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  • Fly to: Balikpapan, Kalimantan

  • Internal Transfer:Boat along Sekonyer River

  • Visa required: Yes if British, visa on arrival

  • Currency:Indonesian Rupiah

  • Time Zone:+8hrs GMT

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  • Journal:Coming Soon...

The Orang-utan Communities - Borneo

A smile broke out across my face, my heart pounded; was this my maternal instinct finally being aroused, for never before had I seen such a cute child. Standing before us in a nurturing embrace a mother hung cradling her infant. With spiked ginger hair and big dark eyes this was no ordinary preschool parent/child combo but instead a combo more suited to the jungle.

Like a new Mother gazing lovingly at her first born, a sense of bliss crept over me. I scrutinised every detail, from its tiny fingers to gripping toes; in truth I was totally spellbound.

Whilst lost in my sense of awe a loud clatter rang out; our heads turned as a truck tyre swung in the distance. Upon it stood a shaggy abomination, his attributes beastly yet obscurely captivating. The Father had awoken from his sleepy slumber, arms trailing in casual lethargy. This scene I so fondly recall was from a visit, with a dear friend to Chester Zoo, my dream however held firm, to witness these mammals in their natural habitat; free from bars and confines.

Without dispute there is something truly majestic about orang-utans, their eyes filled with inconceivable depth, a void bursting with emptiness; a place of refuge where one could easily be lost for hours.

Like humans, orang-utans are paradoxical creatures; creatures which I believe can shine so much light on the uncovered, disowned aspects of our own psyches; our own spectrum of primitive drives.

Under a veil of innocence lie passion, grace and a humbling sense of bewilderment, qualities which exist in balance alongside aggression, power and intelligence. Although primarily different to us, a secondary glance lifts the lid on a number of similarities. It is these similarities that continue to span the evolutionary gap, and perhaps, like Homo-Sapiens it is the orang-utans ability to learn, to question, and to experiment which makes them, like us, so very captivating.

From Tarzan's 'Cheeta' to Sigourney & the mighty Silverbacks, primates have long been an area of great fascination. There was once a time when I longed to follow in the footsteps of Jane Goodall and as fate would have it that's exactly what unfolds; though perhaps not in the way I had originally anticipated.

In Southern Borneo located 30mins from the branch of the Sekonyer River, is the Tanjung Putting National Park. In 1971 anthropologist, Dr Louis Leakey obtained funding to support orang-utan research activities in this remote, inaccessible region. Dr Leakey was both teacher and mentor for three young primatologists, 'the Leakey Angels' who would go on to become well known in their field and beyond.

Jane Goodall (who studies chimpanzees in Tanzania) and Dian Fossey (who studied mountain gorillas in Rwanda before her death) were two. The third, Birute Galdikas went on to become the leading authority on orang-utans and remains so to this day as president of the Orang-utan Foundation International.

Arriving in Tanjung Putting Reserve, Kalimantan, Galdikas started her research site with a few huts in the jungle, reached by dugout canoe. She christened the place Camp Leakey in honour of her mentor. Over time she transformed Camp Leakey from a makeshift outpost to an established field station, and gained reassurances from the local authorities that they would not touch the forest where she wanted to conduct her study. Later she became the driving force behind the creation of Tanjung Putting National Park - one of the largest of its kind in south-east Asia.

To this day Camp Leakey still serves as an Orang-utan rehabilitation centre. The camp and surrounding area is designated as a special utility zone, accessible only via the Sekonyer Simpang Kanan River.

The word orang-utan is derived from two Malay words, meaning 'person of the forest'. The ginger haired apes are so secretive and solitary that for a long time Galdikas had trouble even finding an orang-utan, let alone studying one.

A major discovery that Galdikas made, was that orang-utans have a slow reproductive cycle. "The birth interval for orang-utans is very long - the female gives birth, on average, once every eight years". Once widespread over south-east Asia, orang-utans are now a highly endangered species, found only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

Orang-utans are classed as a great ape along with gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and humans. The great apes have large brains, forward-facing eyes and gripping hands.

