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Advertise on the Tentacle

March 31, 2010

Orangutans on the Market

Tom McLaughlin

Traveling the Little Sambas River, Borneo, Indonesia – We had hoped to view orangutans. We did. But, it wasn’t what we expected.


The boat we rented looked like something out of an amusement park. A green fiber glass shell barely seated four, two in front and two right behind. Knees in our chests. Powered by an outboard motor, maybe 40 or 50 horsepower, it was assembled from stray parts, the cover bearing no brand markings. A fuel tank, portable, new and red was connected to the motor by black – also new – fuel lines.


We set off up or down, depending on the tide, the Little Sambas River flowing muddy, murky and uninviting, typical of most tropical rivers. Lining one bank, platforms held outhouses. Both men and women scrubbed clothes, white soap frothing from jeans and t-shirts. Naked children played, smiled and returned our waves as we motored by.


The river narrowed with banks closing in. On one side, bushy palms with knife-like fronds stood as an impenetrable barrier of light green. The other bank had a curtain of small-leafed, waxy magnolia-leafed bushes. Openings, wide enough to accommodate a small canoe, provided an entrance to wetlands further inland.


Suddenly, the river widened with both sides suddenly clearing to rice fields or the edges of rubber estates. The bathing/playing/defecating/clothes washing platforms resumed on one side while swamps moved inward to eye sight limit on the other. Several people used tooth brushes, spitting paste colored river water. My stomach revolted.


We docked at a Malay village (kampung). A path paralleled the river as we walked looking at the homes. A business held two of the problems with rain forest loss: A chainsaw, blade gleaming and a portable, generator driven saw mill that sliced the logs into usable planks. Quickly, they would be taken into town and sold or immediately added to a home under construction.


This kampung had 84 doors, a way of counting the number of families in this part of the world. A wizened crone appointed herself our tour guide. We went to her home, sat cross legged on the plank floor with a woven rug and drank tea. I prayed the water wasn’t from the river. We chatted and then she took us to a few more homes, all with color televisions and satellite dishes.


Incongruously, a large two-story, modern, slate roofed home centered the village. Constructed of poured concrete and painted pink, the two-story, balconied home housed an ultra modern kitchen, flush toilets and expensive furniture. The lady who entertained had gold bangles running down each arm and necklaces draped around her neck.


From what I could gather, she was the sister of the owner, who had married a rich Chinese merchant from Kuching, Malaysia. He probably needed a relative in Indonesia to easier perform business in both countries. As part of her dowry, she demanded a large mansion be built in her village to show everyone she married well and was now very wealthy. How they got all of the cement, wiring, plumbing and other building materials up the river from Sambas is beyond me.


I had heard about village people keeping orangutans as pets, but this was the first time I had actually seen it. The adolescent female ape was chained around the neck on what we would consider the front porch overlooking the river. She looked healthy and happy but the heavy one or two meter chain was a bit tight. The orang held out her hand when approached and pursed her lips. The “captain” gave her two tangerines. I remembered the rule to never get very close because of human-ape disease transmission and stayed far back.


“How much do they want for it?” I queried. A brief discussion. “$400 United States dollars,” the villager replied.


“Where did she come from?”


“She was an orphan whose mother was shot by loggers clearing land for oil palm. We just found her.”


I knew I could afford to buy her but getting an endangered species across the border to Malaysia was very illegal. I had no way to transport this large ape to a rehab center in Indonesia.


Sadly, I left. I turned back around.


“How much do they get for a young orang,” I asked. “$5,000 United States dollars,” was the quick reply.


Who buys them,” I pressed.


“Rehab centers and white people,” came the fast answer.” I was going to do something but I wasn’t sure what.


To be continued….


…life is good


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