Saturday, April 28, 2012

Eye to eye with Borneo's orangutans


A trip to Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park affords close-up views of an ape that shares 97 percent of our DNA.

The swampy heat swaddles everything like a wet diaper. The coffee-colored Sekonyer River looks tempting to cool off in, but then there are the crocodiles and the water snakes. Somewhere out there, too, are rumors of headhunters -- and not the business kind.

Instead, my family and I decide to kick back and let the orangutans in Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park come to us.

The park is one of the world's best places to see the endangered orangutan in the wild. With South Asia's tropical forests rapidly disappearing, particularly in Borneo, it's also one of the only places where you can still see the great apes in their natural habitat.

To reach the park, we fly to Indonesia's Central Kalimantan province from Jakarta, then take an old African Queen-style wooden boat from the port of Kumai on the Java Sea. We plop ourselves in deck chairs as the boat slowly putt-putts away from Kumai's fishing shacks, cargo sheds and bright blue mosque and finally enters a channel leading to the jungle. Here, an unexpected billboard featuring a large picture of a big-eyed orangutan announces the park's entrance.

Other than in the picture, though, the orangutans are initially hard to spot. Although the rain forest presses close on both sides of the boat, the apes stay hidden.

Our guide helpfully instructs us to look for swaying branches up in the canopy and for nests made of sticks: This is because orangutans are tree-dwellers, in fact the world's largest tree-dwelling mammals.

We learn to look in front of the boat, rather than to the side, and soon we spot moms with babies firmly attached swinging from tree branch to tree branch or munching contentedly on fruit. At ground level, I see solitary males, with their telltale large, leathery cheek pads, along the reedy banks.

Farther along, less shy orangutans watch the boat from branches close to the shore. Our guide calls to the animals, whistling and making kissing sounds. The orangutans remain silent but cautiously swing closer to the boat. A few venture to waterside branches, but the park discourages visitors from getting too close, for safety (the 250- to 300-pound males can be dangerously unpredictable) and health reasons.

I tentatively hold out a banana to one mom and suddenly feel an easy kinship with the great ape. Not surprising, since they share 97 percent of our DNA. Our guide tells us that the word "orangutan" derives from a Malay word meaning "forest man."

Continue reading (Incl. Pic) at: Eye to eye with Borneo's orangutans
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