Saturday, January 08, 2011

Monkey business in Borneo

In a Borneo jungle, Tom Neal Tacker meets orang-utans and the remarkable woman who fights for their lives.

A long, hairy arm extends over my shoulder; fingers tickle my torso. I reach around to hold her hand behind my back, like we're canoodling at the cinema and hoping no one will notice. She turns to me and smiles. Her mouth is full of stinky sweet durian and her lower lip protrudes comically.

It's an intimate moment and I return the smile, smitten. Siswe and I share a simple wooden bench on the verandah of Dr Birute Galdikas's home at Camp Leakey in Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park. Siswe is about 35 years old, the local orang-utan troupe's alpha female and as strong as 10 men.

''She could dislocate your arm as easily as you would snap a twig, you know,'' Galdikas says. ''But she likes men, particularly older men.''

Borneo's rainforests aren't for the faint-hearted. I've travelled two hours on a small boat up a river full of crocodiles to get here. Venomous snakes are everywhere; leeches, too.

Borneo is alive with things that bite, sting or suck. If I trip on a boardwalk and fall into the swamp that surrounds Camp Leakey, I might not live to tell the tale. But I've come to meet one of my heroes, Galdikas, and to get close to Indonesia's critically endangered orang-utans.

Once there were three Leakey angels working in the field; now there is one. Jane Goodall retired from studying chimpanzees in Tanzania more than 20 years ago to launch her own wildlife preservation foundation. Dian Fossey was murdered in 1985 while studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Galdikas continues her field research where it all started in 1971, in Indonesia's Kalimantan Province in Borneo. Her research station is called Camp Leakey in honour of her mentor, anthropologist Louis Leakey.

Before meeting Galdikas I wander around Camp Leakey. The orang-utans are supplied with fruit twice a day at various feeding stations in the surrounding forest, enough to supplement their diet but not enough to encourage dependence.

The hours between feeding times allow visitors to explore the camp unsupervised.

I find a black-handed gibbon in a small tree outside the cook's cabin. Normally gibbons are as high up in a tree as possible, invisible in the upper canopy. Without excellent vision, binoculars and luck, they're difficult to spot.

This gibbon poses for me a few metres away, looking for companionship or a handout, or both. Not so the proboscis monkeys. They sit in the trees along the river in full view, catching the rays of the morning sun.

The local Dayaks call them the Dutch monkeys, drawing attention to the resemblance of the monkey's protuberant noses to those of the country's former colonial masters.

A family of wild pigs scampers about. Piglets squeal in an open area near the dining room. One of the adult female pigs is blind; she has no trouble avoiding tree stumps, unlike me - I continually trip over tree roots in the dimly lit forest.

Siswe is one of Galdikas's favourites and a regular at Camp Leakey. Though essentially a wild animal, she has adapted to occasional human company. ''Sometimes I hear her banging around on my roof while I'm trying to sleep,'' Galdikas says, ''but usually she's off somewhere in the forest reminding other orang-utans who's boss.''

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Monkey business in Borneo

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