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In the footsteps of Dr Birute Galdikas - An orangutan escapade


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The slow boat chugged away from the busy harbor and a skyline of concrete buildings that heralded the town of Kumai. It veered into Sekonyer River. Before the bend, a huge statue of an orangutan with raised arms welcomed us into the national park. On our right was the 4,150-acre Tanjung Puting National park edging the mouth of Kumai River.






the town of Kumai is flourishing, thanks mainly to the growth of tourism. Concrete blocks with holes are spread around the town. Inside are swallows building nests - birds' nest which are gathered to sell for a high price as a delicacy for Asians. For a small town in Kalimantan, its streets were quite busy with people and traffic, signs that things have begun looking up for its people.






Kumai is the gateway into Tanjung Puting National Park in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. Tourists who want to see orangutans in the park have to come through this town. To get to Kumai, you could either fly into Pangkalabun from Jakarta, which my group and I did, or take the cruise ship NatGeo Lindblad, which runs wildlife cruises in Southeast Asia until the end of this year. I'm sure there are other routes to the town but I didn't find out.

Edited by Kitsafari
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What both special tours offer is time spent with Dr Birute Mary Galdikas.


Dr Birute (I’m lazy so I’ll call her DrB with the utmost respect for her), or Dr G as some affectionately calls her, is not as tall and imposing as her peer Dian Fossey nor is she as willowy and delicate looking as her other peer Jane Goodall. But one can’t underestimate the soft-spoken woman, who arrived in 1971 with her ex- husband Rod Brindamour, to undertake what became a 44-year journey (for her) to study, and then protect, orangutans.


Dr Birute was the last of the three primatologists assigned by Professor Louis Leakey to study the great apes. In her book Reflections of Eden, she knew from a young age that she wanted to study orangutans.


Orangutans are what I call the forgotten third great ape of the world (perhaps Bonobos would be the fourth and they have no famous primatologist to adopt their cause). The reddish brown apes were called in the 19th century as Mias pappan by the Dayaks, as described by Alfred Wallace in its incredibly detailed and heavy book called The Malay Archipelago. Research has come a long way since the days of Wallace, who shot 16 orangutans in order to study their anatomy.


Instead, Dr B studied the apes by braving the swamps, by tilting her head up into the skies, by dodging things thrown down by the apes, by wading into armpit deep waters to follow the apes and study their behaviours.


I first came across DrB during my research on orangutans a year ago before our trip to DanumValley in Sabah. I had always wanted to see the apes in the wild but I was intrigued by her commitment to the Asian ape. In February last year, I tried to get a spot on the Eco-tours organized about 5x a year by Irene Spencer Travel but the tours were full. When I found out on March 27 this year there were a couple of spots left, I signed up, paid in full and went for the TB checks all in a week and wondered after that – do I want to see orangutans in a sanctuary or shouldn’t I want to see them in the wild?


Behind that thought - when is the right time to interfere to save the animals and when to let nature take its course? That question plagued me until a few days into the tour when DrB indirectly provided the answer.


Sanctuaries, rescues and rehabilitations are crucial and vital to the survival of orangutans. They have to be saved because humans interfered long ago when they started unwittingly chopping down trees to make way for farms, for villages and now, intentionally, on a larger scale for plantations and for logging.



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An intriguing start to this report @@Kitsafari - am looking forward to more.


Also hope to learn about Dr Birute Galdikas who I have to confess I have not previously heard of.

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so i'll keep this report short. it's only 5 days after all! so it'll be more of a pictorial kind of report (of course knowing my rambling way, I don't know if it will keep to what I said!) and then talk a bit about palm oil and deforestation.


Here’s my itinerary:

May 10: fly from Singapore into Jakarta. One night in Jakarta, overnight at FM7 Resort, a nice average comfortable hotel close to the airport

May 11: Fly to Pangkalanbun via Trigana Air in the morning. Lunch in Pangkalanbun, overnight in Rimba Eco Lodge in Tanjung Puting National Park

May 11-14 : stay at Rimba Eco Lodge

May 12: two-hour boat ride to Camp Leakey. Lunch and feeding station. Tea with DrB at front porch of her residence in Camp Leakey

May 13: Pondok Tanggui feeding station, and then to Camp Leakey feeding station. Tea with DrB

May 14: Sekonyer Village which is supported by Orangutan Foundation International. Speedboat ride back to Kumai. Tour of the OFI Care centre and facility. Farewell dinner

May 15: flight to Jakarta via Kalstar to catch connecting flight to Singapore.



