Orangutans in Kalimantan (Borneo), Indonesia
For the first seven or eight years of his life, Fred Galdikas had a best friend called Apollo Bob.
Like most friends at that age, they would play together outside. And like most children at that age, their differences seemed immaterial. Kids have an ability to look beyond race, religion, or language and just see a friend for who they are.
That was probably lucky for Fred. You see, Apollo Bob was an orangutan.
Thirty years ago, when Fred was born, his mother was living deep inside the jungles of Borneo, in the Indonesian part of the island called Kalimantan.
Dr Birute Galdikas had set up a refuge for orangutans – somewhere to protect them and to research them. And while she was there, her family grew.
What she didn’t realise at first was that the family would end up including the animals around her.
These days, more than forty years after she first arrived in Borneo, Dr Birute Galdikas still spends most of her time living and working with the orangutans in Tanjung Puting National Park.
Fred also spends much of his life at the base camp there, when he’s not working on the administrative side of the Orangutan Foundation International organisation in the United States.
His “deep innate connection” with the animals – something he’s felt since birth – means he can never be away for too long.
I first meet Fred as we sit on the wooden deck of a ‘klotok’, the traditional Indonesian boat that is taking us up the river to Camp Leakey, the heart of the orangutan conservation efforts. (You can book one of these trips yourself here.)
In the trees on the water’s edge, monkeys sit in branches and watch us go past. The river winds its way through the dense jungle and the boat lethargically makes its way upstream. Around us the dense jungle is never silent – a reminder that we’re not alone out here.
“Just remember, we are going into their world”, Fred explains.
“We’re going into an orangutan’s world, we’re not going to our world. This is where they stay, where they live. So when we interrupt that flow, it’s interrupting nature a little bit.”
It’s an interruption that is needed, though. The orangutans are under threat from a number of fronts, but mostly from a shrinking habitat.
Many local Indonesians are destroying the natural forests in Borneo to create palm oil plantations – one of the easiest ways to make money on the island.
After staring out at the endless jungle of trees along the river for the past few hours, it’s hard to imagine the devastation that’s happening just kilometres away. But Fred knows the reality all too well.
“There just simply isn’t enough forest for the orangutans to roam and live”, he tells me.
Visiting Camp Leakey, Kalimantan, Borneo
When we finally arrive at Camp Leakey, it’s difficult to firmly clasp any sense of time. This could be 2012… or it could be the 1970s, when Birute first started her work.
A small collection of wooden houses stands in a clearing. In front of one building, a wild boar is sleeping. Indonesian assistants sit in a hut smoking, waiting to show us around. They seem more comfortable in the humidity than the visitors.
It takes four hours to get here by boat these days. It feels so remote but I can only imagine what it was like 40 years ago when Birute set it up.
There was no electricity or phones and, more importantly, she was under immense pressure after being told by academics that she had no chance of success – that the orangutans were too elusive to be studied in the wild.
How wrong they were. Or, to put it better, how wrong Dr Birute Galdikas proved them to be. And if you need reminding of that, the evidence of her success is right in front of me at the feeding station.
A local assistant puts a large bunch of bananas on the elevated wooden platform in the jungle, a ten minute walk away from the camp. He also leaves a bucket of milk and then walks away. Then the animals come.
One orangutan appears high in a tree and slowly lowers itself down towards the platform, watching the surroundings as it descends. There’s a rustling sound on the ground behind me and I turn around to see another orangutan lumbering towards the bananas, right through a group of humans.
More follow from all directions until there are about half a dozen.
There’s a nonchalance from the animals, seemingly aware of the people and the role we’re playing, but without any deference. This is indeed their world and they know it.
As we’re watching the orangutans grab the bananas and then climb the trees to eat them, I chat with Fred. He explains how the animals are free to come and go as they like – there are no fences here. The food is offered in case the animals need it.
“We supplement their food intake”, he says.
