Seluang Mas is a very special place. Chosen after extensive ground surveys and GIS satellite map readings by Pak Robert Yappi and Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, it is difficult to access. The area consists of magnificent, barely untouched rain forest, much of it peat swamp forest.
Located at the edge of Tanjung Puting National Park, Seluang Mas has become the gateway to freedom for 32 orangutans over the past two years. Here, orangutan orphans are given a second chance to live wild and free once again. To ease the transition from the Care Center to the big forest, OFI provides daily feedings. In addition, each orangutan’s progress in the rehabilitation process is closely monitored so that medical support can be provided whenever necessary.
In early December, I was lucky to accompany Pak Abeng and Pak Midi to Seluang Mas for the weekly fruit delivery and to attend one of the feedings. We left OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Pasir Panjang early in the morning for the four hour drive to Seluang Mas. In the back of the truck, sacks of bananas, carrots and green vegetables were stacked up. In addition, we brought a large bag of durian, a spiky fruit with an awful smell and supposedly a heavenly taste that is a favorite not only of the orangutans but also of many of the local staff. For most visitors it is an acquired taste.
On the way, we pass through many small settlements, a few rubber small plantations, and vast stretches of palm oil plantations. Seeing palm oil plantations is almost unavoidable when traveling in Borneo – looking back, I realize that whenever I have left Pasir Panjang, be it to extend my visa or to attend a wedding in a “remote” Dayak village, I have encountered them. Sadly, there are very few places left where Borneo’s unique rainforests are still intact. Tanjung Puting National Park and OFI’s Orangutan Legacy Forest are two such places.
On my flight to Borneo, I overheard a conversation between two other passengers who commented on how green and beautiful Borneo was when we were flying above a palm oil plantation! Yes, the plantations might be green. But from an ecological point of view, most plantations are deserts, monocultures that are home to only one plant species, monocultures that cannot support many other forms of life. Standing in between the rows of neatly planted palm trees, it becomes very clear that plantations can’t provide what is necessary for a functioning ecosystem. Not much sunlight reaches the floor, and the only fruit available is meant for human consumption. You might see insects, a few birds, rats, and maybe a snake. But all in all, the palm “forest” is scarily quiet.
The scenery changes when we arrive at Seluang Mas. The camp is located on the edge of the forest, and we are greeted not only by the staff but also by Ziko and Perigi, two recently released subadult male orangutans who curiously observe from high up in the trees how the fruit is unloaded. A staff member tells me that these two orangutans tend to stay close to camp most of the time because they are scared of one of the wild adult male residents in the area. A couple of hours later I will fully understand why.
It’s still a while before we head towards the feeding platform, so I have time to observe Ziko and Perigi. The two of them seem to be getting along well with each other. They often sit in neighboring trees or rest in day nests not far from each other. It looks like their favorite hangout is close to the camp’s garden, and when the staff are not looking, they come down for a handful of fruits or vegetables as a snack in between feedings! They even take the chili peppers! Ziko and Perigi have adjusted to their new life outside of the safety of their sleeping enclosures at the Orangutan Care Center in their own way. Although we hope that they will become more adventurous and move deeper into the forest, it is important to give them time so they can make the transition at their own pace.
Each afternoon, staff provide milk, fruit and sometimes vegetables at a feeding platform in the forest, 30 minutes by foot away from camp. After traveling through plantations for many miles, walking through the forest is like entering a different world. The diversity of the trees is almost overwhelming, I can hear birds, see butterflies, and spot a large bird high up in the sky. As the staff calls the orangutans to announce feeding time, I am reminded of my first visit to Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park. There are very few places in the world where humans and orangutans can meet like this, and this camp is one of them.
As we get closer to the feeding platform, more and more orangutans emerge from the trees. They look healthy, with beautiful long, orange hair. Some are eager to drink the milk, but most of them go right away for the durians. The fruiting season has just begun, and today is the first time in many months that they receive this special treat.
While some orangutans spend a long time on the feeding platform, enjoying the durian feast, others quickly grab some fruit and then move up into the canopy again as fast as they can. They do not linger long because they don’t feel comfortable – Maret, a wild, resident, fully-grown male orangutan with cheekpads is watching their every move from a distance!
It soon becomes clear that Maret does not approve of seeing visitors around the feeding platform. He starts to kiss-squeak and to shake branches. As his display does not elicit a reaction, he gets more and more angry. He moves closer. He breaks off branches and dead wood and sends them down to the forest floor, aiming towards Pak Abeng and Pak Midi who are standing on the trail leading up to the feeding platform. I keep taking photos of the orangutans at the platform and in the surrounding forest, but make sure to keep an eye on Maret in case he decides to throw more wood in my direction! After a while, he settles down on a branch, seemingly calming down, observing the on-goings at the feeding platform below. However, the peaceful silence does not last for very long; he soon kiss-squeaks again, and then violently rocks a tall, dead tree back and forth until it is un-rooted and falls down! Everybody jumps to their feet, but fortunately, no one is hurt.
As we head back to camp, Maret descends from the trees and attempts to follow us together with some of the rehabilitated orangutans. One of the rangers stays behind to assure the orangutans remain in the forest and don’t move too close to its edge.
While we walk through the forest, my thoughts go back to the more than 330 orangutans at OFI’s Care Center in Pasir Panjang who are still waiting for their return to the wild. During the past four months, I have met many of them and got to know their unique personalities. Like humans, they are all very different. Some adjust well to living at the Center, while others struggle. The rehabilitation process is very complex, often challenging, and of course, highly time- and cost-intensive. Not every release goes as planned, and the challenges only continue after the orangutans have returned to the wild. As more and more forest is destroyed for the sake of producing cheap oil to be used in snack foods for western consumers, the challenges keep getting bigger. Seeing a large patch of land that has just been planted with small oil palms on the way back reminds me how difficult it will be to find suitable forest for all the orangutans currently at the Center, and for all those who continue to arrive every month. But seeing Noni, Linda, Lydia, Sandra, Perigi, Ziko and the other orangutans at Seluang Mas gives me hope. They are living out in the forest where they belong. They seem healthy and well on their way to living wild again, making the transition at their own pace. OFI managed to give them a second chance against all odds. Although the situation sometimes seems desperate, we need to keep trying. Even if we can’t save every single one, we have to fight for them and protect their habitat. Losing this battle is not an option.
Who are the real guardians of Tanjung Puting and the Orangutan Legacy Forest? You. OFI’s contributors and supporters.