In March of this year, my friend and videographer, Sandra Mohr, and I began a journey that would forever change our lives. We set out for Indonesia and the island of Borneo, also known as Kalimantan, with the woman who has made it her life’s mission to save the orangutans, my friend Dr. Birute Galdikas. For over 40 years, Dr. G. has lived with them, she has studied them, she has rescued them and all along, she has been making plans and taking action to try and ensure their very survival. Dr. G., as the locals call her, has conducted the longest continuous study by a scientist of any wild mammal in the world. While she started out as a researcher hoping to learn more about these elusive and mysterious creatures, it quickly became apparent that their very survival as a species was in danger and that something had to be done before they vanished from this earth forever. At that time she founded Orangutan Foundation International – OFI – whose sole mission is to save the orangutans in Borneo.
The trek to Indonesia is not an easy one, taking 24 hours just to get to Jakarta, on the island of Java in Indonesia. There we spent three days as Dr. G had a meeting with government officials, one of hundreds she has had over the years, to yet again try & persuade them to save the forests for the orangutans. At present OFI has over 300 orphaned orangutans that need to be released back into the wild, but much of the habitat to sustain them is gone, so Dr. G. must convince them to protect the remaining rain forests in Borneo, and make space for these native creatures and the numerous others that live there as well.
Despite the fact that the orangutans have inhabited this planet for over 2 million years, surviving earth changing catastrophes and numerous natural disasters, the one thing that they may not survive is us. In the last 100 years, thanks to the destruction brought upon their habitat by mankind, these arboreal primates have become endangered and, without immediate and direct action, their fate is sealed. Whereas orangutans once swung through the trees from Southeast Asia all the way to China, alas they are now only found on just two islands, Borneo and Sumatra. They are also the sole surviving great apes in Asia, numbering less than 25,000, a number from which their recovery is now already in question. They are the largest tree living primate—spending most of their time traveling in the forest-foraging for food, nesting, playing and finding mates.
When Dr. G. was finished with her business in Jakarta, we set out for Borneo. Our first visit was to the OFI Care Center. Here we would have the rare opportunity to be close to the orphaned orangutans for the first time. These gentle, playful primates stole our hearts. They welcomed us, literally with open arms; they shared their time with us willingly and lovingly. We walked with them to their playgrounds where they put on quite the show. We were enthralled by their antics, amazed by their acrobatic abilities, and brought to tears with their affectionate ways. These little ones love their mangos, they love their noodles, they love their caretakers, but, most of all, they love their Dr.G.
I spent a lot my time with Morgan, one of the playful males who is about 7 years old. He sat in my lap and ate his goodies. We played and high-fived each other and rolled around on the ground together.
Orangutans are skilled imitators and imitation is a social behavior. Wild orangutans never imitate human behavior because they don’t interact with us. They imitate their mothers. However, orphaned orangutans and ex-captives, like Morgan, lacking their mothers, pay attention to and imitate the humans who have become their most intimate relationships. Perhaps, just maybe in the future, we will see wild born orangutans high-fiving, having learned it from Morgan, who learned it from me. I hope more than anything for Morgan is that he makes it back out to the wild, where he belongs.
Orangutans, like us, have their own distinct personalities, but they are all highly entertaining. The scene with some 40 juvenile orangutans is reminiscent of the sights and sounds found on any playground filled with children – the frenetic activity and cacophony of sounds filling the air with joy and play. They are curious, mischievous, playful, athletic, voracious and affectionate. You cannot help but love them all.
The next morning we met the babies, aged from 1-3 years old. At this age they are very much like human babies. In the wild, orangutans spend their early years clinging to their mothers; in captivity, this behavior is repeated but with their human caretakers. This strikes me as odd since we humans are the ones responsible for their being orphans in the first place. Dr. Galdikas has found that the survival rate for these babies increases dramatically when caretakers hold them and sleep with them- proving just how crucial this tactile bond is. Just like human babies, they are very oral, using their tongues to inquire
about things like the camera I was holding. As much joy as I got from holding and caring for these orangutans, it was always bittersweet because I knew, that if man had not interfered in their lives to begin with, such an amazing interaction would not even be possible. I also could never and would never forget that these orphans should be with their mothers, their trees and their way of life, which is rapidly disappearing.
Next we were taken on a very excruciating 4 hour drive to get to Rimba Raya and OFI’s base to release four male orangutans back into the wild. It was on this drive that we first glimpsed the vast palm oil
plantations that are causing the deforestation. Palm oil is an extremely unhealthy saturated oil used in numerous foods and beauty products, including many vegan products. What’s worse, it is also a cheap fuel and its very production employs many people, ensuring political opposition to any restriction placed on palm oil production at every level. This reminds me of the Cree prophesy “When all the trees have been cut down, when all the animals have been hunted, when all the waters are polluted, when all the air is unsafe to breathe, only then will you discover you cannot eat money.” How do we convince our leaders to think like this? How do we convince our leaders to think about the future instead of just the next vote?
