest canopy in Camp Leakey

Having witnessed the last feeding earlier that day at Camp Leakey, we sat silently on the deck with that all-too- familiar melancholy at the impending end of a holiday. The klotok had once again anchored by the riverbank and we had the best seats in the house for the spectacular light show put on by the fireflies. Taking stock of the last couple of days, we counted a total of 25 orang­utan sightings. Perhaps it was the im­mersive nature of the experience or the fact that we were biologically so close to these apes – Homo sapiens shares 97% of its DNA with them – but this had been a wildlife trip unlike any other. Be it the adorable adolescent Ursula who came to see us off at the last camp or Chi-cha’s little baby, each encounter felt unique and personal. More important, however, was the realisation that these young orangutans had a right to grow up without threat – in the knowledge that the forest would be theirs and they would indeed continue to be the people of the forest.

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