Orangutans of Borneo

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On a trip like this you can spend countless hours watching our early ancestors in their daily routine. In Tanjung Puting NP the wild orangutans are given food daily at feeding stations. This gives you a golden opportunity to observe their behavior. In this video you get to meet Doyak, the dominant male in this area. Keep in mind you are seeing him at his more “docile moment”, and you need to stay away just in case you cross that invisible line where he feels threatened. He has the strength of 8 men in case you decide to challenge him. You will learn more about Doyak later in this page.


My first trip to Borneo was in 1991, working with Dr. Galdikas at Camp Leakey. This trip is already chronicled on this web site. At that time I never dreamed I would go back, but in October of 2012 Dr. Galdikas gave me and my three travel companions permission to work with the orangutans at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine.

This center is closed to the general public, so it was a special treat to be able to go there and help out as a volunteer and veterinarian. On this October trip I spent a significant amount of my time photographing and documenting the work done by the dedicated workers and volunteers at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine, along with the orangutans at the feeding stations on the way to Camp Leakey.

My goal is to illustrate the plight of the highly endangered orangutans and show how you can help in this time of tremendous need to save one of the great apes from extinction. Click on any photo to see it in much higher resolution. Only then will you get the full impact of these intelligent and beautiful primates, along with the beauty of the rainforest. A primary problem is the tremendous pressure put on the rainforest habitat by the palm oil and timber industries in Indonesia.

The rainforest is being depleted at an alarming rate, and without this habitat the orangutans are doomed. Before you continue on this page that gives details of my trip, and the work I did with my fellow travel companions at the Care Center, you need to learn much more about this problem and how you can help.

The Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine cares and feeds over 340 orangutans on a daily basis, and does this solely through donations. Everyone can help by donating money to Orangutan Foundation International. In addition to the tremendous cost of caring for and feeding the orangutans at the Care Center, money is needed to protect and restore critical habitat. You can learn how you can help by reading more about the Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest. All of this information can be found at the  Orangutan Foundation International web site.

Present day Borneo

Borneo, the 3rd largest island in the world, is made up of 3 countries; Brunei, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Indonesia is the largest of these 3 countries. The Indonesian part of Borneo is also known as Kalimantan. Borneo is on the equator, so there are no seasons like we are used to (except rainy and rainier), and it is hot and humid all the time.

I sometimes get blank stares when I tell people I went to Borneo. Here is a big picture map for the geographically challenged!

This map shows the 3 countries that make up Borneo. The green arrow points to Tanjung Puting National Park,  where we spent all of our time

We were in the southern part of Kalimantan near a town called Pangalan Bun. We stayed with a Dayak family just outside of Pangalan Bun in a smaller town called Pasir Panjang. We stayed here because it was across the street from the Orangutan Rehabilitation and Care Center and we could literally walk there in 5 minutes.

This map shows more details of the area and Tanjung Puting National Park:

From Jakarta we flew into Pangalan Bun (you can see the airport symbol).

We stayed at a house in Pasir Panjang (PP on the map) for 2 weeks

I took 2 boat rides up the Sekonyer river, past 2 Feeding Stations (FS) and all the way to Camp Leakey (CL)

In Borneo you will encounter many Dayaks, people that have a profound understanding of the rainforest. All are exceptionally friendly. When walking down any street they will shoot past on their scooters (sometimes a family of 4 is on one of these scooters) and yell “hey mister”. It does not matter whether you are male or female, everyone gets the “hey mister” scoot-by.

Some things in Borneo are a constant over the decades:

  • You better like rice because it is served at almost every meal
  • You will be barefoot when indoors (and most of the time in general) because all shoes are kept outside
  • It is hot and humid all the time, so plan on being wet or damp continuously. Your body will start adjusting within a few weeks, although it is draining, and you will move slower just like the local people.
  • Its better to be there in the dry season (late spring to early fall) because there are less mosquitoes, less leeches, and less water to slosh around in when walking in the jungle. On my current trip there was a drought during the summer so we encountered few mosquitoes, which means less chance of exposure to malaria.
  • You are on the equator, so bugs will be a part of your life. They are a fascinating part of life on this planet if you are not squeamish. Do not go to the equator if you find insects icky.

