I recently had the pleasure of accompanying a group of fantastic people into the Borneon jungle. The objective was to learn about and see orangutans in their natural habitat as well as experiencing something well out of my comfort zone.
The result was new friendships forged and a greater understanding of and appreciation for what NGOs, charities and not for profits are doing to help save the last vestiges of these equatorial ecosystems.
I'd been captivated by the plight of the orangutan since learning of the scourge of dirty palm oil and its effect on the planet. Of how pristine rainforests are being cleared at an alarming rate leaving the animals, communities and ecosystems reliant on them floundering. And for what? A creamy filling in a chocolate bar? A nice lather in your shampoo? You get the picture.
The palm oil can of worms made me wave my fists with rage and spout all manner of expletives... so I thought I needed to be more productive in my approach and gather more information in the process.
When this trip popped up on my facebook newsfeed, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to put my money where my mouth was and really get a proper understanding of the situation.
We were lucky enough to be joined by Leif Cocks of The Orangutan Project and Lorinda Jane of Palm Oil investigations, which really kicked the education component up to the next level.
The trip was organised by the charismatic Garry Sundin of Orangutan Odysseys, who was the consummate tour leader. He’s been working in the eco-tourism industry for about seven years and has so far raised about $800,000 for orangutan conservation. His right-hand-man Ozzy and local guides Ivend, Kris and Purwadi helped make the trip truly memorable.
Our group was a great mix of backgrounds and life experiences and we all had the common goal of wanting to help the orangutans in whatever way we could.
As an added bonus there were some keen photographers in the group, so our pooled photo album is really something to marvel at.
A component of the trip was to each raise $1000, which went directly to The Orangutan Project and, as a group we raised more than $16,000. We also donated veterinary supplies to International Animal Rescue and stationery for schools they work with.
But to really get an understanding of this trip, it’s best to read my travel diary, because we all know reading someone’s diary is the best way to get behind the curtain... so here it is. Enjoy!
Welcome to the Jungle
Bali to Borneo, Wednesday April 5
Today a series of three flights got us to Borneo. Security checks, transfers, baggage counts, passports in, passports out... All the while we’re getting to know each other better.
A three-hour wait at stop number two allowed us to hear the first of a series of talks from Leif.
He gave an eloquent introduction to orangutans and their plight, which barely scratched the surface of what is an enormous can of worms.
You see to save the orangutan you must save the forest, but to save the forest you must save the orangutan, and to do this you need money.
TOP works with other NGOs to buy up parcels of land and secure leases to ensure the forest remains intact, and with it everything beneath the canopy. This is an enormous task and one that requires a lot of diplomacy and money.
Leif would go on to give us several more talks during the trip on topics such as: the orangutan in the wild and their conservation, primate evolution, and evolution of consciousness and the theory of mind. Whoa!
We arrived in Pangkalan Bun, in Central Borneo, and went straight to the docks. Our driver was predictably insane. Note to self: stop sitting in the front seat!
We boarded the klotok and started chugging up the Sekonyer River, which is, astonishingly, given the level of pollution, home to marine life including crocodiles and dolphins.
Huge concrete bunkers that house enormous flocks of swifts line the river banks. They’re lured by the sound of their own song – that’s played on loop, loudly, 24/7 – to make nests so people can enjoy soup.
We veered to enter the Tanjung Puting National Park, on the left is private land, owned by palm oil companies, and to the right is national park. Both look the same at this point – nipah palms and brown water.
We began to see probosics monkeys and various birds and, eventually, a wild orangutan! Success!
That night we stayed at the extremely charming Rimba Lodge – a series of quaint huts connected by boardwalks and encased by the jungle.
After a dinner of delicate local flavours, Leif and Lorinda gave us a talk. Lorinda introduced herself and POI and explained how POI was born out of one horrific image of a burned orangutan. Lorinda’s reaction was first outrage and then action, lots of action. She embarked on a crash course of conservation education, learning about the complicated, convoluted and many-tiered beast that is palm oil and how its tentacles stretched from the plantations along the equator to shopping trolleys across the globe.
