The Orangutan Project

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In 1991 Dr. P went on a research project studying orangutans in Borneo. If you like rice (for breakfast, lunch, and dinner that is), the jungle, and one of the most fascinating primates on the planet, this trip is for you!

For your camera techies the following photos were taken with a Minolta XG-M camera with either a 24-105 mm zoom lens or a 500 mm mirror lens.

The location has been in several National Geographic magazines, and has been the subject of numerous documentaries.

Orang-utan means “man of the forest”. Please note there is no “G” at the end of orangutan, although most people incorrectly pronounce the word as if there is one.

Borneo is the 3rd largest island in the world and is made up of three countries; Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei. Of the three, Indonesia by far makes up the largest segment (the orange area on the map below), and is called Kalimantan. The blue arrow on the map below denotes the location of the research project, called Tanjung Puting National Park. It is in a camp called Camp Leakey, named after the famous anthropologist Lewis Leakey.

Just getting to Borneo is an adventure in itself. From Los angeles you fly to Hawaii, then on to Sydney, and eventually to Jakarta. As you can imagine this takes several days.

To get to Borneo you have to go through Jakarta. It is teeming with people, and makes the LA freeway system look like amateur hour compared to the traffic in Jakarta. This picture was taken at the only time there was any space between us and the other vehicles on the road. The rest of the time it was literally bumper to bumper traffic anywhere you went.

Once in Jakarta you have to fly over the Java sea into Borneo to a town called Pangkalanbun. Here are a few of are group members on the puddle jumper that got us there.

This little town had a well stocked mini supermarket (Surya Kencana)

Guess what item we all craved after two weeks in the jungle- peanut butter. Luckily they had plenty in the store.

Pangkalanbun has a small hospital that houses baby orangutans that have been confiscated by the government from people who held them illegally.

Some of them were sick so Dr. P gave them exams (officially, this is the longest house call the Long Beach Animal Hospital has ever made!).

It is quite an experience to examine a group of inquisitive baby orangutans. Oh sure, its starts off OK, but that is just the calm before the storm…..

First thing you do is call in an assistant, to no avail of course……..

……so the next thing you do is call in another assistant. Lets see, there are 3 of us, and one of him, and you can guess who won!

We use the term “exam” loosely when describing this experience, because when you are finished you are not sure who examined whom!

After Pangkalanbun you start a two day journey upriver to your final destination called Camp Leakey. The boat you take is called a klotok. These men on the boat will be assisting us and running the camp. They are called dayaks, and actually grew up in the forest. As a matter of fact, they are ancestors of the headhunters of Borneo. They are intimately in tune with the jungle and have indispensable knowledge. Camp rules dictated that none of us volunteers were allowed to go into the jungle without them. Some of the most fun on the trip was teaching them American slang.

Dr. P couldn’t resist the view from the top as we puttered our way upstream for several days.

Some of the more fascinating aspects of the trip occur during this 2 day river ride. These are people who spend their lives along the river.

People that live along the river

Watching the jungle pass by and observing the wildlife in the trees and water makes the trip worthwhile all by itself. This is a proboscis monkey

As we got closer to our final destination the jungle became denser, and the water darker, from the decaying vegetation.

As you go deeper into the jungle the vegetation becomes impassable in some areas. On one occasion our boat driver had to dive under the boat to remove palm fronds that became wrapped around the propellor.

Half way through this two day trip you stop and go through the paperwork to get a permit to enter Tanjung Puting National Park. Consistent with Indonesian culture this may take one hour or several days! During this respite you stay at a place called Rimba camp and interact with the local tribes and animals. As you can see its easy to make new friends.

You meet some very interesting people to say the least.

Eventually you arrive at Camp Leakey and begin your work. There is a welcoming committee that meets you at the dock.

The dock into the camp is quite long. In the early years of Camp Leakey there was no dock and you had to walk through the swamp to unload.

Lets take a little tour of our luxury camp. It was pretty thoughtful of Ritz-Carlton to build a tourist hotel in the middle of the jungle for us.

This is our kitchen on the right and the dining room on the left.

As you can see our kitchen is well stocked with all the latest amenities. Guess what they are boiling the water for?

This is the bathroom on the left with our penthouse suites behind it.

We had 3 men and 9 women on our trip. The 3 men stayed downstairs and had plenty of room (and quiet).

The 9 ladies stayed upstairs. This is a picture of when they first arrived.

Same room 5 minutes after they unpacked their bags.

This is a muslim country, so all shoes come of when entering.

This interesting character “hung around” our quarters often. This is a white faced Gibbon. We would wake up to Gibbon’s hooting early in the AM. They looked cute, but we were emphatically warned not to attempt to touch them- they move like lightning and will bite visciously.

Evening meals were a social occasion. There were researchers from around the world studying primates in their native habitat. Of course you know by now what is inside the green bucket in the front of the photo.

A typical day started well before sun up. We would follow one of the dayaks into the jungle for a day of looking for wild orangutans. If we were lucky to find one we would follow it all day until nightfall, then go back the next morning before it awoke and continue our observations.

This dayak is leading the way over wooden planks out of the camp. They are a huge help during the rainy season when the water is do deep you cannot see where you are walking.

Orangutans spend almost all of their time in trees, so a large part of our day was spent with our necks in this lovely position

If we found an orangutan we made continual observations.

The jungle is hot and humid, and if we came across an orang we would put up our hammocks and observe in a more comfortable manner.