This praying mantis found our fan a convenient place to hang out one night

  • Scooters are the mode of transportation. They drive on the left, although they are reasonably conservative drivers, far removed from drivers in Naples, Italy, where driving is a high speed video game.
  • Fuel is rationed due to a lack of refining capacity, so lines at gas stations are long and it can take up to 2 hours to fill a small scooter tank.
  • Prices are very inexpensive compared to what we are used to. An hour at an Internet café when we tried to reschedule our flights cost only 40 cents. The room at Pak Sia’s house, which included 3 meals per day, was $100 per person for 2 weeks.
Rupiahs are the local currency. This 50,000 rupiah note is worth a little over $5 US.  To get the best rate exchange your money at the airport in Jakarta.

Pasir Panjing is populated mostly by Dayaks, almost all of whom are related. Whenever any community event is involved everyone is invited, including us. In our 2 weeks we went to two going-away parties and one wedding. Children can walk the dark streets at night without any concern.

We stayed at Pak Sia’s house in Pasir Panjing and were welcomed like we were family. He welcomed us with refreshments upon our arrival.

His family provides room and board for volunteers that work at the Care Center across the street. These are usually young students or young conservationists, and they pay for this on their own.

His knowledge of the area and the orangutans (he can look at a picture of any orangutan from decades ago and tell you its name) is impressive.

This extensive page has many photos broken down into several major summary sections. Within each of these major sections are links to much more detail on that section:

  • Do you really want to fly this far?– the logistics of getting in and out of Borneo
  • Klotok ride upriver– taking a boat into the rainforest and seeing the wildlife along the way while visiting feeding stations. This section has a special link on the proboscis monkeys and the gibbons, two other primates in the area.
  • Camp Leakey– the final destination on the klotok ride. This is where Dr. Galdikas did her seminal work starting in the 1970’s, and where I spent all of my time over 2 decades ago
  • Doyak and Tom– the dominant males that hang around (pun intended) the feeding area
  • The orangutan care centre and quarantine– this will give you an idea of the tremendous care given to the orphans and other orangutans. Do not miss this section because of the babies!

This time I brought professional digital camera equipment that was not available in 1991. For you photography fans here are my tools:

  • Canon 5D Mark III- used for most of the static photos, especially the babies at the Care Center and some of the orangs at the feeding stations
  • Canon 1DX- used on the klotok ride upriver, the feeding stations,  and any time I anticipated action shots
  • Canon 24-105 mm f/4 IS lens- used mostly with the 5D Mark III and mostly at the Care Center and somewhat at the feeding stations
  • Canon 70-200 mm f/4 IS lens- used mostly with the 1DX at the feeding stations and on the klotok shooting wildlife along the river
  • Canon 100 mm f/2.8 IS macro with ring flash- used mostly with the 5D Mark III for portrait and insect shots
  • Canon 400 mm f/5.6 lens- used only on occasion and with both cameras to shoot wildlife
  • Canon 1.4X teleconverter- used on the 70-200 mm f/4 IS with the 1Dx on the klotok rides

Do you really want to fly this far?

Getting there is an adventure in itself.  Borneo is over halfway around the world from California. This is the second time I have flown Cathay Pacific and I find them to be outstanding. The flight leaves Los Angeles at 1:30 AM and arrives in Hong Kong 14 hours later (don’t forget you cross the international date line and lose a day).

Even though it is midnight, the anticipation of our upcoming trip has us smiling for this photo. From left to right my travel companions are Jade Chang, Ann Ichikawa, and Natalie Hipskind.

The airport in Hong Kong is beautiful, busy, modern, and filled with high end perfume and clothing stores. When you arrive you walk past a nurse with a surgical mask holding a thermometer. She is there to take your temperature if you want. Interesting custom to say the least. After a 3 hour layover in Hong Kong its another 5 hour flight to Jakarta. We spent the night at the Sheraton in Jakarta before continuing on to Borneo and Pangalan Bun the next day.

We had an interesting time finding the gate to our flight from Jakarta to Pangala Bun then next day. We had an even more substantial problem when our flight back 2 weeks later was cancelled. For more details on this and to understand how crazy things can get in Borneo click on this link.

Klotok ride upriver

Even though we stayed  at Pak Sia’s house directly across the street from the Care Center, we did not go to the Care Center for 5 days due to quarantine protocols. We took advantage of the time and took a 3 day klotok ride up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey (I took a second klotok ride a week later). This camp is where I spent all of my time when I was last here 21 years ago to the month.

Taking a klotok upriver is the usual trip for most tourists to watch the semi-wild orangutans being fed and see the wildlife along the river. Many tourists from all over the world take the klotoks up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey. Even though it is touristy, the 2 night 3 day trip is worth it, and a must see for any trip to Borneo.

