Friday, February 05, 2016

A River Cruise Through Borneo to Hang With Orangutans

A river trip through remote Borneo leads to endearing, if frightening, encounters with the island’s rapidly disappearing primates

THE MOTHER orangutan hung from a tree branch and pried her baby’s fingers off her chest. Her infant was just five months old, as big as a human baby of the same age, with wild tufts of red hair and a pursed bottom lip. I stood a few feet below while the mom moved her baby’s hand to a vine and supported his bottom as he stretched a leg toward the creeper and wrapped his toes around it.

The 29-year-old orangutan mother, named Uning by the researchers at Borneo’s Camp Leakey refuge, looked at me with her coffee-bean eyes, then turned back to her baby and let him go. I held my breath as the little one caught himself and hung tightly to the swinging vine.

“This is how orangutans learn to climb,” explained our park guide, Rini Mariani, a local who lives in the small Indonesian port town of Kumai. (Borneo, Asia’s largest island, is divided among three countries: Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.)

Camp Leakey is an orangutan-research station in Indonesia’s Tanjung Puting National Park, on the southern coast of Borneo. I had joined my friend Diane and her 13-year-old daughter, Maia, on a three-day riverboat trip through the Indonesian part of the island to Camp Leakey and a few other preserves where orangutans can be seen in the wild.

“They’re like our redheaded relatives,” Diane said to ginger-haired Maia.

It’s easy to feel a connection with orangutans. Sharing 96% of our DNA, they are our cousins from just the other side of Uncanny Valley. And they are in danger. Ms. Mariani said that Borneo’s jungles, their primary habitat, are being cleared at a reckless pace to accommodate mining and logging and to meet global demand for palm oil. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the animals’ habitat has shrunk by 50% in the past two decades. “Sometimes you can hear chain saws from inside the park,” Ms. Mariani said.

Two days before meeting Uning, we had boarded a riverboat in Kumai and motored up the Sekonyer River, which forms the boundary of Tanjung Puting National Park. Our boat looked like a bright green-and-yellow version of the African Queen, with no-frills living quarters on the upper deck, equipped with a dining table, lounge chairs and mattresses.

During the day, we’d watch the pale-pink water hyacinths float by and survey the jungle tree canopy, filled with macaques, gibbons and the rare, long-nosed proboscis monkey.

At night, our crew would string mosquito nets to form veiled bedrooms on deck, and we would fall asleep to a symphony of cicada and bullfrogs and awaken to the soprano call of gibbons.

We were chugging our way to Camp Leakey, a refuge created by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, a protégé of paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, who also mentored Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall. Dr. Galdikas’s research laid the groundwork for understanding the life-cycle and behavior of these gentle, tree-dwelling animals. (Fun fact: The mothers have only one baby at a time and nurse their offspring for six to seven years.) Forty years later, her rescued orangutans are introduced to tourists by name and happily shake hands with their fans like well-mannered children.