Ah finally, after all the traveling, we came across the animal that Dr. P wanted to see- a wild orangutan deep in the jungle of Borneo. In this case it is a juvenile male.

Dr. P made friends with Mr. Uil, probably the most knowledgeable man at the camp. He is a dayak that was literally born in the jungle. He married an American woman that came to volunteer at the camp years earlier.

He took Dr. P on a special tour of the jungle one day. We were in the thickest swamp in the area. Note the long sleeves and the gloves.

Mr. Uil picked up some leaves and called in some deer. They are called barking deer because they make a barking sound when alarmed. Amazing things in the jungle…..

I learned about insect eating plants……

……rubber trees……..

….and how to set a trap for a wild pig (just in case we ran out of rice!).

It was an awesome time to be in this jungle with an expert seeing and experiencing the flora and fauna of Borneo that Dr. P read about growing up. Can you guess why Mr. Uil has his socks pulled up over the outside of his pants?

Some of the best photographic opportunities occur around camp when orangutans that have been recently confiscated in Jakarta and Singapore, and released at camp Leakey, return once daily for a free meal of rice and milk. This was an important meal since they did not yet have the knowledge to meet all their nutritional needs on their own. The large males have this knowledge, and it takes time for these females to assimilate this information.

Feeding time was 4 PM, and the females would gather in the trees along the wooden dock in anticipation. You could get within a few feet of them for your photo’s.

When the food came they would quickly come down from the trees.

The feeding frenzy would start soon after…….

……this was the time to move in and start shooting!

Love that little one’s hairdo!

Most of the young ones would run in, stuff their faces, and run out.

Others had a different feeding technique…..

…while others gave us the universal gesture known round the world! I guess she wasn’t as thrilled with our appearance as the other orang’s.

Of course, any time you find females there will be males hanging around in the trees. Lets just say they aren’t there for the food. When several males congregate they sometimes fight. Fortunately the males ignored us.

On occasion one of them would come down from his perch and make an appearance.

When he started moving towards the food all of the other orangutans scrambled out of his way.

He would grab a small handful of rice and leave. He probably wasn’t hungry, just curious about which females were receptive to him.

Some of the smaller creatures found innovative ways to get to the rice!

A typical adult male will weigh 160#, but has the strength of many large men. Their arms are extremely powerful, and as you can see, and their hands are huge. When one of them grabs you it is like being in a vice grip. They could literally drag you into a tree and there is nothing you can do about it.

If one grabbed you it was necessary to bribe your way our of their grasp by giving them gum, or believe it or not, bar soap to chew on. Here is Dr. P paying the toll to get off the bridge.

Yup, they love soap, and will eat it for hours!

Some of the orangutans that hang around camp are very friendly and crave human companionship. Others put on a show, as you will soon see.

Everything you give them goes in their mouths…….

….. and comes out again several times.

Compare this humanoid’s arms and hands to this mature male orang’s. Now you can visualize how powerful they are.

As strong as they are they are intimidated by this small man who is in charge of the camp.

Those are Frosted Flakes in case you were wondering.

Hmmmm, wonder how they learned this one ……

…..and even harder to figure how they learned to play drunk!

We took a day off and went to an area that had been strip mined. You can see how much damage this does to the forest, and is the prime reason orangutans are highly endangered.

The area is totally devoid of trees. In Borneo trees are cut down for timber and mining. Even though we were in a protected area, there is lax enforcement and rampant corruption.

A small shanty town built up around the mine.

These children will spend most of their lives, if not all of their lives, in this environment.

In this mine they are looking for gold.

Notice the poor condition of their teeth. This is a major problem in most developing countries. Dentists, tooth brushing, and flossing, are alien concepts.

This is a merchant that makes his living selling goods to the miners. Again, notice his teeth.

He was quite friendly, and tried to sell us Schwarzenegger bags. Notice how he spelled Schwarzenegger

Our last day was quite heartwarming. The staff gave us a going away party. They felt honored we came as far as we did to literally give them paying jobs for 2 weeks, so many of them gave a small speech as a token of their appreciation.

Everyone showed up and patiently waited for the festivities to begin.

Even our cook gave a speech thanking us for coming to camp Leakey. Maybe one day we will see her on the Food Channel hosting a show called “Making Rice the Camp Leakey Way”. Did you notice the two National Geographic magazines on the wall? You saw them at the beginning of this presentation.

Time to bring out the presents. They gave each of us a hardwood spear that had a metal blade at the end and could also shoot darts. The airlines were thrilled when we brought them on board the plane home!

We spent the next several hours dancing to many local songs. The small man in front is in charge of the camp, and is the same man you saw earlier giving the huge male orang a cup of coffee. He weighs about 90 pounds, and all the orangutans run from him.

This young dayak played the guitar for us. Too bad he only new one song- Hey Jude. Do you know what it is like to listen to this song over and over for several hours?

The next morning before our return boat arrived they taught us how to use the spears to shoot arrows. We were not very good.

We say good bye to Tanjung Putin National Park and Camp Leakey with one last group photo.

To learn more about orangutans Dr. P gives community slide presentations on his trip. The slide show takes about an hour and is a fascinating arm-chair adventure. The pictures on this web site are only a small sample of the whole presentation. If you have a group located in the immediate Los angeles area that is interested in seeing this presentation, please contact him at the hospital. The number is (562) 434-9966.