Camp Leakey and Kalimantan Orangutans (Part 2 of 3)

In this article, we continue our journey with writer Simon Pridmore into Kalimantan's remote Tanjung Puting National Park. Traveling by kelotok, a two-story riverboat, we move past an area of Dutch Monkeys and turn our attention to a much larger primate.

Camp Leakey, the oldest of the orangutan camps, is a faded echo of the past. It traces its roots to 1941 when Louis Leakey dispatched three researchers to different parts of the globe to study the 'three great apes' with the hope of obtaining insights about the behaviour of our human ancestors. Dian Fossey studied gorillas in Rwanda, Jane Goodall went to Tanzania to observe chimpanzees and Birute Galdikas came to Tanjung Puting in Borneo to work with orangutans.

Unlike the time of “Leakey's Angels”, Camp Leakey today is focused on tourism rather than research. Tourist fees, we're told, fund the local police who are tasked with protecting the park, but funds are not spent on the park itself. NGOs meanwhile tend to the park staff.

The lack of funding is visible in the state of the Information Centre and the antiquity of the faded yellow notices around the Camp Headquarters. In the Information Centre library, piles of ancient magazines lie in a corner covered with a thick layer of dust. An unconnected TV and video-recorder sit uselessly on a plinth in front of rows of school chairs. There are no staff and no donations box. You push open the door, its rusty lock hanging loose, and search around the dim, unlit interior like a survivor in a post-apocalyptic movie looking for abandoned traces of a previous civilisation.

Male orangutans are loners. They rumble and howl as they move through the jungle to warn other orangutans to stay out of their way.

Male orangutans are loners. They rumble and howl as they move through the jungle to warn other orangutans to stay out of their way.

Photographs on the wall identify the orangutans who passed through Camp Leakey when it was a rescue centre and who now live in the forest in a state of semi-independence. Outside, here and there, are

traces of previous activity: a huge climbing frame that belongs in a giants’ playground and a massive cage from the days when recovered orangutans would be delivered to this halfway house on their journey back to the wild.

Today, rescue centres elsewhere in Kalimantan perform this function. We question the dilapidated state of the facilities and suggest that, such is the public fascination with orangutans, surely, enthusiasts could be found to work here for nothing. But we are told volunteers are no longer permitted to work in Tanjung Puting. No one can tell us why, though.

"Orang-utan" is a Malay term, meaning "person of the forest". A close relative of humans - sharing 98% of our DNA - orangutans live in Sumatra and Borneo.

A feeding station lies about 2 kilometres away along a well-beaten track. A platform is laden with bananas and, at a fixed time of the day, visitors assemble behind a length of rope strung out between two trees a few metres away. After a few minutes, the tall trees around the platform start to shake and rustle and a number of orangutans appear, swinging and clambering lazily through the forest canopy towards the platform. Other orangutans can be seen up above us, just sitting and watching.

Some orangutans grab bunches of bananas, then retreat back up into the trees to eat them. Others stay on the platform peeling the fruit with their teeth and lips, discarding the skins, and stuffing as many as possible into their mouths at a time before masticating them all together into a pulpy mash.

White-cheeked gibbons live in the branches of the jungle, almost never coming down to the ground.

There are a number of other animals - like long-tailed macaques, wild boar, gibbons and large monitor lizards - that can be easily spotted in the vicinity, especially towards the end of the day when it gets a little cooler. The forest is also raucous with cicadas throughout the day and alive with butterflies in glorious colours that flit among the trees in the dappled sunlight, reminiscent of small fish darting over a coral reef.

Back on our houseboat, we enjoy our first showers of the trip. There is a basic but clean and adequate bathroom at the stern of the kelotok. The boat does not carry supplies of fresh water, except for cooking and drinking, so the shower runs via a small generator and pump that takes water from the river. The previous night, when we were still on the Sekonyer, the water is too polluted for showering, but here, in the small streams of the park, the water is clean and safe to use.

The days follow a pattern of eating, relaxing, chatting and watching the river go by, interspersed by short walks through the forest to isolated feeding stations to see the orangutans at specific times of the day.

A slow boat trip through Tanjung Puting provides a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the natural beauty of the Borneo forest and watch the behaviour of the primates that inhabit it

On our second evening we moor at the jetty of an abandoned proboscis monkey research station. Across the river a tribe of macaques also settles in for the night in the topmost branches of trees overhanging the water. Our guide Ambo tells us that they are inveterate thieves, so we make sure our belongings are stowed safely away before blowing out the candles and tucking in behind our nets.

On the final evening we moor near a bank of nipah palms alive with fireflies, a colony of tiny flashing beetles winking on and off like Christmas lights.

Related Articles

"Kalimantan Primates: Visiting Kalimantan's Tanjong Puting National Park" (Part 1)

"Tanjung Puting National Park's Environmental Impact" (Part 3)

Photo Credits:  Simon Pridmore