Happy International Orangutan Day! This year’s International Orangutan Day feels like the perfect opportunity to journey back to my experience of a lifetime living in the tropical peat-swamp forest of Indonesian Borneo. The remarkable and remote island of Borneo is home to over 15000 species of plant and an incredible array of animal life including 420 named bird species and around 222 mammals. Undoubtedly the most iconic of these is the Bornean orangutan.
It has always been a dream of mine to visit a rainforest one day. From learning about the different layers of the rainforest at primary school to marvelling at the swinging gibbons at the zoo. Even movies like Tarzan and George of the Jungle were always childhood favourites. But the dream always seemed so far away.
However, once I started studying conservation biology at university, I began to realise that I could make that dream a reality. After chatting with one of my lecturers in my first year about his research in the Bornean rainforest, I remember thinking how amazing it would be if I could go there one day. Fast forward 2 years and I’d bagged myself a spot on a 6 week volunteering expedition in Indonesian Borneo with the Orangutan Tropical Peatland Project (now known as Borneo Nature Foundation or BNF).
The journey to the Sabangau forest was almost as exciting as the destination itself. A sketchy plane that landed in a tiny airport. A night’s stay in a sweaty motel that had more geckos than guests. A ride in the back of a “bemo” which is like a hollowed out van with benches in the back. A wooden canoe big enough for 4 volunteers and one Indonesian man who rowed us away from a small village where children smiled and waved and swam in the waters around us. At the other end of the swamp, we were greeted by a wooden pier and a rainbow over the still water. The final part of the journey was a rickety wooden railway with two carriages big enough for half a dozen people. The diesel-powered train sped over swamp waters and through rushes into the tall trees of the forest.
We were all excited to begin our adventure into the jungle but our first afternoon was spent at camp settling in. At first, the idea of sleeping on a mat under a mosquito net and showering with a bucket of cold water seemed a bit daunting but quickly these things became the norm and the huts on stilts above the swamp became home.
It turns out we didn’t have to venture far to see our first wild orangutan. A couple of hours after we arrived there was an excited hush of voices coming from a group of staff and volunteers at the back of the camp. I ran over quickly and quietly to join them and right above us in the tree was an orangutan!
Her brilliant orange hair offered a stark contrast to the surrounding green leaves of the trees. I was so amazed by how calm she was even though she was clearly aware of our presence. I admired her facial features and expressions and thought how similar she looked to us. It wasn’t long before she moved on. We followed her a little way up the boardwalk but as she moved away from us into the tangle of trees it would have been impossible to keep up with her.
The boardwalks offer easy access into the forest over the swamp but as soon as you stray from the boardwalks the jungle becomes an obstacle course of aerial roots, swinging lianas, dense trees and orange peat-swamp water. But watching as the orangutan moved through the trees with such ease it was clear that this forest was their territory and their home.
Each day after that was an exciting adventure into the rainforest. Most of my days were spent supporting the BNF team examining the effects of logging on forest recovery. Even though I was measuring trees, I still came across heaps of cool animals including bright coloured insects, several snakes and occasionally a noisy group of gibbons.
I also got the opportunity to help out on other projects including orangutan behavioural studies. The team at BNF have information on the orangutans that live in the area. Orangutans build a new nest each night to sleep in so each day a team would get the GPS coordinates of the nest built the night before and set off early in the morning to find the orangutans (usually a mother and infant) before they moved on. The team would follow them all day recording their behaviour until the orangutans set up for the night. However if the researchers wanted to observe some orangutans that they hadn’t seen for a while, it was a case of walking the rainforest and searching the canopy whilst listening for the sound of moving trees.
One day a team of us were watching an orangutan, her older daughter and her infant. We couldn’t believe our luck when they met up with another mother and baby orangutan! We watched as the mothers munched on leaves while the little ones played. The second family left before sundown then we watched in amazement as the mother pulled the tops of two trees together to build a nest for the night.
The most exciting moments were when we saw orangutans when we weren’t expecting to. One afternoon I was assisting on a squirrel project. We didn’t see any squirrels that day but we were delighted when the rustling in the trees turned out to be Indie and Icarus, a mother and baby orangutan.
Another day on a walk back to camp I spotted something further up the boardwalk – it was a massive male orangutan walking on all fours. Apparently we weren’t the only ones to utilise the boardwalks!
At the camp, there was a sand badminton court where the volunteers would play each other and get beaten badly by the Indonesian staff. Playing badminton in my bare feet whilst being stung by fire ants and watched by various spectators including langur monkeys and orangutans is certainly an experience I won’t forget!
Up until the 1970s 75% of Borneo was covered in the tropical rainforest like the Sabangau. Now, tragically less than 45% of Borneo’s tropical rainforest remains due to land clearing for logging, agriculture and palm oil production. Because of this, Bornean orangutans are now critically endangered. Since orangutans are a flagship species, this means that by focusing conservation efforts on protecting orangutan habitat, this simultaneously protects thousands of other species of plants and animals living in tropical peat-swamp forest.
What can you do to help?
– Choose products that contain sustainable palm oil only. If a label reads “palm oil” it is most likely that this palm oil has not come from a sustainable source and peat-swamp forest habitat has been destroyed for its production.
– Donate your money or time to charities such as Borneo Nature Foundation and WWF
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Written by Katrina Schofield