What brought a group of every day strangers together in the remote forests of Indonesian Borneo? How did they cope with the challenges? And what did they discover? If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already a member of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) or otherwise interested in, and perhaps enchanted by, our red-haired cousins, just as this disparate group of eight people were a year ago. In this interview with members of the 2016 OFI volunteer construction team‘Team Pikul’(named after the Indonesian word for carrying wood, which was the bulk of the team’s labour) we discover the true nature of connection.
From different backgrounds and locations, each of us had a strong desire to see for ourselves the magical beauty of orangutans in their own habitat. The only great apes of Asia and now critically endangered; we wanted to immerse ourselves in their world while we still could. And what better way to do that than to actively support the work of pioneering orangutan researcher and conservationist Dr.Biruté Mary Galdikas through OFI’s Volunteer Construction Program? In the end it was a simple decision for each of us – all we did was go to Borneo.
Upon arrival at the village of PansirPanjang in Central Kalimantan,we still weren’t sure exactly where we would be based or what we would be doing. It could be at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) in the village where over 320 orphaned and ex-captive orangutans are being rehabilitated. It could have been any number of projects related to conservation, education, rainforest preservation, and wildlife research throughout the region.
Gathered together on the porch of OFI’s village house on the first day, we anxiously waited with bated breath to hear the plans for our work. This was no group of eco-warriors. This was a group of ordinary people driven by a common urge to try to help. To our complete delight, we learned we were to be based at Camp Leakey, in the heart of Tanjung Puting National Park. We were to help rebuild a guard post at the northern boundary of the National Park to deter poachers who had recently become increasingly active in Dr. Galdikas’ original research site, the 50 square kilometre Camp Leakey study area, established in 1971 and still the epicenter of orangutan field study.
One by one, we suddenly realized: this is real. We were going to make a real difference, here and now. This diverse group from all over the world ―students, teachers, lawyers, writers, therapists― had been grouped together, surrounded by orang-utans, and galvanized into a single, unifying force.
Brian Hedal, a recent film school graduate, submitted his volunteer application when he learned that his father Joe would be joining. The Hedals are long-time supporters of OFI, but had yet to travel to this part of the world. The Construction Program offered the ideal opportunity to see OFI operations on the ground while actively supporting conservation efforts for a specific mission close to their hearts.
When I saw my first orangutan at Camp Leakey, it was magical…”
Brian: “I was a bit nervous before coming on the trip because we didn’t know where we were going to be. I came here expecting the worst conditions possible, so what I told myself before I left was that even if I never saw an orangutan, even if it’s really, really tough and I don’t enjoy it that much, I have to remember that I’m helping them and that’s the most important thing.”
His nervousness quickly evaporated. “When I saw my first orangutan at Camp Leakey, it was magical. You know what they look like, you kind of know how they are, but then when you see them in the wild for the first time and get to just stop and look at them for as long as you want to – and not in a zoo, they’re just doing what they would do normally – it’s just mind-blowing.”
“Being here with all of them, it ends up hard to remember that this isn’t just a cool trip but that we’re actually helping. We’re setting up a guard post, where poachers have already been found, so it’s really exciting to know that this is real and our impact is being felt already.”
Brian’s father Joe, a lawyer from Boston, was looking forward to the opportunity of working with both an international team of volunteers and the local OFI staff. “I have some experience of working in teams but it’s going back 30 years where we worked in geology in field conditions but we were all more homogenous to start with – all geologists, and not international. The [volunteer] team has been fantastic in terms of chemistry and the ability to get along, living in very close conditions and working very hard in heat and humidity that we’re not accustomed to. And the level of physicality has been pretty high. The other thing is the age spread – it hasn’t been an issue at all.”
“Of course, on top of that is just the opportunity to experience the rainforest habitat and orangutan activity. When I saw my first orangutan I was awestruck – that after having travelled halfway round the world, there he/she was! I was surprised at how soon we saw one and how quickly we became accustomed to them.”
On our first night in Pasir Panjang, Dr. Galdikas told the group: “Camp Leakey is the only place in the world where great apes and humans are equal.” It struck a chord with all of us, but we had yet to fully understand and experience the meaning of her words.
While the unifying feature of the group was to help in any way we could, we also desperately wanted to see a wild orangutan. We soon realized that not only would we see numerous orangutans every day, but also that our numbers would be more or less equal, living together peacefully and respectfully in the forest.
When…the orangutans started to come out…it felt completely surreal. I thought, ‘Wow, this is the real deal. We’re here! At Camp Leakey and we’re outnumbered!’”
Julie Hladik, a massage therapist from Albany, New York, had recently focused her vacationing travel plans on serving a greater purpose in the world. Jane Goodall and Dr. Galdikas had been huge influences on her growing up. So for her, heading to Borneo was an obvious choice.
Julie: “When we first pulled up [at Camp Leakey] and were unloading the boat and the orangutans started to come out and were getting curious and closer and closer, it felt completely surreal. I thought, ‘Wow, this is the real deal. We’re here! At Camp Leakey and we’re outnumbered!’
“I didn’t realise I had a perception built up in my head of orangutans but now I have so much caution and respect for them as their own individual beings, because of who they are. They’re very human-like but they are their own creatures too and they deserve respect. That’s a drastic change in perspective of being completely submerged in a new environment, that not many people are going to experience unless they come to places like this.”
