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April 8, 2009

Tom of the Apes

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Indonesia – Twenty-five orangutans inhabit the Semenggoh Nature Reserve, about 45 minutes from my condo here. I only got to know three of them.


Delima, a real character, loves to pose for the tourists who travel here from all over the world just to visit this center. She stays perfectly still, allows the visitors to adjust their cameras for the deep shade (no flash allowed) and take as many pictures as they want. If you have made a mistake, she will accommodate you by eating a piece of fruit very slowly.


Her newborn clings to her and shows signs of grasping out to leaves and branches. Like every mom should, Delima breast feeds and chooses pieces of small fruit to supplement the diet.


Selima is Delima’s oldest, born March 3, 2004. She stays close to mom but will not come down to the ground and feed. She will jump to the platform, grab a piece of fruit and then scamper back up the tree. She is very wary.


The reserve is about 1,600 acres of rain forest especially for the orangutans who have been associated with humans in some way. Either through smugglers, people who have shot the mom for meat and adopted the child, or orphaned by natural causes, these apes have been returned into semi wild conditions.


The Reserve does not have enough land to support the population of twenty-five, therefore, additional food must be provided. Bananas, sugar cane, coconuts and other fruits are placed on two feeding stations at 9 A.M. and 3 P.M.


The first station, located about 1600 meters into the forest, is built into the trees. Guide wires, strung above the tourist watch area, allows the apes easy access to the feeding platform about 25 meters away. Adolescents come swinging through the trees along with older denizens. There is no arguing or fighting about who gets what. A much more civil approach than the middle school cafeteria lunch times I monitored as a teacher.


The second station is located in the center of the reserve. This platform is much lower and closer to the tourists. Here Delima and the kids, as well as the younger ones, are fed. People are allowed to come as close as five meters under the practiced eye of the park rangers. But there is always one tourist per year who insists on getting closer than allowed and is rushed to the hospital for 30-40 stitches after Delima objected to their proximity. As far as I am concerned, they deserve it.


Most people come and stay for only the 20-30 minutes of feeding; but I stayed for three days and explored the reserve, the paths and gardens. I prefer to wear shorts in order to spot the leeches and quickly pull them off. I have a phobia about them because my malady requires me to take a prescription drug, and the thought of a blood sucking animal terrifies me. Even though I was cautious, four managed to get inside my sock and swell to about the size of a quarter. I didn’t know they were there until I noticed my sock was soaked in blood.


Before the 3 P.M. feeding on my last day, I went to the comfort station similar to those at parks in the states. I witnessed Delima and family reaching in through the bars of the cleaning closet and extract a deep blue gallon jug of Dettol, a disinfectant used to scrub floors.


She then climbed high into the tree tops, opened the jug and started to pour it over herself. I ran down to the park station and they immediately radioed for help. I watched as she emptied the jug and then began banging on it like a drum. She moved through the trees with Selima carrying the deep blue container, with me following and running down the path telling the park rangers where she was.


She went to the feeding station, smelling like Lysol, much better than her original odor. The park rangers told me she would not drink it, but everyone seemed to be relieved she was eating the fruit, looking a bit sorry for herself.


Looking from God’s perspective, it must have been hilarious watching me yelling in my Americanized Malay that the apes had the Dettol, seeing me chasing them while they were high in the trees, while Delima beat on the deep blue gallon jug, and Selima wondering what the hell was going on.


Life is good.


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