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Revisting Orangutans and Tanjung Puting, Kalimantan

April 2019

entering the Sekonyer River, Tanjung Puting National Park

Well, it was finally time to make a visit back to Tanjung Puting after several years. Those who have known me from early days at Alam Indah will recall stories of our adventures to Kalimantan- Indonesian Borneo.
Cruising into the Sekonyer River, you enter another realm of natural wonder- Tanjung Puting, home to the Orangutan.  Literally meaning man of the forest, orangutans are the second closest relatives to humans (after chimpanzees) sharing 97% of DNA. You can also encounter gibbons, macaques and proboscis monkeys with kingfishers, parakeets and hornbills flying above.

Orangutans are the main attraction for visitors and once sighting them, one could sit for hours observing these peaceful beings. 
Tanjung Puting was the first site in Indonesian Borneo where wild orangutans were studied.  In 1971, Dr. Birute Galdikas established Camp Leakey- named after anthropologist Louis Leakey who also initiated the study of chimpanzees by Dr. Jane Goodall and the mountain gorilla by the late Diane Fossey. The years of research by Dr. Galdikas is quite a story. Early photos of her wading through swampy water waist deep to reach camp and a 1980 National Geographic cover of her infant son bathing with a baby orangutan caught the attention of the world. Husband Rod Brindamour finally left with their son and Dr. Birute remained in the forest on her quest to save the orangutans.

Many of these babies sadly fell victim to the illegal pet trade

Their mothers killed and babies smuggled out, sold to collectors and circuses fetching as much as USD 30,000 to the higher traders. My first awareness of such acts was in 1990 with the famous Bangkok Six case.
Six baby orangutans stuffed in crates marked birds were discovered at Bangkok’s airport while in transit destined for Russia. IPPL- International Primate Protection League – a wonderful organization founded by Dr. Shirley McGreal, dedicated to primate welfare worldwide came to the rescue.   Shirley and Diane Taylor-Snow’s IPPL investigation traced the Bangkok Six smuggling to a fellow named Matthew Block of World Primates based in Miami. He was finally sentenced to only 13 months in jail while World Primates continued to operate under shady conditions under the name of his relatives.
Click below for:

Indonesia became overwhelmed with so many confiscated orangutans who are best off living in their own habitat. Most arrived terribly abused and traumatized. So in these earlier years, the few visitors that made their way to Tanjung Puting would see the efforts of park rangers helping orangutans to live in the forest again.  Babies grow to be too big to manage- especially if living in an apartment!  But some orangutans can also become attached to owners who may have shown “love” to them. So the question was could some of these orangutans be completely independent released back in the wild?  At least they could be semi-wild!

meeting new visitors at Camp Leakey’s pier

Often orangutans would run up to hug new visitors and you could simply hang out with them.

The days when I had more hair myself…

Orangutans naturally spend most of their lives up in the forest canopy and they build a new nest every night. In the wild, they are solitary creatures. Adult males live primarily alone and only come together with females to mate. Adult females live with their young ones who are totally dependent on the mother for food, milk and shelter. After two years, babies start to explore on their own playing with leaves and starting to learn how to build nests. A female orangutan may produce 2-3 offspring during their lifetime.

With more visitors coming to the park, direct human contact had to be discouraged. Orangutans are at great risk in developing sickness from humans who may be ill which can easily spread to the wild population. 

After the fall of Soeharto in 1998, rampant forest destruction and lawlessness in illegal logging and mining surged. By 2002, Indonesian palm oil plantations had expanded from 1.1 million hectares to 4.1 million hectares in former forested areas. Indonesia has lost as much as 75% of its original forest habitat. Illegal palm oil plantations on Borneo and Sumatra continue to be the biggest threat to the survival of orangutans and their complex eco-system.

With the decline of tourism following a period of unrest in Indonesia, islands beyond Bali fell off the map for many.  However as Indonesia has become re-discovered, challenges continue to preserve the environment and fortunately there are individuals and organizations dedicated to the struggle for progress.
Tourism to Tanjung Puting in earlier years was not a great money earner. The big money is in the logging with corporations again making huge profits while locals simply work to survive.
Nowadays thanks to social media, lots of visitors have been making their way to Tanjung Puting- to the point where during peak season months of July-August, boats can be bumper to bumper cruising upriver- so another Catch-22!