“If there’s no fruit in the forest, they’re not going to eat naturally, so they come here. But sometimes visitors come, spend all this money, spend four hours getting here and they don’t see an orangutan. Well that’s a good thing – it’s because they’re off feeding from their natural wild fruit.”
But there is a bond here between human and animal that is unusual and unlike anything I have seen before. There’s almost a magic in the way the orangutans behave with Fred and the workers.
Many of these animals were rescued as baby orphans and have been brought up by humans. Although they are now free and behave as such, they’re emotionally connected with their guardians.
As I walk back to the klotok, I’m thinking about all that I’ve seen here in Tanjung Puting National Park. Not just the grace and beauty of the animals but the dedication and love of the humans who have looked after them for so many years.
Mother orangutans have held their babies close to their chests as they’ve climbed down to take milk from the humans. One day those babies will grow up and have their own babies to care for.
I’m lost in thought when a small commotion near one of the huts in camp catches my attention. Fred is there, sitting on the step. Next to him, sitting just as calmly, is an orangutan and her baby.
They all look at each other for a moment, there are almost smiles on all their faces. Then the animal nods her head, picks up her baby, and walks away back to the forest.
Friends? Family? They’re all the same here at Camp Leakey.
If you are interested in booking a tour, you can do that here.
Time Travel Turtle was a guest of the Indonesian Ministry of Tourism but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.
68 thoughts on “Orangutans in Borneo”
Absolutely incredible! I love to hear about different efforts that are being put forth in the name of animal conservation. The habitat destruction all for palm oil is horrible- and further exemplifies how greed is destroying our planet. The orangutans and people who work to conserve them need every bit of help through awareness- so thank you for writing this. 🙂
Thanks, Melissa. It’s a really important issue and one that is, sadly, all too common in developing countries. But awareness is one of the best ways to bring the problems to the fore and have people talk about solutions.
Amazing stuff…love the shot at the end with the baby.
The babies were adorable! There were so many of them and they all seemed to calm around the humans.
Michael, this is such a great post. What a perfect capture of our trip, love this. Looking forward to the rest of your posts!
Thanks, Veny. As you know, this was one of the highlights of our trip in Indonesia. It’s not something that’s easy to explain to people… so I hope this small taste encourages other travellers to learn more about the orangutans themselves.
I’ve noticed that a fair few places now advertise their products as being palm oil free – notably to save the orang-utans. Which is nice. Also.. apollo bob is totally what I’m going to name any offspring I ever have.
Ha ha – it’s probably lucky Apollo Bob was an orangutan. It would have been a weird name for a kid. But go for it, I say… I look forward to meeting your poor child one day! 🙂
Oh, love this post!! …and what Melissa said:)! Thank you, Michael!
So glad you got something out of it, Vera. I hope you get a chance to go there one day. I get the feeling you’d really get something out of it.
It’s wonderful, Indonesia has been on top of my travel list for a while, I hope I’ll be visiting soon.
Well stay tuned, Angela. I’ve got a bunch of great stories coming over the next few weeks that will make you want to jump on a plane straight away!! 🙂
We had the pleasure of hanging out with orangutans on Sepilok (Malaysian Borneo) at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. Magic. And mayhem. A young orangutan kinda fell in love with me and my backpack. I eventually had to break up…Never made it to Camp Leakey so thanks for this inside look (and great lede).
I’ve heard the rehabilitation centre in Malaysia is a really special experience. I haven’t been there myself but from the stories I think the Indonesian camps are a lot more ‘natural’. You actually feel like you are in the wild (because you are) and the animals are living their normal lives (because they are). If you ever get a chance, I would recommend checking it out because I think you’d find it quite different.
Nice post and thanks for Sharing…. Borneo is a magical place with natures best creations.
There is certainly some amazing nature in Borneo. It’s a pity so much of the island is being turned into palm oil plantations. Hopefully these animals will all survive.
