Forty years after its establishment by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas and Rod Brindamour, Camp Leakey has become the main reason for tourists to pay a visit to Tanjung Puting National Park. The orangutans that regularly visit the camp, the many trails that venture deep into the primary rainforest, and the daily supplementary feedings, are a highlight on the itinerary of many Borneo adventures. Camp Leakey is like a Garden of Eden, where humans and animals live together in peace. Dr. Galdikas has always encouraged tourism at Camp Leakey in order for the local community to benefit directly from the Park and, thus, support the Park. But although the number of visitors has increased over the years, for Dr. Galdikas the main purpose of the camp has remained the same: to collect field data and to conduct research about our primate cousins.
Every day, OFI forest rangers/assistants, make their way deep into the surrounding primary rainforest of Camp Leakey in search of wild orangutans. Armed with a pen and notebook, the rangers observe natural wild orangutan behavior and collect data on orangutan feeding and foraging, social behavior, ranging and locomotion. Once a wild orangutan has been spotted, two Camp Leakey assistants will follow him or her for days on end, taking data continuously and sometimes spending the night in the forest. One can only imagine the amount of field data that Dr. Galdikas has collected over the years. Analyses of these data are ongoing but it’s still interesting to think of the room that all those notebooks and papers would fill.
One might think that Dr. Galdikas, now in her mid-sixties, would permit herself to sit down comfortably behind a desk and perform research the easy way. But after forty years among the wild orangutans of Kalimantan, she is still as passionate as ever to get out into the jungle and collect field data herself. When time permits, Dr. Galdikas gets up around 3 o’clock in the morning and makes her way into the forest to do what she has done for so many years; go to the orangutan nest, wait until the orangutan wakes up, and then follow him or her until sunset in order to observe his or her natural behavior.
When Dr. Galdikas personally invited me to join her on one of these day-long wild orangutan follows I was very excited, but also a little apprehensive about what to expect. From what I understood, these follows would certainly result in leeches, mosquitoes, hunger, thirst, and exhaustion…
However, it is easy to forget about the early hour, the long walk in morning darkness, the sleepiness, and all other small pains and discomforts once you find yourself deep in the Borneo rainforest at the break of dawn. In the company of Dr. Galdikas herself and two OFI assistants, I watched the forest come alive, the birds, monkeys, and gibbons starting their morning vocal practice and the orangutans of Kalimantan waking up. It was time for a full day of orangutan adventure!
Orangutans are semi-solitary and usually travel alone or with their young. The orangutan which we followed had been spotted by an assistant the day before, but despite the assistant’s best efforts, an identification could not be made. As the unknown orangutan woke up, we were all waiting to get a glimpse of him in the hope that we would be able to identify him. A couple of minutes after our target for the day got out of his nest, it became apparent that we weren’t the only ones curious. As soon as this young adult male orangutan started moving, he climbed down from his nest and positioned himself a strategic three meters above the ground. Here he took the time to stare at us, and he seemed to take a special interest in Dr. Galdikas herself.
Although at that moment, we could not make a positive identification, Dr. Galdikas said that the behavior of this orangutan suggested that she might have known him or his mother when the orangutan was still young. Sitting there and looking at this orangutan, I was absolutely certain that there was a look of recognition in his dark eyes.
Having worked up close with the orphan orangutans in the Care Center for a couple of months, following a wild orangutan in his natural environment and observing his natural behavior was an extremely interesting change. But when Dr. Galdikas asked me in the formal Indonesian manner, “Don’t you find the life of a wild orangutan fascinating, Mister Rowan?” I couldn’t help but to reflect on what I had witnessed in our first hours of our orangutan mission. Earlier, Dr. Galdikas had explained the behavior data collection sheet used at Camp Leakey and told me that there are, in fact, not many different categories of activities that would be observed. During my follow, she proved to be quite right, as most of the orangutan’s activities consisted of sitting, foraging and moving from tree to tree. The male also walked along the ground.
But although the life of a wild orangutan might seem very easy or basic at first glance, beneath the surface there are a lot of complex processes going on. The orangutan is not just mindlessly moving through the jungle, but rather, remembers where food sources are located and has a deep instinct for finding them. Also, almost every source of food needs to be processed differently; this varies from opening different fruits, to peeling the bark of trees or pulling up the roots of small plants. An orangutan in the wild must have an incredible in-depth knowledge of the jungle and how to survive and find food without using up too much energy.
For me personally, following a wild orangutan in the forests of Kalimantan was an amazing experience. This private tour through the rainforests of Tanjung Puting National Park by a large, red haired guide of a closely related species showed me the workings of the rainforest and the natural behavior of an orangutan in the wild from close up. I also witnessed a group of people doing what they love and what they do best. But most of all, the day I followed an orangutan in the Bornean rainforest with Dr. Galdikas and her staff, I witnessed a prime example of how humans and animals can live together peacefully, in harmony, and with respect for nature and each other’s habitats.