Male and female orang-utans look quite different - they both have long ginger hair, but males are much bigger than females. Males can be 1.5m tall and weigh as much as 120kg. In addition to this the males grow a beard and moustache when they become adults; with some also developing cheek pads and throat pouches.

Orang-utans are arboreal, spending nearly all their time in the trees, sleeping in nests which they make every day from leaves and branches. They are the largest tree-climbing mammal and the only great ape found in Asia.

Sadly the orang-utans are rapidly losing their homes in the rainforest. Tropical rainforests are being cut down for wood to make paper and furniture; the land is being cleared to grow palm oil for use as both fuel and as an ingredient in food. In Indonesia an area of forest the size of six football pitches is cut down every minute.

The palm oil industry, which is causing clear-cutting of forests, forest fires, and also facilitates greater access for hunters and traders, is one of the most important factors for the dramatic reduction of orang-utan populations.

Where forests are being converted for oil palm plantations, poaching of orang-utans for the illegal pet trade is more prevalent. Forest fires are set deliberately to clear land for plantations. Not only do these fires destroy vast areas of orang-utan habitat, but thousands of these slow-moving apes are thought to have burned to death, unable to escape the flames. In some areas of Borneo and Sumatra, orang-utans are shot as pests by plantation owners or farmers.

The production of palm oil is documented as being a major cause of substantial and often irreversible damage to the natural environment. In the 2008 Guinness Book of Records Indonesia was named as the country with the fastest rate of deforestation, it is also the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (largely due to deforestation).

Palm Oil - Know the Facts

  • The oil palm tree originated in West Africa but has now been successfully transplanted to many tropical regions
  • Palm oil is one of the world's fastest expanding crops and a massive 85% of all palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia
  • Over 28 millions tonnes of palm oil are produced worldwide and comprise a major food source all over the world
  • Europe imports 4.7 million tonnes of palm oil annually, making it the third biggest market for palm oil in the world, after India and China
  • Palm oil is used in 50% of all packaged food products sold by supermarkets
  • Palm oil can be found in food including: chocolate, margarine, ice cream, cooking oil, crisps, cakes, oven chips, cream cheeses, biscuits and pastry
  • Palm oil may not always be listed as such on the products ingredient declaration, with companies opting to use terms such as 'vegetable fat' and 'vegetable oil' instead
  • Palm oil derivatives are also found in cosmetics, soaps, shampoos and detergents
  • Sales of palm oil in Europe have rapidly increased due to palm oil being an effective substitute for partially hydrogenated soft oils, such as those produced from soy oil, rapeseed and sunflower thereby eliminating trans-fatty acids from many products
  • Certified Sustainable Palm Oil has been an available alternative since November 2008

It is without dispute that the world's increasingly insatiable demand for palm oil is a major contributor to the decline of the orang-utans. As a global community we are all accountable and culpable for this loss. In the past six decades, the number of orang-utans has fallen by up to a half. Today, there could be as few as 50,000 left. With such a clear correlation the outcome is the rainforests disappear, so too will the orang-utans inch closer and closer to extinction.

These animals are literally fighting each day for survival; this is not an individual struggle for continued life but instead, a struggle which spans an entire species. What unfolds upon Borneo and Sumatra is deeply heart breaking; it is destruction on the most apocalyptic of scales. This is not just about the destruction and annihilation of one species but the continued destruction of many species, many subcultures and many eco-systems, the effects of which will be catastrophic.

In no uncertain terms, what continues, on a daily basis to unfold is a complete disregard for our planet, the brutal rape of Mother Nature, along with the ransacking of her resources and the murder of her inhabitants.

Grown sustainably, palm oil can provide vital livelihoods in an environmentally friendly way. By limiting ourselves to products bearing the GreenPalm logo, we can each make a positive contribution to the production of certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO), and in doing so offer continued support to these magnificent creatures. logo