A wonderful story and expertly written. Quite sad that for all our technology and advancements, there are still species at risk on this earth that we share with them
Well, it’s probably because of our technology and advancements that so many species are at risk. Things that allow us to do things faster and on a broader scale… and things that constantly need more fuel… are what are threatening habitats around the world.
I love your writing on this topic, Michael. As Veny said, I can’t wait for your upcoming posts about #Travel2Indonesia 🙂
Thanks, Vesta. We had such a good time in Indonesia. Can’t wait to share all the stories with everybody!
Love the story, and the photos. I have got to get to Indonesia.
It’s a beautiful country and I’m sure you’ll love it. The photos of the orangutans are easy to get – they come so close to you because you’re all basically in the wild together.
Very cool experience. Would love to see those guys in the wild.
This is the perfect place to come and see them in the wild. As well as the ones who would come into camp to get food, we saw some hanging in the trees along the river who were happy to pose for photos!! 🙂
EPIC first photo.
Yeah, he was a big one, that’s for sure!! 🙂
Gosh, such a great post. And with great pictures. Love it when people have an angle on their stories. Thanks for this. Not only did I learn a new angle about Camp Leakey, I also have a few pointers about writing. Big fan!
Thanks for the comment. Most importantly, I’m glad you learned something new about Camp Leakey. It’s a fascinating place with some really hard-working and goo-intentioned people. The more awareness we can get about the place, the better.
I hope that everyone who really cares about orangutans and wildlife will think of giving an acre of Rawa Kuno Legacy Forest as a holiday gift. http://www.orangutan.org/how-to-help/rawakuno
Great idea, Krista. I’ll make sure I spread the word!
Your story of the bond between Orangutans and their connect to their protectors pulled at my heart strings. Loved it!
It was quite an emotional thing to see and to hear about. I’m glad you appreciated it. Thanks, Mary.
Had a mix of feeling when I read your post… it touched the core of my heart and made me want to cry knowing the threats that the orang utan faced… so sad and worried for them and yet happy there are still people who really care about the orang utan’s world, people who really do amazingly excellent work.. Thank you for the beautiful post.. I really like the way you describe and express things.
Thank you, Maurina. Sadly, it’s not a completely happy story. You’ve hit the nail on the head – it’s so sad to hear about how many of the animals are being killed by human interference. But then it’s heart-warming to see how dedicated those are who are trying to save them. I hope you get a chance to go to the foundation’s website and read a bit more about it.
I LOVE your photos! I had the chance to visit the Orangutans in Borneo a number of years back – so amazing!
I’m so pleased to hear you’ve had a chance to see them. They are such beautiful creatures – and so friendly. it wasn’t hard to get some nice photos when they’re standing there and posing for you 🙂
Borneo is on my top 5 destinations to go. That would be a dream come true. So great you got to experience that.
It was a really special place. I’m already keen to go back and see a bit more of it (although I can imagine anything topping the orangutans)!
Amazing stuff. The great apes really do hold a special place in our hearts, and the conservation work they’re doing in Indonesia has never been more crucial than it is now. Kudos for highlighting this place! Hope to get there someday…
Thanks, Bret. It really is important work. Unfortunately it’s the old story – human progress gets in the way of animal conservation. Hopefully there is a way for the both to coexist.
Check out the above link I came across while researching trips. The web site is from a veterinarian that has been to Camp Leakey 2x. His photos, especially of baby orangutans at the rehabilitation center are the best I have ever seen. There is even a picture of an orangutan giving the finger!
I found this while researching an Africa trip. His web site is the best I have seen so far regarding explanations and pictures. Since he is a veterinarian he has access to areas most people do not, and it shows on his web site. Don’t’ miss it!
Great story and photos. I am really getting excited about going to Borneo now.
