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An Orangutan Journey

Meeting the orangutans of Borneo in the wild has been a dream of mine since childhood, so visiting Tanjung Puting National Park in Central Kalimantan was a very special experience for me.

This big fella is 'retired', he is no longer dominant in the area, but he lives by the ranger station, where they've known him for decades.

To reach the park, we flew from Bali to the city of Pangkalan Bun (via Surabaya) and were met by our guide Mickey Juanda, who helped us to arrange the trip and travelled with us into Tanjung Puting. The next morning we drove to the town of Kumai, where we boarded a Klotok, a traditional houseboat and began our journey up the Sekonyer River. It didn’t take too long to get away from the city and become immersed in the forest, surrounded by calls of birds, the sounds of insects and the crashing of monkeys as they leapt through the trees.

A shy Proboscis Monkey peering through the Pandanus leaves.

It didn’t take too long before we encountered our first primates, a troop of Proboscis monkey’s, foraging along the banks of the river. Proboscis monkey’s are endemic to Borneo and generally live in mangrove forests and close to the river. They have a varied diet, but it mainly consists of leaves which makes their digestive system quite specialised, they have sacculated stomachs with 9 chambers (like having 9 small stomachs) so they can ferment and digest leaves. They’re well known for their large noses, which the males use in sexual displays and to amplify their strange ‘honking’ calls. Visiting the park on a Klotok is great for photography, the top deck puts you almost on eye level with a lot of the wildlife, which is helpful composing shots and saving your neck from staring up into the canopy all day!

Next up was the star of the show, the orangutans. There are three camps in the national park where they supplement the orangutans diet with additional fruit, many of the orangutans in these areas have been rescued from illegal captivity or injured and lost their homes from logging. Despite this, there is still no guarantees you will get to encounter one, so I had no idea what to expect during our trip, would we see any at all?

As we started to make our way through the forest, our guide spotted a young orangutan resting up high in the trees, so we stopped in our tracks and started to get some shots. However, we were almost immediately interrupted by a large male walking straight down the path towards us! He politely waited for us to move off the track, then posed for us almost as if he was showing some gratitude for us stepping off the path.

Wild Orangutans we spotted from the boat.

Then the real reason he was heading along the path became clear, not too far behind him was Roger, the dominant male of the area. Roger was gently leading the other male away from the feeding platform where he was in charge and the food and females awaited him. Roger then stopped with us for a bit before we followed him to the feeding area. There are three locations in the national park where feeding takes place and tourists are able to see the orangutans. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the supplemental feeding before I visited the park, although my fears were unfounded. These locations are managed by researchers from international conservation organisations and the Indonesian government and the orangutans are not reliant on this source of food. In fact at the second camp we visited we didn’t see any orangutans, the rangers said that there was a certain type of flower blooming at the time, and the orangutans really like to feed on the worms which were associated with the flowers, so they weren’t bothering to visit the feeding station.

Roger on the left and his competitor posing on the right, the rangers think in the next few years he will challenge Roger for dominance. Male orangutans develop the face flanges (big cheeks) as a sign of dominance.

It wasn’t just at the camps where we got to see them, we would sit on the bow of the vessel spotting wild orangutans moving through the forest, which was even more special. There is actually three species of Orangutan, the Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli (a small population was rediscovered in Sumatra in 2017!). The Bornean orangutans are the most numerous and Tanjung Puting is home to the largest population, with an estimated six thousand animals in 2008. However it is very difficult to accurately know how many there are, and large forest fires tore through the park in 2015 and no one knows how many were lost.

This mum that had two babies of different ages, this is extremely rare in orangutans. It is possible for them to have twins, but generally they will only take the strongest one as its too hard to raise two. However this mother must have found the other child in the forest and had adopted it, confident in her abilty to raise them!

Apart from the Proboscis monkeys and Orangutans, there are some other primate species you can see in the park. There is also Gibbons, lots of long tailed macaques and silver langurs. I was hoping to see gibbons but you need to be a bit lucky to meet them. Fun fact about gibbons, they are the only members of the ape family not classified as great apes, I reckon they look pretty great though… There is also ample opportunity to photograph the native birds of which there are many, including the world's largest species of Kingfisher.

Orangutan actually translates to ‘forest person’ and when you encounter them it is easy to see why, especially amongst the young ones - the babies behave just like human toddlers. Observing them in the wild made it even harder knowing about the sheer devastation of the species, it’s estimated before there was widespread deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra, there were once more than three hundred thousand wild orangutans. Now there is likely to be less than one hundred thousand across their ranges.

Baby orangutans will stay with their mothers for about 8 years and have been known to come back and visit their mother for the rest of their lives! This little guy was just gaining some independance and starting to explore.

If this sounds like a trip you’d be interested in, I highly recommend going with Mickey from Orangutan Journey. He has been working in the park for 11 years now and is really passionate about conserving its wildlife and providing sustainable eco tourism experiences, having Mickey as a guide made the whole trip easy and enjoyable - so we could focus on photographing the wildlife and relaxing. We did a 4d/3n cruise in January the quiet season and it was perfect, the easiest was to book is contact him on whatsapp: +628125072707 or instagram @orangutanjourney

This pair were the last orangutans we got to meet, the little boy is named Curious.

Any questions, get in touch!

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