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Wild Orangutans at Borneo National Park

Photographer: Barbara Walton

 

Wild orangutans have little room left to maneuver. Their forest homes are shrinking at an alarming rate and their future is on the line.

 

Orangutans are large red haired arboreal great apes. They can live up to the age of 50 years, and are regularly observed using objects in the forest for tools. They are only found in natural rainforest habitats on the islands of Borneo, where they are classed as endangered, and on Sumatra, in Indonesia, where they are critically endangered. Estimates are that between 45,000 to 69,000 orangutans remain in all of Borneo and about 7,300 in Sumatra; but the figures are based on those collated over three years up to 2003, and scientists predict the numbers are in fact far lower.

 

Once they were found across south-east Asia, today their habitat has shrunk, and as the demand for more land and more wood progresses, their places of abode are getting smaller and smaller each year. Indonesia over time has lost more than 50 percent of its natural forest cover, with every year more cleared and destroyed for agriculture and oil palm plantations, for timber both in legal and illegal logging, as well as illegal gold mining. Poaching and the destruction caused by uncontrollable forest fires also threaten the species. With their human like behavior and intelligence orangutans are also a favorite for the illegal pet and zoo trade.

 

Among other endangered species in Borneo occupying the forests with the orangutan are the large bellied, pendulous nose Proboscis monkeys, who live in troops high in the trees - with the dominant male and his huge drooping nose, bloated belly and long white tail protecting a harem of smaller females and babies. Their ability to leap - almost fly through the air - between treetops, swim, and their comical appearance make them unique. This highly specialized primate can live only in Borneo where it eats young mangrove shoots poisonous to others, leaves, seeds and unripe fruits.

 

Seeing the arboreal orangutans in the wild and proboscis monkeys is possible at Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan, Indonesian Borneo. To reach the famous Camp Leakey and other areas of field research and feeding stations, one must journey in wooden boats called klotoks up the Sekonyer River, passing some of the most biologically diverse forest in the world, among them tropical and dry land forests, peat and freshwater swamps and mangrove regions. The Sekonyer winds through Tanjung Puting National Park allowing stops at small landing piers from where forest trails lead to feeding platforms where the orangutan invariably appear for a free feed of sweet potato, bananas and sometimes milk. The boats run by local Indonesians are a source of eco-tourism and the only way to reach Camp Leakey and other research stations and feeding areas.

 

Camp Leakey was made known worldwide by orangutan researcher Dr Birute Galdikas, one of the three female anthropologists sponsored by anthropologist/paleontologist Dr Louis Leakey. Dr Galdikas set up her field research in Tanjung Puting reserve in Indonesian Borneo in 1971 with and her then-husband photographer Rod Brindamour, establishing Camp Leakey in the now a 415 thousand hectare forest that was declared a national park in 1982.

 

While Orangutans are a protected species, and Tanjung Puting a protected area, most orangutans in Borneo live outside the protected forests from need and are thus at high risk. Within Tanjung Puting and at the feeding stations the appearance of mothers and baby orangutans is an encouraging sign of health. Now the task at hand is to put an end to their natural habitat destruction.