I used to have posters of Orangutans in my dorm room during college. That’s the level of dorkiness we are dealing with here folks. So just imagine how it felt to finally see these incredible beautiful animals in their native habitat. I tear up just thinking about how lucky I am to have experienced this.
The Orangutan is an endangered species and a symbol of the problem of deforestation. Visiting them responsibly may be one way to help save the species. My once-in-a-lifetime kind of experience in Indonesian Borneo would be any nature enthusiast’s dream. I hope that if enough people learn about protecting and visiting these fragile ecosystems, maybe we can save them.
Please do extensive research on establishments where you can interact with animals prior to visiting these places. Do not look toward Trip Advisor for research as it promotes unethical places that are well-known for animal abuse. Never visit places where orangutans pose for photos with tourists or are used to entertain via boxing shows or the orangutans are dressed in human clothing. Avoid establishments where you are able to hold an infant orangutan or have hands-on interaction.
There should never be any hands-on interaction with orangutans when it comes to tourism. Orangutans share almost 97% of our DNA which makes them extremely susceptible to human disease. An orangutan can catch a common cold or flu which could kill them. Many orangutans in Indonesia have also unfortunately caught hepatitis B virus from humans.
Look at me here keeping a safe distance even though I so badly wanted to hug and squeeze them!
Your money is your power. Be a responsible tourist and do not support establishments that exploit animals for profit!
Orangutans inhabit the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. The Malaysian side of Borneo is more developed and easier to navigate. In the provinces of Sabah and Sarawak, there are opportunities to see them in the rainforest as well as in sanctuaries. My understanding is that Sarawak is the less expensive option. The Indonesian side is a bit more intrepid and harder to get to. This also means there are less tourists here.
For more information on the Malaysian side of Borneo, read this awesome post by WanderlustingK.
I went to Tanjung Puting National Park, which is 1600 square miles of roadless jungle as well as a UNESCO site that serves as a sanctuary. The closest airport is in a town called Pangkalan Bun. There are flights from Jakarta on either Kalstar Air or Trigana Air. If you are not Indonesian, you cannot use your credit card on their website. You must book through a ticket agent.
Once you arrive in Pangkalan Bun, it is a twenty-minute drive to the Port of Kumai. From there you can board your Klotok boat and it is about two hours by boat to the first station in the forest.
For more information about best places to see Orangutans click here.
I booked through Orangutan Days. I opted for the 3 day/2 night trip on a medium-sized Klotok. Klotok is the kind of boat used on the Sekonyer River here in Kalimantan and I presume it got the name from the distinctive sound that it makes. The only people on the boat were the captain, assistant captain, cook, guide and me!
My bed was on the top deck and at night they put a mosquito net over it and I felt like a river princess. The cook made three delicious meals per day plus snacks. It was incredibly peaceful and relaxing and I truly enjoyed every second.
They fed me WAY too well!
My guide Maita and I spent the time on the river spotting various wildlife and I was not disappointed. I watched proboscis monkeys and macaques playing in the trees. At sunset they congregated in the trees near the river for their bedtime where it is a bit cooler. I even saw a few brave ones swim across the river. Luckily none were eaten by crocs! They are good swimmers, even with a baby wrapped around their torso!
I saw kingfisher birds, huge monitor lizards and a glimpse of a crocodile. There are 220 species of bird, 17 reptile, 29 mammal including sun bears, civets, barking deer, and clouded leopards in this rainforest.
This was established in 1971 by Dr. Birute Galdikas and Rod Brindamour. Dr. Louis Leakey (any bio nerds like myself who know this name?) mentored Dr. Galdikas as well as Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey, to name a few animal superstars. Camp Leaky is the site of the longest continuous study by one principle investigator of any wild animal in the history of science. Very cool!
When walking through the forest, nothing stirs up your adrenaline like hearing the rustling of branches in the trees above. You feel your heartbeat increase as you squint, desperate for that flash of hairy orangeness swinging in the trees. Sometimes, as in the case with the large male, Carlos (pictured above), it seemed like King Kong was coming to get me as he got a bit close for comfort and I had to reluctantly run as opposed to continue filming! (that is on my video by the way)
This camp, and the others I visited, do research on the forest ecology, observing orangutans, spearheading reforestation projects, and have rehabilitated injured or ex-captive orangutans to return to the wild. The orangutans I saw on the feeding platforms are semi-wild since some are ex-captive. The younger ones were mostly born wild.
The feeding platforms serve multiple purposes. One is for tourists to see orangutans. Viewings are very controlled. People must be five meters away, quiet, and stay out of the animal’s way. I was happy to see that aside from a few annoying children, this was observed. The bananas that are offered help the orangutans during the season when there isn’t much fruit in the wild. The fewer animals that show up for feeding is considered a good sign for ecologists…a sign that they are happy and doing well in the wild. The platform is also a chance for female and male orangutans to meet. Unlike the other great apes (gorillas and chimpanzees), orangutans are solitary.
The experience is really best understood in my vlog. I can’t adequately describe the amazing sounds and sights. Due to length there are two parts. The second part has more of the really exciting orangutan encounters and I hope you watch! I really tried to document this experience well since it was so special and unique.
It is estimated that there are 41,000 orangutans left in Borneo. They are listed as endangered. There are only 7500 left in Sumatra, considered critically endangered. At one time there were 250,000 roaming the rainforests!
At least 2000 Orang Utan are killed each year via habitat destruction. Palm oil plantations and illegal logging are the prime causes. It is now illegal to keep an orangutan as a pet. There are laws against owning, killing capturing or harming, but that doesn’t seem to stop the Palm Oil companies.
One cannot speak of orangutans without speaking of palm oil. I will just briefly state a few facts.
Palm oil is a type of edible vegetable oil that is derived from the palm fruit, grown on the African oil palm tree. Oil palms are originally from Western Africa, but can flourish wherever heat and rainfall are abundant. Today Indonesia and Malaysia produce an export 85% of all palm oil globally. Palm oil can be present in a wide variety of products, including baked goods, confectionery, shampoo, cosmetics, cleaning agents, washing detergents and toothpaste. Sadly its production in tropical locations destroys the environment, has driven multiple species to the verge of extinction and has had terrible impact on the climate.
Orangutans are parasites to the palm oil industry. Some companies encourage locals and villagers to shoot them for rewards. Some locals even eat them. If nothing changes, species like the orangutan could become extinct in the wild within the next 5-10 years.
Read More about Palm Oil in my Huffington Post article: Why You Should Care About Palm Oil and Orangutans
Educate yourself and others. Don’t boycott all palm oil. Just boycott unsustainable palm oil. Palm oil is a high-yield vegetable oil, which means that anything replacing it will have to use more land. Deforestation could actually be worse! Better to get palm oil production ‘right’.
Look for these labels: RSPO or Green Palm. Most packaged products have labels containing their companies’ contact information. Call or write the company of your favorite product and urge them to use certified sustainable palm oil.
Thank god Oreos are on that list!
This website has more info as well as interactive version of company directory which includes tools that you can use to urge these companies to support the production of sustainable palm oil. Palm Oil Scorecard
I hope that responsible ecotourism counteracts all the harm being done by big companies. I can’t say enough good things about this adventure. Sleeping at night under the stars on the river with the sounds of cicadas and other critters all around was truly magical.