However this trip in April proved to be magical again for me. The moment you start cruising upriver, layers of the outside world are let go to simply be embraced by the natural world left in this part of the national park.
A whole range of boats called klotoks– can be hired as a private houseboat with simplicity at its best. 

with new friends Helen and Henry

A friendly crew cook up some great food and in evening convert day-mattresses into cozy beds under mosquito nets. The captain found a quiet spot to tie up the boat waking up to beautiful early morning light and gibbon calls while having fresh coffee or tea before a delightful breakfast.

For those needing more enclosed comfort at night, a few klotoks actually have a few private cabins.  There is also the Rimba Lodge with rooms now offering air-conditioning.

passing Rimba Lodge

There are three stations to visit and all handle the number of visitors quite well kept as a safe distance with local guides encouraging respectful quiet.

As the orangutans are either wild or semi-wild, one cannot predict how many may come to the feeding times.  Park rangers are on hand to provide supplemental food needed but if orangutans are finding their own food, it  is a positive sign.   We did manage to have some wonderful sightings though

Doyok, the dominant male suddenly appeared at second camp of Pondok Tanggui.

Cruising further upriver passing other boats in the late afternoon, it is fun to watch proboscis monkeys leap from tree to tree.

The proboscis are best known for their long noses with sounds like sneezing up in the trees.
Not easy to catch them up close with my camera!

Turning on to a branch of the Sekonyer River up to Camp Leakey, the water changes color becoming quite black and although said to be clear, swimming is not such a good idea as crocodiles are still said to be around.

approaching Camp Leakey

Night time the boat guides offer a short trek into the forest for a possibility to see tarsier monkeys and fireflies.

Another very worthwhile activity is to visit the FNPF– Friends of National Parks Foundation site. Founded back in 1997, FNPF has remained dedicated to conservation efforts planting lots of trees and helping with education to a new generation.

FNPF staff Udin explains the different type of fruit trees visitors can help plant. 

Oscar chose to plant Nyatuh which bears the delicious sweet sapodilla fruit. Hopefully we can return to see how the tree is growing in time!

Learn more about the work of FNPF, their volunteer programs and their work also on Bali protecting the Bali Starling birds and their Animal Rescue Center:

Your visit to Tanjung Puting will help support this wonderful place for next generations. 

Enjoy a few days away from the outside world!
There are numerous local operators willing to assist- suggest 2 or 3 nights upriver.  This last trip, I travelled with Be Borneo who can arrange either private or join-in boat trips to Tanjung Puting as well as other adventures in Borneo and out to Komodo National Park:

EcoLodges Indonesia which owns the Rimba Lodge can also make all your arrangements.

Getting to Tanjung Puting:
Fly to Pangkalanbun in Central Kalimantan.
Direct flights from either Surabaya, Semarang or Jakarta on Java by
NAM (Sriwijaya Air), Trigana Air or Wings.  Garuda flies between Pangkalanbun and Semarang which is a few hours by road north of Borobudur and Yogyakarta if wishing to combine Central Java.
Flying from Bali, you best connect via Surabaya or Semarang.
Flight schedules change frequently so same day connections may not always be possible, so plan with some flexibility in mind.

A pre-night in Pangkalabun may be the most comfortable way to arrive.  
There are several comfortable hotels:

Arsela Hotel – a short drive from the airport, is a charming local hotel with very comfortable rooms and reasonable prices also offering good food.

In town there is also the Grand Kecubung or the Swiss Belinn

Upon disembarking your boat at the harbour of Kumai, you should be able to make an afternoon flight out of Pangkalanbun to Semarang, Surabaya or Jakarta.  Or maybe continue an adventure deeper into Borneo.

April- May is an ideal time to visit following the heavier rainy season. Forests feel fresh. You may also get some short refreshing rains cooling off the heat. June is beginning of drier season and should be fine also before the busier crowds of peak season during July and August. Starting in September into the dry season, Borneo may again be at risk for forest fires and poor air quality.  Rains usually start up again by Nov- December.

More Links:
BOS- Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

Learn more about the work of BOS at their Visitors Center at Nyauru Menteng near Palangkaraya, Central Kalimantan. Open on weekends.

Wow Borneo Cruise out of Palangkaraya- small boats with private cabins exploring wildlife and Dayak culture:

Sambodja Lodge is a venture of BOS in East Kalimantan north of Balikpapan.

Further Reading:
Reflections of Eden:  My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo- Birute Galdikas, 1996

Palm Oil-  addressing the complexity and how the world got hooked:

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