Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Save the Orangutans

In case you couldn't tell by the inordinate number of posts, John and I really loved this trip. The orangutans are such amazing creatures, but they really won't be around for much longer. They're really threatened by loss of habitat from palm oil plantations, the illegal pet trade, and climate change in general (just to name a few).

Speaking of the illegal pet trade, we learned of a hotel in Bali that keeps an orangutan caged as a tourist attraction. In Indonesia, orangutans are considered national treasures and the laws make it illegal for anyone to keep them in captivity. The Melka Hotel blatantly violates this law by bribing anyone who could put a stop to it. I encourage you to send them an email to let them know how reprehensible it is to keep these beautiful animals trapped in small cages. The email address is

But in an attempt to end this post on a happy note, we've added some video clips from our trip that we hope you'll enjoy.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Looking after the little ones

Once we made it all the way back down the river to the port town of Pangkalan Bun, we spent the night in a hotel and got up the next morning to go to the Orangutan Care Center and Facility. This was a really unique opportunity. The center is closed to tourists, but a friend who works for USAID was able to arrange us a visit.

There are currently 340 orangutans being rehabilitated at the center, many of which were held captive as exotic pets. The center's main goal is to teach the orangutans the survival skills they will need once they are finally released back into the wild. (They are then released back into one of the camps we previously visited, where they can still be monitored while they adjust.) The women who work at the center act as surrogate mothers for the young orangutans. You can tell that most of them are very comfortable with humans and were very curious to meet us.

We got to see the entire facility, including where the juveniles played in the forest. The one in the photo was very strong as he tried to climb between me and the tree! All of it was so neat to see, but the best part was when we hiked to the area where the baby orangutans were playing. We sat down in the brush, and the babies immediately came over, wanting to play with us. Having one climb into your lap, stare into your eyes and give you a hug was just heartbreaking! Another one played a balancing game on my leg, and a rambunctious one jumped straight into my lap, landing on his back. They are more used to women, so John didn't attract too many babies. But at least he got some good shots of me!

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Just like you and me...almost

Camp Leakey was built in the 1970s as a research post and has been staffed ever since by Indonesians and the Jane Goodall of orangutans, Dr. Birute Galdikas. Dr. Galdikas spends most of her time fund raising and lecturing these days, but she lived in the jungle for more than 30 years studying orangutans.
When we arrived at Camp Leakey, we were the first tourists and we immediately met a couple of friendly gibbons named Bob and Boy. These two gibbons have lived around Camp Leakey for their entire lives and are pretty comfortable with humans. They also apparently love coffee because when one of the staff set their coffee mug down, Boy grabbed it and climbed back to the tree to finish drinking it and eating the leftover coffee grounds.

Our guide took us around the camp, and up in the trees we saw our first baby orangutan with his mom. Orangutans only have one child at a time, and the babies stay with their moms until they're about 7 years old. As a result, orangutans take the longest time between babies of any species. They share 97 percent of our DNA and the similarities are just amazing.

The orangutans that live around the three camps we visited are either former captives or the children of former captives. Many of them have completely gone back to the wild, but some still show up for feedings to supplement their diets. The camps offer feedings once a day, and they give the orangutans milk and bananas. They never mix up the diet because they want them to be bored with the food options on offer so that they'll prefer to find their own food in the wild.

It was amazing to see them up close and watch how they act and interact with eachother. At the last camp we visited, we were walking into the forest to the feeding site and our guide saw a huge orangutan coming behind us. He told us to walk faster because it was completely wild and rarely came around. We knew we'd better move quickly if our guide was concerned. The big guy showed up at the feeding site a couple minutes after us. He was huge. Probably about 5'8" and he must have weighed 250 pounds. He then proceeded to eat all of the bananas by himself for the next 20 minutes while the mothers and their babies stared longingly at the diminishing supply.

One thing we didn't really realize before we saw them was how orangutans slept. They make a new nest way up at the very top of really tall trees every night. It almost seems impossible that their nest could support something the size of a human. Imagine trying to build a nest 50 feet up and then sleep there!

So after three days on the boat, we finally headed back to to town for a much overdue hot shower. But we had one more stop to make before heading back to Jakarta...