Leif explained that educating yourself on these issues is the most important thing you can do for conservation. Because a little bit of information is dangerous, but getting all the facts allows you to properly understand the situation and, hopefully, pass this on to others.
At this point I’ve realised just how little I know...
Up the river, Thursday April 6
Back on the boat and off to the first feeding station. Bananas were put on to the platform and park rangers called out to alert the orangutans. We stood quietly and patiently, scanning the canopy for signs of life. Then the jungle started to move and a hairy, orange being swung into view. It was almost indescribable the feeling of seeing such a majestic creature in its environment for the first time. The orangutan swung with ease, defying gravity at every turn, then made his way to the platform to grab some bananas. He quickly jammed six bananas into his mouth then rocketed up the tree to enjoy his loot.
Note: while I was not sure of this orangutan’s gender, to call him an ‘it’ seemed wrong. This was something Leif reiterated repeatedly with the group, the notion of personhood, which easily applied to these sentient beings.
Back to the boat, lunch, then on to Camp Leakey and more orangutans. Camp Leakey was established in 1971 by Dr Birute Galdikas as an orangutan research station. As such, there was plenty of information available about the local orangutans, but also more tourists vying for positions to view them.
We hit the primate jackpot here with about a dozen orangutans visiting the feeding platform. However, it was easy to see they were more familiar with humans as they had no problem walking through the crowd to get to the goodies. There were mothers and babies, adolescents and a handsome devil called Tom. With his characteristic facial pads and looming presence, Tom dominated the platform and ensured no other male would dare consider coming close.
Then enter stage left, a wild boar, which was part of the clean-up crew, hoovering up banana peels and loving every minute.
While this was entertaining, Leif reminded us this was not how truly wild oranguatans would behave. Indeed, while we were walking back to the boat we saw an adult oranguatan hanging out with the park rangers in their quarters, just like one of the group enjoying a tea break.
A note about the boardwalks: they were slippery, rotten and generally treacherous – pretty much the dodgy swing bridge out of every adventure movie ever.
Still up the river, Friday April 7
Onwards to Pesalat Plantation to lend our hands to the massive tree-planting effort that one man had basically taken on himself.
It’s quite the undertaking with intense heat, weed proportions of scrubby fern and rock-hard ground. He’s raising thousands of seedlings of all varieties with the strategy of first planting the fast-growing edibles to knock back the fern, then adding the slow-growing varieties such as ironbark. Ironbark in particular had been heavily logged or incinerated along with everything else in forest fires. I planted a sandalwood that I hope makes it.
That evening would be our last on the river and we marked it with fireflies... but only a few. Garry explained they used to light up the river but overuse of pesticides by the palm oil plantations meant their numbers had dwindled to a handful of lights. Hopefully this wasn’t prophetic of the plight of the rainforest and its inhabitants.
On dry land, Saturday April 8
Today we flew to Ketapang in West Kalimatan and, sadly, had to say goodbye to our wonderful guides.
From the vantage point of my window seat, the horror of deforestation was plain to see – like a disease spreading across the landscape. Where once there was forest was now palm, carved into uniform parcels with brown rivers snaking in between.
Dinner, which can’t go unmentioned, was at a local Italian restaurant with service that defied logic. Garry, sorry about losing my cool, but hanger is a powerful emotion.
Change of plans, Sunday April 9
Today we were meant to go on a trek through newly protected areas of the jungle. However, like many best laid plans, this one went awry. It turned out we weren’t allowed access because a memorandum of understanding between International Animal Rescue and the local indigenous community hadn’t been reached. But Garry, like a true champion, switched to plan B, which was to visit a palm oil plantation, or at least the entrance of one.
It was a rocky ride getting there, but well worth the whiplash. Lorinda gave us a quick talk about how palm oil is produced and its effect on the landscape.