Victoria Peters, an environmental science graduate from Kentucky also grew up in awe of the work of Dr. Galdikas. “I had a love for the environment and I spent the first few years of my life in Southeast Asia so I’ve always had an affinity for this place and always liked orangutans, even though I’d never seen one. When I found out we were going to Camp Leakey, I was ecstatic. I never believed we’d be coming here. It was a dream come true, honestly.”
The work was hard but I never wanted to give up. Everything was happening so fast but at the same time it was under-stimulation compared to the city. I had to rewire my brain to slow down but also take in more sensory information – so it’s an interesting combination of slowing down and speeding up at the same time.”
For Pea MacPherson, a New Zealander living in Singapore, jungle labour was not new. She spent over a year in South America working with capuchins but nevertheless was blown away by Camp Leakey and its orangutan residents. “I didn’t think we’d have so much contact with orangutans or that we’d see so many. Arriving at Camp Leakey, hearing the long-call in the forest, living side by side with orangutans every day – it’s been very emotional and very exciting.”
We get on so well, we’re so diverse, but we all share very similar perspectives and very similar points of view on conservation and the work that we’re doing.”
“This is such an amazing group of people. We get on so well, we’re so diverse, but we all share very similar perspectives and very similar points of view on conservation and the work that we’re doing. We’re all very driven. I think the most surprising thing is that we have bonded so well and worked so well together.”
Recently married, Tory and Tyler Carnathan had come from San Francisco. These seasoned travelers both shared the desire to give back while traveling. Tory learned of OFI’s work after watching a viral video of a jungle scene. “All of a sudden this inebriated-looking, Gollum-esque creature came on screen and it was disgusting and pitiful and I’m like, ‘What is that?’ I think the headline was something like ‘Monster Roams the Jungle of Indonesia.’ It seemed wrong, so I started looking into it and it was a sun bear that had lost all of its hair, and was starving to death, you could see its ribcage.”
“I continued to research and wanted to know why this animal had come to look like this. It was because of the palm oil industry. That was about a couple of years ago and honestly before then I’d had no idea that palm oil was such a big problem and that the forests of Southeast Asia are being cut down and species becoming extinct. I had no idea of the gravity of it.”
“Extinction, deforestation and palm oil is really unknown in America. I don’t think a lot of people know about it. I was shocked to hear about it. I didn’t even know what palm oil was. I thought,‘What is that even in? I’ve never heard of it.’ And then I realised that it’s in everything.”
“I carried on researching from there and one thing led to another and I came across orangutans and being a lover of not just animals but this type of climate and environment, it struck a chord.”
…the fact that [orangutans] only exist in one part of the world – there’s so few of them left, it hurt my heart and I want to make sure that my kids one day will be able to play in the jungle and see these animals in the wild.”
“I felt close to these orangutans – I don’t know why? If it’s just a feeling or because they’re so like human beings or they’re just so majestic. There’s really nothing else like them out there. And the fact that they only exist in one part of the world – there’s so few of them left, it hurt my heart and I want to make sure that my kids one day will be able to play in the jungle and see these animals in the wild.”
Tyler, a long-time amateur naturalist with a construction background, found a natural fit with OFI’s Construction Program. “I really do enjoy a good hard day’s work; one of my best days was one of our hardest days and then at the end of the day being able to walk out to the end of the jetty and dumping that first bucket of water over your head – all’s well with the world and that feels good.”
Like the rest of us, Tyler was amazed at the level of bonding and support within the team. “I’m not the most outgoing person – I don’t think any of us are super outgoing and we all got along super well. That really stood out to me, and how hard we all worked together. I felt comforted, like I was with family and I felt like I was safe. It almost gave me chills. When it’s hard, but we’re all laughing and stuff, and I can feel the stress coming off me and I realise everything is OK. And that from people I met a couple of weeks ago? That’s crazy.”
The biggest surprise is that none of us came here looking for a life-changing experience. For me (Rowena), a corporate writer from Australia, I just wanted to help. I hoped to see orangutans for myself, and see the situation in Borneo with my own eyes, so that I could better communicate to others why I cared so much and inspire them to also care. But what the entire team encountered was indeed a life-changing experience.
We talk about the ‘natural world’ as though it’s a place or thing far away from us, separate from our own city or town with its roads, cars, telephones and office blocks. We might love our pets and spend time in the countryside, or tend to our gardens, swim in the ocean, and smell the rain. To my intense amazement, this connection to the outside that I felt so deeply in my heart, was just scratching the surface.
I’ve discovered a profound awareness in myself of being deeply connected to the natural world, to all things living and inert. This awareness resides in every one of us if only we are fortunate enough to discover it. I can only describe it as utter peace.
I wanted to breathe the same air as the orangutans until I realized that no matter where one is in the world, we’re all breathing the same air. We’re all made of the same matter and sharing the same home.”
I wanted to breathe the same air as the orangutans until I realized that no matter where one is in the world, we’re all breathing the same air. We’re all made of the same matter and sharing the same home.
As Julie so beautifully put it: “Even just the quiet moments, looking up at the stars and hearing the jungle around you and knowing how far away we are from home, and even the nearest village, I would have those waves of realizing ‘I’m not dreaming right now. This is reality.’”
Read more about the important work of the 2016 Construction Teams.