indonesia travel magazine

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra, Part II

Bohorok, The Great Apes of Sumatra, Part II


By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –

(If you missed it, you can read Part I here.)

After walking through the jungle mist along a narrow foot trail that followed the Bohorok River upstream, the narrow dirt path suddenly vanished into an impressive wall of giant rocks that had obviously fallen from the surrounding bluffs thousands of years ago.  Although we were alone at present, this was obviously the place where we were to meet our guide for the trip across the river to the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre.

In no hurry to end our little hike, we stood for a few moments enjoying the jungle sounds and a particularly nice view of a long sparkling waterfall across the river.  Playing hide-and-seek amidst the thick jungle foliage, it fell in a thin, silent ribbon from some high unseen place.

Suddenly, a slim young man was standing before us as if he had materialized from the surrounding fog. He greeted us with a warm smile and bade us to follow him to the shoreline where an unpainted, hand-hewn dugout canoe lay swamped in the river. Without a word, he waded into the water and began bailing.  He must have done this a million times.

The canoe was so narrow and so shallow that I could hardly understand how we were supposed to sit inside of it. But more alarmingly, it also appeared to be tethered to a rather thin overhead cable that spanned the width of the rushing river.

After a short wait, the rest of our party arrived – another couple and eight rangers.  It didn’t go without notice that there would be two rangers for each visitor on this trip to see one of only three great ape species in the world.

The first trip across the river was made by six of the rangers who gracefully filed onto the canoe and easily squatted on their heels while steadying themselves with one hand on each side of the boat.  The ‘captain’ stood upright at the stern and leaned hard against the taught vertical line that connected the boat to the overhead cable.

By applying his weight on the line, he was able to steer the canoe leeway across the current.  The trip that ferried the rangers over the river took less than three minutes and all landed safely on the far bank. When the boat returned, our little group climbed aboard just as the rangers had and the boat swung into the current with a steady, easy grace.

Once again on dry land (and not having flipped the boat upon exiting) we focused our attention on a large wooden building set in a small clearing at the edge of the jungle. One of the rangers stepped forward and began to explain what the center did and how the orangutans were rehabilitated.

In 1972, two Swiss zoologists, Monica Boerner and Regina Frey, with help from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and later the World Wildlife Fund, established the center to help rehabilitate captive orangutans and teach them how to live on their own in the wild. Most of the animals that were lucky enough to make it to this emerald green heaven had been rescued from illegal game traders, private zoos, circuses, and freak shows.

Orangutans that make it to the center are initially quarantined in one of three very large steel cages located in the center of the compound. Isolation helps prevent potentially deadly viruses from spreading to those orangutans already released. Once the quarantine period is complete, the orangutans are then taught how to make sleeping nests of natural materials, first in their enclosures, and later in trees around the compound.

Through the long process of rehabilitation, rangers slowly reintroduce each orangutan to their new home in the jungle, teach them which wild foods to eat, and how to find bedding materials. They also teach them how to avoid predators – including humans. While orangutans can easily walk on two or four legs, they are primarily arboreal and spend much of their time in the jungle canopy.

Once an orangutan has learned everything they need to know – which can take several years for each animal – they are encouraged to leave the center and live in the jungle full time. Sometimes that final step is a difficult and emotional one for both men and apes.

The first step into the wild comes in the form of a feeding platform located deep in the jungle. From this point on, the orangutan will only be given food by the rangers at this place and this place alone. Rangers hike up to the platform twice a day and hand out cups of milk whey and bananas to any orangutan that shows up. While these foods are very nutritious, they are also relatively bland and monotonous compared to the natural fare found in the jungle.

Dharma tells us that at the present time, there are approximately two hundred and fifty orangutans living wild in the jungle. Only 25 or so orangutans come to the platform for food and most of those only come once in a while.

Just as he finished his talk, two very large male orangutans emerged from behind the main building.  Apparently these two orangutans were free, but not yet ready to be alone in the wild.  Currently, they lived in the trees around the center and had been waiting for us to show up so they could receive their morning meal.

Abdul, the oldest and largest orangutan, came within several feet of us, while the younger orangutan scampered up a nearby tree and hung by his long lanky arms and legs in ways that seemed to defy gravity.

Mature male orangutans can live to be 55 years old, have a standing height of up to 6 feet, and can weigh up to 265 pounds.  Although Abdul is almost 13 years old and still a teenager in orangutan years, to a human like me, his height and obvious strength is more than impressive.

When Abdul decides to move in to have a closer look at us, I am suddenly more than aware of his size and strength.  There is nothing menacing about his curiosity and I am compelled to return his intense and direct gaze – yet, every hair on my body is standing straight and my heart is thudding in my chest.

Within moments, the rangers deftly lure him away from us by tossing a couple of bananas towards the tree where his younger friend is still goofing off.  I realize I have been holding my breath.

In few more years Abdul will be ready to mate, but he will have to compete with much older and much larger males already in the jungle. Even as he munches on the unpeeled bananas, his very human eyes stay fixed on mine.

I can’t explain what I saw in his eyes except to say that I recognized something in them that I never expected to.

Just then another orangutan appeared from the edge of the forest some thirty feet away, walking quickly and confidently towards us on two legs. In a quick and practiced gesture, she waved at us. Without thinking, we all instinctively waved back. We laugh a little nervously at her very human gesture and our immediate response to it.

I think that at that very moment we all understood – without any doubt or reservation – that these great animals were most definitely related to us.  But we were soon to witness a more profound trait that we humans share with these magnificent great apes.

Check back next week for Part III, the final chapter…

© 2013 Jill Henderson

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