The ape escape: orang-utans at Tanjung Puting National Park
Indonesia's Tanjung Puting National Park is a refuge for wild orang-utans. Now is the perfect time to see the rare primates in their jungle habitat
Text: Holly Mcdonald
There's a slight shake of leaves in a distant, towering tree. An eagle-eyed observer gasps at a glimpse of orange fur. A female orang-utan, holding her baby, swings down to a feeding platform at Camp Leakey, a research station in the fast-vanishing jungle in Indonesia's portion of the island of Borneo.
The mother leaps onto the platform and they both feed on the bananas and sweetened milk left out by the rangers at Tanjung Puting National Park, one of the few remaining habitats for the endangered orang-utan.
About 6,000 "people of the forest" are estimated to be spread throughout the park on the southern coast of Kalimantan. The best months to visit them are May and June.
FOLLOWING IN THEIR FOOTSTEPS
Tanjung Puting has three feeding stations, including Camp Leakey, which travellers typically visit over a two-night trip staying on a klotok, a wooden fishing boat. The boats are modified for the tours that depart from the port of Kumai.
After the food is laid out each day, the rangers call in the park's animals with a yodel that echoes through the trees. A magnificent male orang-utan soon arrives, ambling to the platform and ignoring the dozen or so humans gaping at him.
The beauty of Tanjung Puting is partly in what is not here — no contrived shows, cages or crowds. Our group must have seemed like an apparition emerging out of his natural habitat.
It's not just orang-utans who call the 416,000-hectare park home. A gibbon dances through the canopy; the lesser ape equivalent of a hip professor. He rushes to the platform when it's free of orang-utans, snatching up bananas before scampering up a nearby tree.
The big male orang-utan sidles back, leaning on his long arms and glancing sideways towards us. There's a look about him that suggests he's propping up a bar and considering another whisky from the barman — a double, pronto.
BATTLING ON BEHALF OF CLOSE FRIENDS
The human traits in these endangered primates are easy to see. They share all but 3 per cent of our DNA. "There's just something about the orang-utan's eyes that reflect our own," says Dr Biruté Galdikas, who set up Camp Leakey in 1971, and has now supervised the longest continuous study of any wild mammal in the world.
"When you look into an orang-utan's eyes it's as if you're looking into the eyes of somebody that could be human."
Sadly, if the destruction of the rain forest continues at its current rate, our near relatives' days in the wild are numbered. There are estimated to be between 45,000 and 50,000 orang-utans left on Borneo, plus another 7,000 animals on Sumatra.
Dr Galdikas helped establish Orang-utan Foundation International to support her research and forest conservation. The Camp Leakey study has continued, growing to a staff of 140 who care for more than 300 orang-utans in a specialised facility and protect the park. A breeding and rehabilitation programme has enabled more than 400 orang-utans to be released into the wild - last year alone 32 were moved back into the forest. "If we had forest, or if there was suitable forest available, we could release 100 tomorrow," she says.
WILDERNESS COMES ALIVE
A bright blue kingfisher swoops ahead of the boat. A crocodile crouches by the river bank, its body a ghostly comma under the water's surface.
On the second day in Tanjung Puting we putter along the rivers and see gangs of honking proboscis monkeys — named for the male's unmissable nose. We're also lucky to see the more elusive red leaf monkey and a silvery lutung.
Hornbills glide over the boat in pairs. The cheeky long-tailed macaques prance along the banks. While waiting for the orang-utans, we see butterflies with shimmering wings the size of birds, and fire ants so large they appear to have wandered out of a cartoon.
Tanjung Puting has more than 200 species of birds, 38 kinds of mammals, several dozen reptile and amphibian species and nine types of primates.
With enough patience, time and luck, there's a possibility of seeing tarsiers, Malay civets, clouded leopards, sun bears, wild boars, sambar deer and pythons in the park as well.
Still, the orang-utans are the star attraction. Although disappointing for humans, it's a good sign if none of Asia's only great apes show up, as it means they're likely foraging — and finding — enough fruit in the forest.
Between the three feeding stations, at least a few will make an appearance, and they are worth the wait.
Way to go
Cathay Pacific flies from Hong Kong to Jakarta three times a day. Kalstar and Trigana have daily flights to Pangkalanbun, and it's a 20-minute taxi ride from there to Kumai.
To arrange a tour on a klotok, try visitorangutan.com. The business is run separately from Camp Leakey and the national park.
When to visit
Tanjung Puting is accessible all year round, although you may want to skip the wet season from October to April, and avoid July and August, when holidaymaking Europeans tend to visit.
How to help
The chance of seeing orang-utans in the wild will move people to help with conservation efforts. Visiting the park injects money into the economy, which boosts the community's support for the national park.
Donations to the orang-utan foundation (orangutan.org) are welcome but consumers might want to consider boycotting products with palm oil. "It's the vast clearing of Indonesia's forest to establish palm oil plantations that is causing orang-utans to go to the verge of extinction," Dr Galdikas says.