Thanks Philip. This was the Indonesian part of Borneo – which I loved. I haven’t been to the Malaysian part, so I can’t compare, but I would really recommend checking out this area.
the orangutans and other animals seem to be on the losing battle against our incessant consumption in a non-sustainable way… glad to know that you featured the effort of some folks helping the orangutans in borneo…
There seems to be more support from the public for environmental issues like this than ever before. The sad thing is that the big corporations probably have more power than ever before. It’s hard to know what’s going to happen in the longterm and it makes me sad that all the hard work from such good-hearted people might not get the outcome they deserve.
Gosh, such a great post. Lovely photos and adorable creatures, love it!!!
They’re so cute, aren’t they. Apparently orangutans are the closest animals to humans… and it was odd to see them behaving in the way you would expect a human to.
So devastating that we all know this is going on, but there’s no stopping it dead with immediate effect…
I’ m glad there are people like Fred who works with animal conservation and people like you to get the information out. Thanks for sharing this.
The people at Camp Leakey – like Fred – are incredible for the work they do with the orangutans. They have basically dedicated their lives to looking after the animals. It is a pity that it’s not easier to stop the destruction of their habitat but these things move slowly when there is money and big business involved, sadly.
What a heartwarming story about the orangutans – and the efforts of the people dedicated to saving them…
It’s such a beautiful story, isn’t it? I just loved seeing the animals – but what I loved even more was seeing the humans who are trying to protect them. Let’s hope there’s a shift in attitudes in Indonesia towards conservation more than profit.
Really enjoyed reading this. It has got me even more excited for our trip tomorrow on the klotok.
Gosh! These fellows are so adorable!
I was thinking of volunteering at Borneo, yet all the programmes I’ve seen where way too expensive and touristy. Should I have any special education and can I just arrive to one of the camps and offer my help in exchange for lodging? I’d really appreciate your advice.
I’m Indonesian but I have never touch or take a pict with orangutans 🙁
Maybe you should make a trip to Kalimantan soon. It’s a wonderful place to visit and you’ll be able to see some orangutans there. No touching, though!
I am currently planning a trip to Indonesia. The first thing I want to do is see the orangutans. Still looking in to where to go and what not.
If you fly to Kalimantan, there will be some opportunities there to see the orangutans. You can organise it when you get there or look online for the latest options.
Incredible article. It’s so sad to see the devastation that’s going on in Indonesia for palm oil consumption. We’re destroying the habitats of these precious animals! Any sanctuary for orangutans within this area is essential for their survival in the near future. We need more people like you out there helping conserve living species!
I will be visiting Camp Leakey next month, Nov. 2017 so this article is totally fascinating to me. I only hope that I’m lucky enough to see the orange-tans, as I’m too old at 91 to have another opportunity.
Oh, Valerie, there is no such thing as too old! I’m so impressed that you’re going to visit Camp Leakey and I’m sure you will have an amazing time. You will definitely be able to see some orangutans and I’m sure it will live up to all your expectations.
If you get a chance, please pop back and let us all know how it went!
I live in Kalimantan, but never meet orang utan lively. So how lucky you are..
Try to visit Papua to watch baliem valley festival…..its amazing and cool tribes!!
send you friend request via FB i hope you can give me a guidance trip to Marakesh.
what a great trip and pics!! i went there too….
Try to visit Papua to watch baliem valley festival…..its amazing and cool tribes!!
send you friend request via FB i hope you can give me a guidance trip to Marakesh.
I love orangutans and remember visiting them with my young family in Borneo, just beautiful and friendly, although we were careful not to get too close, as they needed to remain independent from humans, which is really important for their ultimate survival
Great article. My husband is desperate to visit the orangutans on Sandakan…has anyone been there and can recommend?
cool!!! happy visiting in Indonesia.
Next visit, you can visit indonesiaokey.com for more reference
I have a friend in Borneo who tells me how badly they treat animals there. It’s wonderful to see that there are some folk who care about the wildlife. They remind me of that old Clint Eastwood movie where he had an orangutan called Clyde 🙂