Month: November 2012

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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Tom (the king)

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Tom is the orangutan that displaced Kusasi, the reigning king for many years. Kusasi has quite a story about how he overcame adversity and had the personality needed to be the dominant male. Rumor has it that Doyak is displacing Tom, which is the natural course of mature orangutan males.

We did not expect to encounter Tom the way we did. We had seen other dominant males, notably Yani and Doyak, as we spent time at the feeding platforms and they appeared for a snack. Tom appeared when I was on my second klotok ride and looking at the building I stayed at on my first visit to Borneo 21 years ago. As we were leaving to go back to our klotok a determined Tom appeared and headed right for us.

Our alert guide warned us to move rapidly away because we are in his territory and he considers strangers like us a threat. One look at Tom’s arms and shoulders and I decided our guide was giving good advice. After seeing just how strong those baby orangutans were at the Care and Rehabilitation Center it didn’t take much to realize none of us were a match for him. Couldn’t resist taking photos of him though as I rapidly walked backwards and stayed out of Tom’s way.

Our timing was perfect because he appeared just as we were leaving. I did not notice him because I was looking the wrong direction, and turned around to quickly take this photo as our guide warned us of Tom’s presence and told us to get moving.

He is not fast moving (as long as he just walks) so I was able to keep on shooting as I walked backwards

His arms are huge!

Tom finally stopped pursuing us when he smelled food from the kitchen where the park rangers eat

Our last shot of Tom when we walked past him as he settled down and made sure we left his territory

This movie shows Tom walking towards us. Focus is not good because I was concentrating more on my footing, but you will get the idea.

TomWalking

He stopped by a building to peek inside which gave me time to set the focus this time

TomKitchen

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Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine

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The orangutans at the care center range from babies to adults, and are here for a multitude of reasons. Some have chronic disease and will not survive in the wild. Others are young orphans and need a place to call home in the denuded rain forest. 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.

These babies are oh so cute, and act like human children. They are so similar to us that in your mind you easily mix them up and think you are dealing with homo sapiens and not pongo pygmaeus. Looking into their eyes you get a fascinating insight into our evolution. It takes time to absorb the fact you are looking at a common ancestor that goes back millions of years. Your mind reels with the profound implications in all of this.

When you view this page you better appreciate what it is like trying to take photos with one hand, while these babies are trying to jump on you, search every part of your body for peanuts, or grabbing your camera strap and trying to drag your camera into the forest.

Do not go through this page without clicking on these pictures to see larger versions!

The local people that work at the Care Center are the unsung heroes. Here a just a few of them showing their dedication

The volunteers are just as dedicated and devote at least 6 months of their time without any pay


After a busy day we spent social time with them learning Indonesian and appreciating their warmth and dedication to their cause

The babies are taken out into the jungle around the Care Center to socialize and gain strength and coordination as they play in the jungle gym and climb trees. This time spent with them while playing could easily be the highlight of the trip, so I will show you lots of pictures and include a few short videos at the end.

There are several ways to get the babies the jungle gym and forest. Some hitch a ride on your back…..

…..while others jump on the red bus and get wheeled there. They sit peacefully knowing that soon they will get their chance to act their age!

As long as they sit still it easy to balance the wheel barrel. When they start wiggling its tough not to tip over because they are heavier than they look

If you make it this far without tipping them you are almost there

Once they arrive its a definite free-for-all at the jungle gym

Upon arrival some hang around the gym area

Others prefer to play in the trees

Some decide you are more fun than a tree so they jump into your lap or pull at your pants until you play with them

While the others played this little guy named Turbo sat by himself seeming to pout and decided to put this bag on his head. Turbo is surrounded by caretakers at all times to make sure the bag stays only on top of his head.

He just sat there sucking his hand

It took a while but eventually I was able to touch his hand

Now that we were friends he moved the bag slightly off his head and took the peanut I offered

He gently chewed it with his prehensile lips

No self respecting orangutan is going to eat just one peanut, so he asked for another

It started to rain, so with the peanut still in his mouth he decided to utilize my umbrella. I could barely take these photos I was laughing so hard!

He pulled the umbrella completely over his head….

…and looked skyward until it stopped raining.

I had to bribe him with another peanut to get my umbrella back

When the rain stopped he decided that the salty peanuts made him thirsty so he asked for a drink

Brodie’s dedication to working with Turbo every afternoon paid off, because after these photos were taken Turbo started interacting with the other babies a little more- yea Brodie!

If you want to see a few short videos that show some of this in action here is your chance to be entertained like we were with these babies.

Peanut eating time

EatingPeanut

 Wes walking with me to the jungle gym

WesWalking

Its not easy to film them with one hand while fending off attacks with the other

Babyattack

If you have any peanuts on your possession they will look everywhere (and I mean everywhere) to find them

Peanutsearch

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Feeding Stations

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 Time to eat!

