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When you join Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas on a visit to Camp Leakey, you never know what will happen. You could follow a wild orangutan for 17 hours, deep in the Borneo rainforest. You could sit on the porch of her house while a wild orangutan walks out of her living room, carrying two coconuts in her mouth. You could end up sharing your coffee with an adult gibbon, who unexpectedly dips his hand right into your mug. You could take a boat trip into the heart of the rainforest in the dark of night, under a sky full of stars. Or, you could follow a mother orangutan with her infant, while she peddles down a river in a canoe. These are just some of the things that I did during my stay in Indonesia, while volunteering for Orangutan Foundation International.

Me at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Pasir Panjang, holding orphan Bama.

Me at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Pasir Panjang, holding orphan Bama.

Of course, these are excellent stories to share with friends and family. However, when people ask me about my experience at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine, it is difficult to express my feelings in anecdotes and stories. For six months I lived in the small village of Pasir Panjang, across the road of the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine. Every day, I took the two minute walk to the center and found myself amongst hundreds of orphaned orangutans. Although the daily interactions I had with the orangutans were truly incredible experiences, the Care Center also has a sad side. During the day it is beautiful; the orangutans are out in the forest, they go their own ways, and have a good time playing independently or with each other. But in the late afternoon, when the orangutans have to go back to their sleeping cages, it is heartbreaking every time. Working between hundreds of orphaned orangutans, deprived of their mothers, homes, and freedom, gives you a good look into the human soul. It is pure evidence of how we are destroying our planet and have generally little or no respect for Mother Nature. Evidence of this is not only found at the Care Center, but everywhere in Borneo. Often I would travel with older locals and they would point out where once the forest had been. Now? There is nothing left, or there is palm oil.

Mostly, however, OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine is a place of hope. It is the place where Dr. Galdikas takes in rescued orphaned orangutans and prepares them for release back into the wild. It is the place where more than 150 people work and dedicate themselves to the rehabilitation and care of orangutans. And it is the place where volunteers are given the chance to take part in the fight to save orangutans from extinction.

In the time that I was here, I saw up-close how the dedication and effort of people can have a huge positive impact on the lives of individual orangutans. Hocky and Hangki, two of the Care Centers’ disabled orangutans, made especially huge improvements when I was there. Hocky’s progress took a leap after Jessica Parker – a former Environmental Enrichment Intern – spearheaded the fundraising and construction of a large new enclosure for Hocky. This, in combination with her regular forest outings, caused Hocky to become a more active, curious, and playful orangutan. Progress was also made with Hangki. After various people at the Care Center – including myself and a former Environmental Enrichment Intern, Kylise Hare – took a special interest in Hangki and her physical and mental development and well-being, all efforts were rewarded the moment she gathered up all her strength and reached out to climb a tree for the first time in many years. Although we are still heartbroken that, after all our efforts, Hangki recently passed away quietly in her sleep, the dedication that various staff and volunteers showed in increasing disabled Hangki’s quality of life was heartwarming. Together we made her life richer and happier in those last years. And that’s exactly what you will find in Pasir Panjang; a group of people who love orangutans and work hard to improve their lives and create a brighter future for them as individuals and as a species struggling to survive.

With Pak Sia, feeding coordinator at the Care Center, and one of the most caring people I have ever met

With Pak Sia, feeding coordinator at the Care Center, and one of the most caring people I have ever met

I remember well when Dr. Galdikas asked me near the end of my stay what I had learned during my time at the Care Center. In that moment I was not really able to put to words what I felt inside. I believe I answered something about how I developed my professional skills as a communications officer. Looking back on it now, however, I think that mostly I learned about life. I learned to unconditionally love people, animals, and the environment. I learned to respect different opinions, points of view, and approaches. And mostly, I learned how we humans can actually work together and create something beautiful. For me, life is about being peaceful and happy. During my six months working with orangutans, I found exactly that.

Unfortunately, the future of orangutans doesn’t look very bright. In the time that I was at the Care Center, no less that 15 new orphans arrived. As the Care Center is already crowded, this causes problems. Without the necessary funding, it is very hard to maintain excellent living conditions for the orangutans. Also, as the national parks already have dense orangutan populations, there are currently no places where OFI can safely release their rehabilitated orangutans. (Also, by Indonesian law, it is illegal to release any animal into a national park (or take one out for that matter) so national parks are off-limits for several reasons.) It is incredibly sad to see an orangutan who is ready to go live back in the wild, living at the Care Center as there is no secure habitat for him/her left.
Currently OFI is working very hard to privately purchase primary orangutan habitat and secure it for future releases. In order to do this, we need all the help we can get.

In Kalimantan, I came eye to eye with one of Mother Nature’s most magnificent creations: her orangutans. I realized that I didn’t want to take part in their destruction. I now try to help from back home in Holland by no longer purchasing products that contain palm oil. I hope that more and more people will start doing this. We need to take a serious look at our consumption, as this behavior in excess is one source of worldwide environmental exploitation.
Furthermore, please help OFI to take care of the orangutans of Kalimantan by adopting an orphan orangutan, purchasing land, or by volunteering in one of our incredible projects. During my time volunteering for Orangutan Foundation International, I saw up close that individuals do make a difference. Although the individual effect might seem small, our combined efforts can achieve the changes we want!

Evan and Jessica need your help!

Evan and Jessica need your help!

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  • Rebecca Reeder
    2011-03-25 at 10:14 AM

    You are so right about not being able to put into words the time spent volunteering at the Care Center. It is life changing. Hangki symbolized the efforts and love of the Care Center staff: no one ever gives up on an orangutan. I was so hopeful that Hangki was going to regain her strength and be o.k. when I saw her last summer, rolling towards the evening enclosures of juvenile orphans to pay them a visit. I enjoyed your article

  • Janie
    2011-03-25 at 10:40 PM

    That last photo of Evan and Jessica is one of the cutest baby orangutan photos I have ever encountered (and that’s saying something)

    Great job and great piece (again), Rowan!

  • agus pratama from borneo
    2011-03-26 at 3:20 AM

    I was very impressed with you, after reading your article, you are a person who is extraordinary,

    let’s watch together orangutans

  • Susan Labandibar
    2011-04-11 at 3:19 AM

    It’s wonderful to know that the world is full of people like Rowan who gladly give six months of their lives to improve the lives of orphan orangutans. OFI is looking for long-term volunteers like Rowan. Join http://www.oficlub.ning.com to apply.

  • Caroline White
    2011-06-08 at 2:57 AM

    I visited PKB at the end of December 2010 and was lucky enough to bump into Rowan and Kylise when they visited the feeding platforms at the same time as me. Sadly I could not visit the rehabilitation centre as I was only a tourist, but my brief encounter with Rowan and Kylise made the rehabilitation and conservation work all the more real. They were genuinely friendly, knowledgeable folk who further inspired me, if that were at all possible! It is only when you visit Kalimantan that you realise what a magical place it is. I am aiming to work in conservation in Borneo, but the opportunities are sadly rare.

    It was lovely to have met you both. Good luck with your future careers.


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