A woman waits - Life in Jakarta




A schoolgirl waits for her dad




Kalimantan, Borneo

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You're too quick on the draw for me @@Kitsafari and are filling in my lack of knowledge about Dr B admirably. Thanks for that.

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@@Caracal you weren't the only one who didn't know much about DrB. when I found out she was the third of the Trimates, I felt I needed the up and close experience to find out more about her and her work for the orangutans.

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@@Kitsafari, following this with interest as I would try to tie it in to a Borneo trip if possible. "Orangutans are what I would call the forgotten Great Ape of the world", interesting as they are very "high profile" here in Oz. The Orangutan Project, based here in West Aus, is, I believe, the worlds largest charity supporting Orangs, and it too is very high profile here. Orangutans are certainly one of the stars of our Zoo. Maybe because we are "closer" geographically than say Europe or the U.S. Keen to hear how you got on.

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Looking forward to this, Kit - hope you had a enjoyable trip. And the next one is happening soon, isn´t it? So you better hurry! :)

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I am really pleased you have begun this - I have been looking forward to it since I knew you were going. A great start to the report - and don't make it short!

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@@Kitsafari, following this with interest as I would try to tie it in to a Borneo trip if possible. "Orangutans are what I would call the forgotten Great Ape of the world", interesting as they are very "high profile" here in Oz. The Orangutan Project, based here in West Aus, is, I believe, the worlds largest charity supporting Orangs, and it too is very high profile here. Orangutans are certainly one of the stars of our Zoo. Maybe because we are "closer" geographically than say Europe or the U.S. Keen to hear how you got on.


@@elefromoz - it's interesting that orangutans have a higher profile in Australia. I agree with you that the geographical factor is a big help and Australians are among the top 3 foreign visitors to Indonesia and they are familiar with Indonesian matters. Orangutans face keen competition for funds with other wildlife in America and europe so i'm not that surprised that the apes are not that widely known as gorillas or chimps. But oddly, Americans are among the highest donors to OFI,.


I googled Orangutan Project and i noticed that the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) is not one of the organisations that is related to the adoption the OP scheme. But OFI Australia is the most active of the OFI branches and regularly holds events and fund-raising functions for OFI.

Edited by Kitsafari
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@@michael-ibk I suddenly realised yesterday that it's 2 weeks to the next trip so yes you are right! I have to hurry to finish it before I leave!

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@@TonyQ Thanks for the vote of confidence! i'll try to give as much details as possible.

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My tour-mates were very much like-minded travellers and they were such pleasant travelmates. It made the trip that much smoother and enjoyable. Each tour only allows for 12-13 participants so that each can have as much time with DrB as possible.


We flew into Pangkalanbun early in the morning. On arrival, we had to hand in 2 copies of our passports for the admission into the national park. We had lunch at a hotel (where we will stay at the last night) and were briefed on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do during the trip.


Our first introduction to DrB came during the lunch. She came in quietly, walking in with small steps. A very down to earth person, and very sharp when you least expect it. We had a quick chat with her as the tour leader was bent on us keeping to the schedule. We were out very soon to catch a slow boat ride on the 2-storey Klotok to our home for the next 3 nights.




This is an orang-utan trip so any other wildlife was very much a sideshow, which meant we saw little other wildlife mainly along the boat ride on the Kumai River. “we don’t stop for macaques as there are plenty of them,” was what we were told, although we saw long-tailed macaques only once during the trip.


It takes about 2 hours on the klotok to get to Rimba. You can hire the klotok for a few days, living, eating and sleeping on the boat, which will cruise up and down the river. We saw a few of them moored in the evening by the banks, with the mattress laid out in the middle of the open deck screened by a mosquito net. So you are really sleeping in the open – much like fly camping.


It is early evening as we made our way to Rimba. First you see nipa palms which then gradually give way to trees.




Locals fish in small boats which disappear into tiny tributaries. One or two stilted houses dot the left banks of the river, while raised walkways for short jaunts into the forests jut into small ferry decks.
















these houses were on the left banks of the river which marks the boundary of the national park on the right.



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Proboscis monkeys or nasalis larvatus were already roosting in the trees ready for the night. The primates are endemic to Borneo and although I couldn’t find any info on their numbers (http://pin.primate.wisc.edu/factsheets/entry/proboscis_monkey says it is unknown), they are also threatened by the loss of forests.