My klotok in 1991 as we left the port of Kumai and approached the Sekonyer river mouth

The current ones are bigger and nicer

The engine room of the Klotok, with its twin 1,000 horsepower Detroit Diesel engines

 The wildlife along the Sekonyer river are elusive and move very rapidly. I had to be in front, on the alert, and ready to shoot, to be able to capture the photos you will see on this page.

An interesting animal we saw along the river was the proboscis monkey

Beautiful bird life abounds along the river, including this stork-billed kingfisher

You might even get to pull the tail of a long-tailed macaque as you motor slowly by in the klotok

This is your first chance to see a semi-wild orangutan

When an orangutan approaches keep an eye on your possessions because their philosophy is “your possessions are for the taking”

As the sun sets you get your chance to see the flying foxes (huge bats) and even get a firefly show

Click here to see more details of life aboard a klotok and wildlife along the Sekonyer

Camp Leakey

In 1991 I spent all of my time at Camp Leakey and did not go to the Care Center. Much has changed since then, and even though research is ongoing, it is geared more towards ecotourism. It is quite popular for tourists to watch a feeding put on by the park service at the feeding stations. Put this on your bucket list because it will give you a firsthand look at what is going on in the rainforest, and some of the proceeds help the orangutans. This trip is ideal for children, and will educate the upcoming generation as to the value of the rainforest and all of its inhabitants.

That bridge in the distance is the current entrance to Camp Leakey

Camp Leakey is popular, and if you do not get there early you might end up in a klotok jam!

The welcoming committee on the dock at Camp Leakey in 1991

This time we were welcomed with a big smile

Keep an eye on those guys in the hairy red outfits- they are sneaky!  Oh sure, they look innocent hanging on to a tree and pretending not to notice you

They wait patiently, and when you are distracted they put their plan in motion

How cute you think, and you look for your camera to take a picture. That’s the break they are looking for! While you are looking for your camera they make their move….

…..and scope out where the pineapples are stashed

They are career thieves, and the getaway only takes a few seconds

Another group of of sucker tourists robbed by the “pineapple connection”

After all the planning, anticipating, flying, and a few klotok rides, we made it to Camp Leakey!

Click here to see lots more of Camp Leakey and the orangutans that are there

Doyak and Tom

Over the course of 2 klotok rides I encountered the 3 dominant (and rival) males in the area; Yani, Tom, and Doyak. We spent the most time with Doyak at a feeding station, although we had an encounter with Tom who decided he did not want us in his territory. We saw Yani as we walked past him while he shook a branch at us in defiance. Our guides are familiar with all of the orangutans and creatures, and give you a family-safe firsthand encounter with them in the rainforest at all the feeding stations.

This is Doyak.  Click on his photo below to see him in action at the feeding station

Tom is below, click on his picture for more pictures, and also a video of him escorting us out of Camp Leakey

Orangutan Care Centre and Quarantine

The orangutans at the care center range from young to old, and are here for a multitude of reasons. Some have chronic disease and will not survive in the wild. Others are orphans and need a place to call home in the deforested rainforest. Many are only a few years of age. Their mothers were killed because they wandered into the wrong area (usually a palm oil plantation), or their mothers were killed because some citizen wanted a baby orangutan in their house (which is illegal). When this baby is discovered (usually a neighbor rats them out) it is confiscated by the authorities and brought to the care center. The Care Center is not open to the general public.

Some of the babies here are so young they are still in diapers.

The dedicated workers know each one by name and individual personality

They are taken into the forest often to practice their orangutan skills and hopefully be released back into the rainforest

Getting them into the forest is the fun part (Its fun til you have to pick them up and move this load)

They play for hours, socializing with each other and gaining important skills in the trees

When they are not playing they come right up to you and see where you are hiding the peanuts

This is also where they hone their robbery skills for when they graduate to stealing pineapples. At this stage in their career they start with water bottles. A water bottle is never safe around them, no matter how secure it is in your backpack. They consider any of your possessions to be theirs-you have been warned!

They don’t want to drink the water, they want the pleasure of bursting it open in front of you

The goal of this game is to tease you into thinking you can get the bottle back

You better be good a good tree climber if you want your bottle back

They have strong clinging instincts and are quite powerful for their size when they don’t want to let go. This one was just bottle fed and decided she was not going to let me get away.

Its an understatement to say that working with these babies is an unbelievable experience

The above picture reminds me of one from my first trip

If you are ready for lots more baby pictures, including videos of them in full baby modeclick here and hang on to your possessions.

All good things must come to an end

Hopefully we will all meet up again some time!

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