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January 27, 2010

Another Adventure Among The Apes

Tom McLaughlin

Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, Indonesia – The orangutan ambled just ahead of us, we were repeatedly told. The guide and tracker, in constant communication by yelling into a hand phones, kept assuring us the ape lingered very near but when we arrived at the spots, mom and son had just left.


Small wonder. The guides hand phone kept ringing at a volume that would awaken the dead. A great surprise, because we resided in the forest region of central Sumatra, a place I assumed had no cell service. Nothing is as it seems in the orient, I have said before.


My bride and I joined two fellow travelers from Australia to trek the rain forest and possibly view a magnificent Sumatran Orangutan in the wild. I had always wanted to compare the Borneo version with the Indonesian variety.


We entered the forest by walking through a rubber estate, trees lined in straight army rows with cups catching the white dripping liquid attached to their skinny carved trunks. HIV and Swine flu have spared this business. Rubber gloves, the industry stated, avoided the problems of allergies caused by the synthetics. Seems like the medical profession bought into this one.


The rubber estate melted into secondary growth forest, the results of previous logging. Spindly trees, shrubs, ferns and other non-commercial trees attempted to grow in the poor soil. Climbing upwards, massive trees signaled the end of secondary and the beginning of the virgin.


Meanwhile, the guides hand phone kept ringing and I insisted he put it on buzz. He told me he didn’t know how. Not exactly the most technologically smart guy, probably equal to the orangutan. I informed if it rang once more it would end in a deep crevice. He kept stating each call was an emergency. I kept asking what could possibly be an emergency that he couldn’t text. He said he was following the ape. I told him to text the monkey, assuming the ape, and not the tracker, was answering the phone.


The orangutan had enough of us nosily following her and decided to take a snooze. She built a nest while nine-month-old junior happily swung through the trees, watching us with what I think was a great smile. If I could, I would have joined her.


Mom’s afternoon nest was built high in a tree but we were standing on a steep hill that brought us to eye level. Mom and I stared at each other, her liquid brown eyes wondering what I was doing observing her. She seemed to communicate her inner feelings with me but that was probably my morning medication. She always had a finger or hand attached to a strong tree in case the nest gave way.


Meanwhile, junior kept up his antics sailing through the trees above our heads. He finally decided to join mom and let go, falling through the nest, his arms waving frantically on the way down trying to grab onto anything that would break his fall. He landed just a few centimeters above the ground clinging to a last-minute branch.


Mom decided the nest needed repair and climbed down the tree. The guide and tracker, in a bit of a frenzy, chased us further up the hill warning mom was a biter and liked to apply monkey bites on humans. Everyone complied but me as I walked back down the hill and watched mom reinforce her nest after juniors near fatal jump. We just looked at each other and then she went on with her work. The guide became further excited and pushed me back up the hill both hands firmly planted on my butt. I wasn’t going back down the hill was his message.


…life is good


In 1973, two Swiss zoologists, Regina Frey and Monica Boerner, with the help of the World Wildlife Fund and the Frankfurt Zoological Society, established an orangutan rehab center to reintroduce smuggled and pet apes back into the wild. Over 200 orangutans were helped and the area became over populated.


The center closed in 1996 with the Indonesian government operating the feeding stations. Three of the apes, Mina, Sasha and Pesek remain as semi-wild residents returning to the feeding stations, usually with babies.


An alphabet soup of international agencies have come and gone in this tiny village. Usually, they arrive, tell everyone what to do about the apes and then leave. The locals of the area have become used to this menagerie and now promptly ignore them.


The current organization of residence, the Orangutan Information Center, has erected signs, distributed literature and has opened free internet cafés for these impoverished people. They are also operating a guide training program to educate those who take tourists into forest.


At least it’s something.


…life is good.


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