A volunteer’s first trip to Camp Leakey

I was in the second grade when I learned that all of our fellow great apes were endangered, and I could still point out the shelf in my elementary school library where I pored over books about orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas. I remember seeing photos and watching nature films about Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas and her famous research station, Camp Leakey, established deep in the tropical forest of Borneo in 1971. As a child I dreamed of one day visiting wild places like Camp Leakey, and seeing wild orangutans for myself. Fifteen years after developing my passion, I got a chance to live out my childhood fantasy. The experience reminded me how important it is to maintain a sense of childlike wonder for the natural world.

After I grew up and finished school, I volunteered to help OFI in its communications program at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Pasir Panjang, Central Borneo. The occasion to go to Camp Leakey arose because in February 2013, an an ophthalmologist (specialized eye doctor), Dr. Izak Ventner, visited the OCCQ to perform operations on orangutans with serious eye problems, like cataracts. One of the orangutans to be operated on was Siswi, a free-ranging orangutan who lives in the forest around Camp Leakey. Siswi was transported to the OCCQ for the surgery. Unfortunately, when Dr. Ventner examined Siswi, he found that her bad eye could not be operated on because the retina was not functional. However, he stitched up a long gash on Siswi’s face, which may have been the result of a run-in with a gibbon. Once she was fully healed, Dr. Galdikas prepared a team to return her to Camp Leakey. I got to go along for the mission.

During the car ride from the OCCQ to the port town of Kumai, I sat on the edge of my seat and could not wipe the silly grin off of my face. I was on the way to the place which I had dreamed of for so long! Soon I found myself wedged in between a speedboat driver and Dr. Galdikas. As we crossed Kumai Bay, an estuary on the Java Sea, and progressed on to the Sekonyer River and Tanjung Puting National Park, I had to remind myself not to hold my breath. The boat sped through nipa palm forest, where the massive palm fronds slapped together in the wind like whispered applause. Eventually we entered the more biologically diverse peat swamp forest, where the acidic water was now completely black and reflective. The trip took well over an hour but did not seem long enough. I could not stop smiling and crying tears of joy as my dream came true.

But things only got more interesting when we arrived at Camp Leakey. As we walked along boardwalks, passed buildings and signposts, and spotted orangutans high up in the trees, my memory compared all those real images to the ones I had seen in books or in my own imagination as a child. Siswi, who had been transported to Camp Leakey earlier in the day, was already waiting for us when we arrived to release her back into her home. Siswi is a truly remarkable orangutan with an interesting story. She can be seen in the IMAX film “Born to be Wild” sharing noodles and playfully wrestling with Dr. Galdikas. Local tour guides fondly refer to her as the “receptionist” because of her tendency to place herself right on the dock where the tour boats arrive. While she has a well-developed social life with the orangutans living in the forest around Camp Leakey, she spends a lot of time near the camp itself and has friendships with many of the staff who live and work there. Her preference for both human and orangutan companionship is unique, and gives us the opportunity to relate more to her species and to the wild world through our interactions with her.

After spending a few weeks in a cage while her wound healed, Siswi was very ready to be back home! The final checks and preparations were made before Dr. Galdikas said a few ceremonial words and opened Siswi’s transport cage. Camp Leakey staff clapped as the pot-bellied Siswi made her way immediately into the nearby trees. There she stayed until all the people disappeared, looking from face to face and into the forest around her. Dr. Galdikas commented that she seemed to be processing everything that had happened to her recently. Maybe she was wondering what had been happening at Camp Leakey during her time away. How strange the whole ordeal must have seemed from her perspective!

Darkness had fallen when we loaded back into the speedboats to start the trip back to the OCCQ. This time I had a seat in the back, facing the forest that we were leaving behind. It was a clear night, with the moon providing only a sliver of dim light. Leaning over the edge of the boat to look forward, I noticed that the lights from the speedboat lamps were hitting both the surrounding forest and the black, mirror-like water in a way that produced a magical effect. The sky formed a black backdrop for the white-barked trees, making their reflection on the black waters of the river stark and beautiful. It looked as if the trees were growing both upwards and downwards. I pulled the hood of my rain jacket around my face to block out everything except this surreal sight. It was truly an otherworldly beauty, like something you would read about in a fantasy novel. I imagined I was in a dream world far out in space, where all of the white, eerily beautiful trees grow for many meters in two directions in perfect symmetry. As the boat sped along the river I pictured myself flying straight through the middle of this imaginary world, and I started to make up all of the creatures and civilizations that might exist there. It was a culmination of my day of childlike wonder. I forgot all concerns of the outside world and was content to live in this imaginary one for a spell. When we arrived back at the dock in Kumai, I was still smiling. All I could think about was how magical the entire experience had been.

The realities of orangutan and rainforest conservation are often daunting. Maintaining hope in the face of great challenges is not easy. But our fight to save species and ecosystems is strengthened when it is backed by a desire to protect that with which we have found a personal connection. To earn that connection, we must allow ourselves to look into another creature’s eyes and sense a commonality, and to become immersed in the wonder and mystery of the natural world. As we drift further from childhood we tend to distance ourselves from these feelings, but it is childlike fascination that gives us the drive to save wild places and wild species so that future generations may one day experience that same sense of awe. For me, learning about Siswi’s story, seeing her safely returned to her wild home, and having my childhood dreams fulfilled gave me a renewed sense of purpose. Humans have it in our power to reverse many of the harms we have inflicted upon the natural world and to save rare, spectacular, and valuable species from extinction. We just need to be reminded sometimes.

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