Proboscis monkeys typically roost by the rivers, and then troop into the forests at daybreak. I couldn’t find any information on their numbers. We saw a lot of females with babies clinging to them as they found comfortable spots to sleep. The monkeys are well known for their noses and bulging stomachs. The males are distinguished by the big noses, which researchers say is a magnet for females, and an alpha male has a harem of females.


















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"Big noses and bulging stomachs", regardless, very attractive interesting animals.

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and a short tape:



@@Kitsafari excited to see this report - and only two weeks til your next trip, goodness you need to get going! I cannot see this youtube though, it says it is private.

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@@elefromoz yes they were. they were smaller than I expected. about the size of the macaques or slightly larger.


love their white bottoms ^_^ .

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Here are some population numbers:



@@jeremie, i knew i could count on you for the research! thanks for the link. interesting to see although IUCN considers the proboscis monkey as endangered, they could give a figure only for Sumatra. that's an alarming 1000 only.

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@@SafariChick Thank you for alerting me. forgot to turn to share :blink: as we were rushing out to watch the extinct species of another kind in ..... Jurassic World. after that show, i'm quite happy to watch just placid orangutans.

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Rimba Eco Lodge provides very simple and very basic accommodation, other than the klotok this is realistically the only place to stay in the park. An entrepreneurial villager has just opened a little lodge with 3 rooms at the Sekonyer Village, but I didn’t find out details on it. Rimba’s toilet facilities (flush toilets but will clog easily with paper) are very basic, while the heated shower lets out a weak flow of water. But the rooms have air-con facilities and a ceiling fan if you prefer it. Breakfast is very simple - toast, butter, delicious home-made marmalade, eggs. Lunch was at Camp Leakey where staff cooked for us, and it was always good. Dinner is more elaborate with Indonesian dishes. Satay on the last night was a big hit.


Macaques are known to wake you up early in the morning outside some rooms, and we saw proboscis monkeys waking up at the edge of the forest from the dining room during breakfast.


We didn’t have much time to spend at the lodge as we were out most of the time in the day at camp leakey. We did plan a very early morning boat ride at 6.30am on the first morning to watch the proboscis monkeys when they would awake. I went out to the deck but the plan was washed out by heavy rains, and the second morning planned for 5.30am saw only one person turning up. And it wasn’t me as I wanted to catch a bit more sleep since I couldn’t sleep much all 3 nights I was there. Just outside my room was a walkway to the river and I spent a few minutes there in the morning watching the goings and comings of boats.


meant to take the pictures of the room before i unpacked but I forgot, again










the porch outside my room. i tried to read outside in the evening but it was tough because it was not bring enough, and if there's light, the insects surrounded me.

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The first morning saw us leaving after breakfast on the klotok to camp leakey. The group was split into two boats so that each had a great view of the riverside.

A police post along the river to stop poaching and illegal logging that used to be manned, but it looks abandoned now.




our companion Kalimantan "African Queen" cruising in our klotok's wake




we finally stopped to look at a juvenile serpent eagle which was posing on the branch waiting for the sun to be warmed up.








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After an hour, the murky brown river split into two – the left called Sekonyer Kiri with the same milk-tea brown colour and the right Sekonyer Kanan with a pitch black colour. Going down Sekonyer Kiri you will arrive at the zircon and diamond mines, where over the years the dust and the mercury to wash the stones have drained into the river, contributing to the brown colour. No one is advised to swim in these waters.


The true colour of the Sekonyer river was pitch black before the mines started soon after DrB first arrived. From the little that I know, the blackness is due to the organic matter that the heavy and frequent rains wash into the river. Sekonyer River is one of a few black rivers in the world, with Rio Negro in South Ameria as another. It is said that crocodiles will only be found in the black rivers, and 2 crocs that we saw were in the Sekonyer Kanan.

The confluence of Sekonyer Kiri and Kanan - the milky brown is to the left mixing with the pitch black from the right.

Camp Leakey lay an hour on the black Sekoyner Kanan river from the confluence. The more healthy waters were like mirrors, reflecting the images of the trees. We were in the first boat so we could enjoy the placid reflections on the calm pitch black waters. I caught a glimpse of a crocodile.


the start of Sekonyer Kanan and the last stretch to Camp Leakey
Looking into the skies through tree canopies
I was expecting large crocodiles. the two i saw were only a foot or foot or half long. i don't know the name of this species although it looks like a false gharial.
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That's a very cute gharial. And love the Probiscis, they are a hit.

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