Warning: this post contains gushing statements, emotional rantings and cute photos of wild orangutans.
Meeting a few of the world’s remaining wild orangutans in Indonesian Borneo has got to be one of the most moving and memorable wildlife experiences I’ve had on my travels to date. If you get the chance, go before it’s too late. But how do you choose the right tour guide? Will the orangutans you’ll see be really ‘wild’? And where’s the best place to see these handsome pot-bellied primates? Here are my suggestions, thoughts, and photographs to help you organise your once-in-a-lifetime trek.
Where’s the best place to see orangutans?
Many of the world’s remaining orangutans live in Sumatra (an Indonesian island) or Borneo (split between Malaysia and Indonesia). Back in 2014 I opted for Indonesian Borneo, simply because I had a valid visa for Indonesia and there was political unrest occurring in Sumatra at the time – check the FCO website to make sure there’s nothing happening when you plan to visit. The largest difference is that Malaysian Borneo is a lot more geared up for tourists than Indonesian Borneo. In Malaysia’s territories you’ll find plenty of opportunities to see ‘rehabilitated’ orangutans – ones that have come into contact or been captured by humans which are then re-introduced into a protective environment before being re-released into the wild.
‘Rehabilitated’ or wild orangutans, what’s the difference?
Rehabilitation centres are designed to be safe places for the orangutans to recuperate and reproduce, but, like the elephant sanctuaries in Thailand, they are surrounded by controversy. Whilst some might argue that this type of conservation helps orangutans avoid extinction, I would say that many ‘rehabilitation centres’ are concerned primarily with tourism and not re-introducing these beautiful animals into anything that remotely resembles their natural habitat. I hadn’t come all that way to see orangutans in what was essentially one step away form a zoo. I don’t mean this to sound preachy, but for me personally it was important I saw them in the wild, which meant travelling through Indonesian Borneo, which is a lot trickier to do, but I was rewarded a thousands times over for my efforts and you will be too.
I chose Kutai National Park (East Kalimantan) because it had some accommodation facilities (many in Kalimantan don’t) and was easy to reach. By ‘easy’ I don’t mean we drove up through the gates of the park and pulled up outside a nice information centre – it took about a day and half from Samarinda, where we met our tour guide and stayed the night in his family home. The journey to the park included a river canoe trip to what would be home for the next three nights, a bare wooden ranger’s hut on the outskirts of the rainforest. Kutai is also one of the best places in Indonesian Borneo to spot wild orangutans – there are almost 2000 here now – as well as a great place to spot proboscis monkeys, gibbons and huge monitor lizards.
Almost completely abandoned in the late 1990s, parts of the park have been devastated by loggers. When I was there we’d often hear the distant hum of chainsaws and machinery when we weren’t in the depths of the rainforest. It’s beyond abhorrent what these companies and corporations are doing to Borneo’s stunning landscape and the orangutans’ natural habitat. I hope that one day all is not lost, and the park’s partial regeneration in recent years shows that there’s hope. But I still fear that much of it will not be here for our children or grandchildren to explore. This thought ran though my head as I looked up into the trees, picking out the orangutan’s bright orange fur from the green canopy for the first time. I cried.
I can’t put into words how I felt during my time in Kutai. So rather than try, here’s a selection of moments captured on camera. I hope they show these animals’ pride, their beauty and help illustrate why it’s vital we do what we can to protect them. If you get the chance, see them in the true wild and see them soon!