In short it’s produced by backbreaking manual labour, which makes the palm oil companies the major employer in many local communities. Once harvested, the fruit has 24 hours to get to the mill for production before it starts to spoil. For this reason the mills must be located within 50km of the plantations.
It only grows along the equatorial belt, which is occupied by developing countries with little regard for their natural heritage.
As an ingredient it ticks a lot of boxes – versatile, solid at room temperature, relatively tasteless and odourless, and able to be processed into a myriad of other derivatives. Hence the demand is off the charts. But with demand comes dodgy practices such as slash and burn land clearing and encroachment, which is barely dealt with by the government or the toothless tiger known as the Roundtable of Sustainable Palm Oil.
International Animal Rescue, Monday April 10
Visiting the IAR centre was a sobering experience. This is where orphaned orangutans come to find refuge, if they’re lucky. It’s staffed by a dedicated team who, despite the horror they must’ve seen regularly, were so welcoming of us and extremely positive in their communication of how things run.
The centre is currently home to more than 100 orangutans of all ages that are mostly victims of the illegal pet trade. The end game is to release them back into the wild. However, this is both time consuming and labour intensive. It requires a massive co-ordinated effort to get one orangutan back into the wild, and they’re still not sure if those released will go on to successfully breed and raise their young.
When they’re not rescuing, rehabilitating, releasing and monitoring orangutans, the IAR is busy engaging with community groups, schools, mosques, indigenous communities, the government and, yes, palm oil companies. Because it’s educating and changing people’s perceptions that will ultimately stem the flow of orphans.
Hearing IAR 2IC and primatologist Gail Campbell-Smith speak about the centre’s function was inspiring. They are the definition of an essential service.
The centre is also home to some rescued slow lorises – also victims of the pet trade. Thanks to a Youtube video of one being tickled, they became one of the most heavily poached animals on the planet. They’re about the size of a possum and have the sweetest little faces, but because of their toxic bite their teeth are removed with pliers, which generally leads to abscesses and death but ensures they don’t bite their new ‘owners’. Because these rescued lorises were missing their canines, they could never be returned to the wild, so would be rehomed in a sanctuary.
After our guided tour of the centre we rolled up our sleeves to make some ‘enrichment’ for the baby orangutans. This involved pushing sunflower seeds into the soft centre of a banana tree trunk to simulate digging out termites, and sewing small bags together with a leaf, honey and sesame seed filling. It’s fair to say we enriched the bejesus out of those banana trunks and bags.
The final act was seeing the babies return from jungle school, which was by wheelbarrow of course. These tiny beings are simply gorgeous and, as Gail made a point of saying, they are also really cheeky. Much like human babies, they grasp on to everything and make a lot of noise, which made getting them back into their cages a challenge but excellent viewing. It was great to see those little hands make light work of the enrichment we’d made earlier.
For an orangutan to become a pet, its mother must be killed, because there’s no way she would let go of her baby. That barrow of little faces was certainly cute, but hid the grim reality of dead mothers and the dead babies that didn’t make it.
By the end of the trip, my mind was officially blown but I left feeling somewhat hopeful there was something that I, a keyboard warrior from the burbs, could do to help.
You see during the lead up to the trip I was asked on many occasions what prompted me to sign up. In truth, I wasn’t entirely sure, but I knew I wanted to turn my anger and inertia into something resembling action and I was hoping this trip would provide the journey.
I wanted to know how you could help orangutans and the environment without a background in conservation or zoology, or any ‘ology’ for that matter.
Thanks to the organised talks and many impromptu chats I may have found my answer.
I learned we all have a skill to contribute, whether it be raising funds, raising awareness, volunteering on the ground or from your computer. There is something that everyone can do - you just need to figure it out.
Would I do this again? Absolutely! And I’d encourage anyone with the that flicker of wanting to help to do the same. Yes it was hot, at times uncomfortable and rice for breakfast was too much rice for me... but but what an experience it was.
Thank you to everyone involved - I am truly inspired.
For more information and to donate visit
And make sure you check out www.orangutanodysseys.com if you’re keen for an adventure of your own.