Borneo’s Orangutans: Just Don’t Call Me A Monkey!

This loveable, gentle, shaggy-haired ape shares 97 percent of our DNA. Like us, they have 32 permanent teeth. Unlike us, their arms are two meters long and they spend most of their time eating, sleeping, swinging and hanging out in some of the planet’s most vital habitats: the lowland rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra.

The Orangutan: Asia’s Only Ape

An orangutan would hate to hear you call him a monkey. They are the only great apes found outside Africa, and they split away from their far-off cousins 15 million years ago as they wandered over to Eurasia. They’re old. They’re relaxed. They’re the largest tree-dwelling mammals in the world. And most of them can be found in the dense rainforest jungles on the tropical island of Borneo.

The Fruitarians

Orangutans are the original healthy eaters: more than 60 percent of their daily fare is fruit. And as well as the smelly, spiky durian fruit and wild figs, an orangutan’s diet consists of more than 500 different plants.

On the daily menu are various leaves, seeds, termites, ants, flowers, insects, honey, some tree bark, a bit of soil to neutralize the fruits’ acidity, a few birds’ eggs and the odd small vertebrate.

You might call them the ‘gardeners of the rainforest’. Not only do they act as seed-dispersers for the bigger fruit trees, but they also open up the dense forest canopy so that sunlight can reach the forest floor and ensure its regeneration.

It’s All in the Mind

Orangutans are expert home-makers – and, like all the best gangsters, they never sleep in the same place twice. Every evening, their last five-minute job of the day is to build a new nest high up in the rainforest canopy – only choosing branches they know can support their weight. They’re clever like that.

Borneo’s indigenous Dayak tribes used to believe that the orangutan was a man bewitched because of his past sins. The first 17th-century Dutchman to witness the orange apes was convinced by locals that they could talk, but preferred not to, because they did not want to be forced to work.

Orangutans are some of the most intelligent primates on earth. They’re observant, patient and inquisitive – with many a story of zoo-breaks after watching their keepers lock and unlock doors. They’re good with their hands: like humans, they have opposable thumbs. They’ve been sighted using spears to catch fish, tearing off broad leaves to act as an umbrella, a stick as a backscratcher, leaves as toilet-paper, thick leaves to cup a spiny durian fruit as they eat, and a leafy branch as a bee swatter.

Attenborough: amazing DIY orangutans

The first 17th-century Dutchman to witness the orange apes was convinced by locals that “they could talk, but preferred not to, because they did not want to be forced to work”.

orangutan kisses mum
A funny, cute, fuzzy-haired baby orangutan has a family moment with his mother. Female orangutans spend up to eight years raising their young.

 

An adult male orangutan
An adult male orangutan – complete with beard, moustache and ‘flanges’ – wide, distinctive, leathery cheek pads.

 

orangutan
‘Oh no, what have I done now?!’

Man vs Ape

Humans and orangutans haven’t always mixed particularly well. In the past, some of Borneo’s indigenous Dayak tribes used to hunt the apes for meat or decorations; others placed a strict taboo on killing them. Some Dayak will tell you that it’s bad luck to look into an orangutan’s eyes; rainforest folk-tales abound of orangutans kidnapping and mating with humans.

Population Crash

But it’s not folk-tales or poisoned darts that threaten the Bornean orangutan with extinction. The twentieth century saw the biggest wholescale destruction of Borneo’s rainforests on record – and it’s all man-made.

Orangutan populations on this huge tropical island have crashed over the past 200 years as a result of aggressive deforestation. Thousands of hectares of lowland rainforest have been cleared to make way for oil-palm and rubber plantations, gold-mines and agricultural land. Fires that are lit to clear land often blaze out of control, destroying irreplaceable primary forest and further degrading the orangutans’ habitat.

As their habitat shrinks, contact with humans increases. Many are shot as pests for straying onto oil-palm plantations. Some are hunted for body parts for the traditional medicine trade while others are killed for bushmeat.

The illegal pet trade is also flourishing on Kalimantan: a baby orangutan can fetch several hundred dollars on the Indonesian black market, its mother often killed in the process. And as female orangutans only give birth once every eight years, a female mortality rate of just 1-2 percent can severely deplete a small local population.

It seems the odds are stacked against the endangered Bornean orangutan. Its habitat has been reduced by more than 55 percent over the past 20 years, its numbers cut in half since 1955. Some predict that if this alarming trend continues, the orangutan may well become extinct in the wild in as little as 20 years.

Orangutan Sanctuaries in Borneo

However, not all humans are bad – and there are still over 57,000 orangutans on the loose in Borneo, most of which can be found in Indonesia’s Kalimantan. Rescue and rehabilitation projects abound:

  • The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOS) founded by Dr. Willie Smits has large centres in East Kalimantan’s Wanariset and Samboja Lestari, and in Central Kalimantan’s Nyaru Menteng.
  • The researcher and pioneer Dr. Birutė Galdikas – Borneo’s answer to Jane Goodall and Africa’s chimpanzees – has also campaigned tirelessly for the orangutan, promoting the preservation of its habitat and releasing rehabilitated apes into protected areas of the Indonesian rainforest.
  • Other major conservation centres in Indonesia include those at Sebangau and Tanjung Puting National Parks in Central Kalimantan; Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan; and Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan.

Visiting Orangutans in Borneo

The World Wildlife Fund actively promotes ecotourism to support the orangutan’s conservation – but visiting orangutans in the wild or in sanctuaries isn’t always for the faint-hearted. Conditions can be harsh, a sense of adventure and some trekking is usually needed, and hotels can be basic.

One of the most accessible conservation sanctuaries in Indonesia is Kutai National Park in East Kalimantan. Located north of the Mahakam River, the protected orangutans rub shoulders with the Bornean Gibbon, the endangered long-nosed Proboscis Monkey and the Malayan Sun Bear. Along the way you might stumble across one of Kutai’s 41 species of orchid and its 220 species of medical plants. Hornbills, and over 300 species of birds circle the treetops. There’s a comfortable lodge to sleep in, too – no jungle hammocks here.

Spending your holidays on a tour of an orangutan sanctuary is now a recognised win-win: the commitment of locals grows as they find new ways to live with, and financially benefit from, endangered animals. And the visitor’s once-in-a-lifetime experience directly supports the difficult job of forest rangers as they referee in the eternal war between humans and their habitat.

As one campaigner has said about the gentle, peace-loving orangutan: Hunted, sold, pushed out of their forest homes – the plight of one of man’s closest living relatives is of our making, and yet we can help them recover.

And with any luck, we might just be in time.

orangutan
A bright-eyed adolescent orangutan hangs out in a jungle clearing.

 

Photographers Andrey Gudkov and Sergey Uryadnikov walk with an orangutan.
Two visitors to an orangutan conservation park in Borneo find a new friend to walk them back to their jungle camp.