Upon our arrival, we were immediately greeted by three previously released orangutans; they were anxious to see Dr. G. and chow down on some juicy mangos. One was Kristin, who, by the end of the day, had
totally blown me away with her imitative behavior. Her imitation skills were next to none, but it was the emotional attachment toward Dr. G. that was absolutely remarkable. Dr G. had cared for her as an orphan and released her several years ago, but the bond still seemed as strong as rock. The love and affection that these animals show & have, not just for Dr. G. and the OFI staff, but also for strangers, is truly amazing to witness and experience. Their innocence is at once touching & inspiring, yet heartbreaking when you think of what is happening to them.
Walking into this beautiful, dense and quiet forest to release 4 lucky males was again a bittersweet time. My elation at their release was countered by the fear of what lay ahead for these “people of the forests” . I drew comfort from the fact that OFI employs rangers to patrol this part of the forest & to protect & assist them if or when necessary. As we ventured deeper into the majestic canopy, we were greeted by several mothers with babies clinging to them as they made their way down the trees to the food and their old friend. The sight reminded me of the acrobats of the Cirque du Soleil, but the
atmosphere was bathed in peace, in maternity and in reunion. I was personally thrilled to see Pushka, a young female orangutan who was named after me a few years ago. Her release was captured for eternity
in the remarkable IMAX film Born To Be Wild. Another delight was to witness and happily record one mother holding her daughter as she stares at my friend Sandra’s video screen, while Sandra was recording Dr. G. with another mother and daughter. It is obvious that she was watching the recording intently- until her baby got bored and she had to attend to him!
Camp Leakey was our final and crucial stop, because it is the place where it all began for Dr G., 40 long years ago. After a 2 hour boat ride on the river, mostly polluted by strip mining, we came to the
national park called Camp Leakey, where Dr. G. first came to find and study them. It was akin to arriving in paradise, an all encompassing green canvas of lush foliage seemingly guarded by the trees that reached for the heavens. It was hard to comprehend how Dr. G. had maneuvered this jungle so many years before.
We entered the forest on foot and headed to the feeding station where several visitors were silently watching the orangutans come to eat. Upon seeing Dr. G., the scene changed quickly & completely. Certain
orangutans had to see and be with her so they came down from the platform and out to the audience where they proceeded to touch her and sit with her. I think they also wanted to show off their beautiful babies and one of those babies displayed his curiosity by daring to touch her! Upon leaving the two different forests, on each occasion, there was one mother orangutan & baby who insisted upon escorting Dr G. out of the forest, hand in hand, as you and I might walk a guest to the door. What is more remarkable is that walking is extremely difficult and exhausting for them, but it appeared to be a mark of both respect
and of love. Of course, someone had to hold the mother’s other hand. Can you imagine the feeling when a wild orangutan turns to you to hold your hand as you walk out of the forests? I have no words that can adequately describe how this felt, but it is one thing that I will never forget and will cherish forever. It is also why I will do all I can to save them. I want to give them another helping hand- one of survival!
As our journey’s end drew near, there was only missing piece for me- to witness a wild grown male orangutan, a “cheekpadder” as they’re called. Then, suddenly, as if he was channeling my thoughts, Tom, the wild-born son of a released orangutan appeared. He sat quietly as he ate his food and observed the people nearby. Cheekpadders are extremely big, strong and volatile to say the least. For them, there is no play; their solitary lives are spent mostly eating and then searching for mates, like a few of my relatives! I was content to keep my distance and admire him from afar. He was magnificent, strong and confident, such a joy to see, strikingly different from the depressed ones I have seen in zoos.
The emotional depths of these “people of the forests” is enormous. They are smart, they are playful, they are emotional, they are affectionate, they are complicated and they share 97% of our DNA; they truly are our cousins. To me personally, this journey was the most profound of my life, and for those of you who know me, you know that that says a lot! It was not only a privilege to spend this time with Dr G. but an honor to be admitted, not just into the home of the orangutans but, if all for a brief moment in time, into their world aswell.
I spend my life fighting for all animals because I believe the earth needs each and every species, I believe we are all inter-connected; I believe that’s why we are all here. But I cannot deny the unique connection between mankind and the orangutans. The thought of losing these precious, gentle beings is not an option, not for me and I hope not for you! As uplifting and joyful as you may feel when watching and learning about them, it is imperative to remember that this is all part of a devastating and historic tragedy that is happening right now. If we do not act immediately and decisively, then this footage will not be a document of their story, but instead an obituary for their kind.
As Dr.G writes in her book- “When Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and I went into the field, none of us anticipated that we would be pushed to the forefront of the environmental movement; that we would be caught up in global political, economic and even spiritual crises. In those early days of innocence, we were motivated simply by curiosity and the desire to better understand our non-human kin. People thought we were crazy to go into the forests alone and unarmed. What we did was dangerous, but not because of the apes we were studying threatened to harm us. Danger wears a human face.”
But compassion also wears a human face and it is incumbent upon us to work together, to do whatever is necessary to save them, because, as incredible as they are, they cannot save themselves.
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