When going up the Sekonyer river to Camp Leakey you pass several feeding stations where the semi-wild orangutans are fed twice daily. Once the large and dominant males like Doyak, who eat first, leave the feeding station the other orangutans, pigs, squirrels, and gibbons move in for their feast. They are not afraid of you and offer some great photographic opportunities.

The guides start calling the orangutans as the rangers bring in the food

This is Doyak showing who is the boss and taking his time while the others wait. Click on his photos to see more of him

The other orangs patiently wait in the trees until he leaves

Then its their turn!

They have various styles on how they obtain and eat their food

They stuff their mouths with bananas and eat them in the trees

Gibbons commonly make an appearance at the feeding station. Their phenomenal speed as they swing through the trees, jump on the feeding platform, and then escape back to the trees, tests the skills of any wildlife photographer.

They hang in the trees waiting for just the right time

You never know when they are going to jump from the trees onto the feeding platform, so your next shot is of them already eating on the feeding platform

Once they give you the stink eye you know they will be off any second, so now is your big chance.

Within the next 1-2 seconds they have run to the end of the platform and are landing in a nearby tree

These two short movies gives you a feel for how fast a gibbon can move through the trees. This method of locomotion is called brachiation, and the gibbon does it the best of all the primates.

In this first movie the gibbon is brachiating through the trees:

GibbonBrachiating

In this second movie it is jumping on to the feeding platform, scaring the orangutan for a second, ignoring the park ranger, and then jumping back into a tree and climbing it with one hand loaded with bananas. You can hear the guides calling the orangutans in the background.

GibbonJumping

Once the orangs are done feeding they are quite relaxed and let us approach them, including the females with young

When the coast is clear and everyone has gone the squirrels move in.

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Camp Leakey

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Much has changed in Camp Leakey since my last trip. This is not surprising due to the decades that have passed, the major changes in the rainforest, and the tremendous pressure put on the environment by the logging industry and palm oil plantations.

If you haven’t already checked out the web page on my 1991 trip now is the time to do it for comparison purposes.

A side view of where 12 of us stayed in 1991.The bathroom is in the distance at middle of the picture, the entrance is to the right of the bathroom.

When you first arrive you might find this guy “hanging around” the kitchen. Any idea what it is?

Its a gibbon, the most acrobatic primate in this rainforest

A stop at the visitors center is a must to see the rich history of the area and to understand the challenge faced in trying to save the rain forest and its creatures

Its possible to encounter an orangutan at any time when walking around Camp Leakey. Your guide knows every orangutan by name, and will be with you at all times.  The orangutans are relaxed when the guides are present and will walk right by you.

If you encounter a dominant male like this little guy (his name is Tom) you give them wide berth. Click on his picture to get an idea of how large his shoulders and arms are.

To get to the feeding station you walk through the jungle. The ironwood boards are there to help navigate the terrain during the rainy season when you might not be able to see the ground (not a good time to go).

Along the way you encounter interesting vegetation. You need to be careful what you touch because some of the plants cause a bad rash, yet do not bother the native dayaks. The biggest danger in this jungle is not the animals, its the risk of falling tree branches hitting you.

These are pitcher plants (insect eating) just after a rain

The black sap we are pointing to is from the rengas tree and is highly irritating to our skin

The nutrients do not go deep into the soil, so the roots of the large trees establish their footing by going more lateral

The root system can be extensive and go across the path

Its a rainforest so there are fungi aplenty

Camp Leakey (and the other feeding stations) is a popular attraction, so be prepared to be around visitors from all over the world. This European family was traveling together in one klotok.

 Their mandatory guide is the dark haired man at the right

It is hot and humid, and even though you walk at an easy pace you need to stay replenished. Your guide will carry a backpack filled with bottled water.

At the feeding stations (Leakey, Tanguii, and Ambung) the semi-wild orangutans (those that were in captivity and have been released back into the wild but still hang around) are given nutrition. This is important because the forest is changing and they need help to survive.

The orangutans and various other freeloaders are fed milk, bananas, and pineapples in the morning and the afternoon. The park rangers carry this heavy load in a backpack as the orangutans start congregating. Once they see him its a free-for-all, unless the dominant male is around.

Click here to see lots of close up photos of orangutans, gibbons (and other critters), at all the feeding stations including Camp Leakey

This dominant male, named Doyak, usually arrives on the ground in contrast to all the other orangutans. When the sun hits him you can see how red he is. Click on his picture to get a better feel of how large he is.

He climbs on the feeding platform and lets it be know to all the other orangutans that are in the trees watching that he is the boss

Doyak put on quite a show of dominance. Click here to see him in action.

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