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THE BLOG

Our Endangered Great Ape Cousins, Section III -- Orangutans: Animal Planet on the Looney Front, Part 3

Once Orangutans roamed over much of Asia. Now you'll only find these fantastic red-haired creatures in Sumatra and Borneo.
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Once Orangutans roamed over much of Asia. Now you'll only find these fantastic red-haired creatures in Sumatra and Borneo.

Orangutan range - from Orangutanssp

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Sumatran Orangutans

Sumatran Orangutans, at about 6,600, are listed as 'critically endangered' by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), their habitat gravely threatened by chainsaw-crazed deforestation to make way for oil palm plantations and other agriculture.

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Male orangutan in the wild at Gunung Leuser, Sumatra

You can see them at the Bukit Lawang rehabilitation centre, easily accessible from Medan, Sumatra's capital. Here they're used to visitors. But if you want to be literally at home with them in their own territory, on their own terms, make for the dense mountainous rain forests of Aceh province's Gunung Leuser National Park.

Gunung Leuser habitat

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Here, high in the branches, vivid orange-red blurs stir behind the vivid green leaves - a young male slowly swinging his way in search of fruit, or a mother walking and swinging along a branch with her son. A young'un gets bitten by ants, lets out a whimper. The mother gathers him up in her arms and kisses him.

The orange-red blur

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Another female moves in, her month-old baby clinging to her fur. She puts the infant on her foot and swings it up and down, just like a human mother playing with her child. The screech of nearby chainsaws intrudes.

Mother and child

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Another mother and child

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Experts estimate that orangutans could be extinct in the wild in less than 25 years, having lost over 80 percent of their last remaining habitat in the past 20 years.

Mother and juvenile

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A massive male sits atop a tree, eating leaves and berries. With surprising speed and agility he descends to the lower branches.

Here I come

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He turns his head and intelligent eyes momentarily towards us, his bright orange-red beard adding to his handsome features, the ample cheek pads of a sexually mature male stretching between his eyes and ears like a ruff framing his face - King Kong himself.

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His chest is massive, his arms and legs powerfully thick. He climbs up into the trees again. It starts raining, the drizzle becomes more persistent. Then it dawns on me just as it hits me - His Majesty is peeing.

Wow, a great ape golden shower! If you get seven years good luck when a bird craps on you, how many more do you get when a dirty great orangutan pisses on you!

Borneo Orangutans

By contrast, the Sumatrans' less vividly orange Borneo cousins are listed as merely 'endangered,' with an estimated total of some 45,000.

You can see them in Sabah and Sarawak on the Malaysian side of the vast island, and in Kalimantan, on the Indonesian side.

Rescued orphan orangutans in Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, Sabah

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You can hike out into the wild as I did in Sumatra. But in Kalimantan I choose the surer way, taking a houseboat up the jungle rivers of Central Kalimantan province from Pangkalan Bun to Tanjung Puting National Park orangutan reserve.

Here they're in their natural habitat, but not in the wild. Orphans rescued from poachers as infants, they are rehabilitated and gradually reintroduced into the wild. They're used to humans, do not hide, and are fed at feeding platforms, in addition to the berries and leaves they find in the wild.

Orangutans at Tanjung Harapan

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At Tanjung Harapan station a massive 31-year-old male approaches a platform at a leisurely pace through the undergrowth. A female with a 10-day-old baby clutching the fur on her back withdraws out of respect. His hair is long and a darker ginger than the bright red-orange of his Sumatran cousins. He looks at the tourists with contempt as he stuffs three bananas into his mouth.

He lets a female approach.

His cheek pads ruff is well pronounced, and he has a longish ginger beard. His given name is Burhan, but for me he's my new King Kong.

Burhan arrives

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Another mother and child

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Further into the jungle at Pondok Tanggui, another massive 31-year-old male, Doyok, lumbers down a path by a hut. He stops barely 10 feet away and poses, looking this way and that as if to get us to snap his best profile, showing off his ample cheek pads and the round tyre of fat round his neck. I've found yet another King Kong.

He moves forward. We're told to move smartly back - for two reasons. Firstly, if he feels challenged he could become aggressive. Secondly, and more importantly, orangutans are very susceptible to human illness, for which they lack antibodies. If he caught even a cold from us he could die.

Doyok

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He moves on through the undergrowth to the feeding platform. A female moves to the edge out of respect. He literally stuffs his face with bananas, then lifts up a bowl of milk, before moving to one side.

The female also wants a drink and moves tentatively towards the bowl. Doyok is over it in now time, two huge hands in front of it, two behind. He's probably teasing her, because he eventually saunters back and lets her drink.

Female takes some bananas to eat away from Doyok

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Tata, 20, with her two and a half year old daughter Tiga, is posing barely 15 feet above us at the junction of a branch and trunk. The young one is all over her, posing under her arms, on top of her head, doing a full monty.

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It starts to rain. This time it's real, not just Doyok having a piss like his Sumatran cousin. Uniuk, a mother with a baby, poses barely six feet away. She breaks off a couple of leafy branches and puts them over her head for an umbrella. Her child plays at trying to imitate her. Wow, what a photo!

Yes, you've guessed it - my digital battery's run dry.

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[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Animal Planet on the Looney Front - Monkey Business]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.