Tanjung Puting National Park and the Orangutans

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'Eprol' welcomes you to Camp Leakey.

Nestled deep in central Kalimantan you will discover a haven quite unlike any other place on earth. It is one of two habitats that you will find the incredible creatures know as Orang-utans. Taking a gentle boat ride up the tributaries of the Sungai Setonyer you will pass an array of animals sweeping through the forest of Tanjung Putting National Park (Tanjung Puting means “Cape Waterspout”). The park was established in 1984, though a portion was protected as early as 1936. It covers 3050 sq km (1178 sq mi) of tropical rain forest, mangrove forest, and swamp on mostly flat, low-lying plains with higher ridges in the northern part of the park. It can be reached by the small town of Kumai, located on the Kumai River. The name 'orangutan' means “man of the jungle” in Malay. They live only on the island of Borneo and in the northern corner of the island of Sumatra. Orangutans are not only shaped by the forest they live in, they also shape the forest, through the seeds of wild fruits that pass through their digestive tracts and are scattered as they travel their home range.

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The only way to travel the unique river system within Tanjung Puting.

Motoring into Kumai Bay you catch sight for the first time of the vastly vegetated fields of Borneo. Nipas palms wall the Sungai Kumai (river), reaching deep into the depths of the island. Mangroves feast on the water flowing by their roots, the hum of chainsaws fills the air and smoke rises from the flat terrain. The magical sounds of insects calling in the brush, the odd rustle of leaves and a splash in the water stirs you senses.

In the small town of Kumai there is a roaring trade as boats have come from all parts of Indonesia to export wood. Vegetation is luxuriant and highly diversified. In the mountain regions rhododendron, orchid, pitcher plant, and other flowering plants grow in great profusion. Fruit trees include the coconut palm, orange, banana, and mango. More than 50 species of timber trees grow in the dense forests, notably teak, ironwood, ebony, and sandalwood.

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Logging in Kalimantan

Unfortunately rainforest logging in this region is still not under any rigid type of regulation resulting in the mass arrival of loggers, exporting products to other parts of the country. The growing concern by the locals for regulation has spurred millers and miners alike to accelerate the speed with which they clear sections of forest. Saddening, as the deepest most intriguing parts of Borneo are now becoming even harder to find.  Do the bewildering apparitions of Eden that coloured the well renowned imagery of Borneo still exist?

Indonesia’s dense population and rapid economic growth has put pressure on the environment. Deforestation is a major concern, between 1990 and 1995 Indonesia lost an estimated 54,220 sq km (20,930 sq mi) of tropical forest. Timber companies are poorly regulated and farmers often expand into the areas logged by the companies. Soil degradation is resulting from the improper land use, which causes rivers to become silted with runoff and to flood more easily.

The Indonesian government has worked to address environmental concerns by creating a ministry for the environment in 1978, building up environmental regulations. Among them is the 1982 Environmental Management Act, which makes the government responsible for resource management. Additional regulations in 1986 require a business to submit an environmental impact analysis before undertaking large projects. Critics of the government, however, argue that many of its departments have unclear and overlapping environmental responsibilities. They also argue that the Ministry of the Environment is too small and weak to adequately enforce environmental regulations.

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 Eden at sunset on the Sungai Setonyer

Briute Galdikas has been greatly responsible for the expanding wealth of knowledge that has been collected about orangutans. In 1986 she established the Orangutan Foundation International, a non-profit organisation that raises much needed funds for the orangutans. Presently she works as the director of the Orphaned Orangutan Education and Care center in Borneo. She has been involved in the conservation of Indonesia's natural resources and proved to be instrumental in convincing the Indonesian government to turn the site of her orangutan research at Tanjung Puting Reserve, into a National Park. Other primates in the forests include crab-eating macaques and proboscis monkeys. The area is also significant for marine animals, including crocodiles, dolphins, mudskippers, and dragon fish. The dragon fish, highly prized by collectors, are vulnerable to poaching.

Dr Galdikas named a site within the park after Professor Louis Leakey. In 1971, Camp Leakey  was established as a site for scientific research and a rehabilitation centre for orangutans. Since first opening the camp has successfully rehabilitated 283 orangutans into the wild. The rangers tell us that there are around 2000 orangutans in Tanjung Putting National Park and between 15,000, and 20,000 in all of Borneo.

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Erwin give 'Adung' a bath by the river. 'Adung' and 'Lady' having climbing practice at Tanjung Harapan.

Tanjung Puting National Park is important for it's orangutan rehabilitation. It helps orangutans that have been raised illegally as pets to adapt to wilderness. When the young orangutans come to Tanjung Puting, they are often afraid and scared of the environment. The goals of the rehabilitation program are to re-install their natural instincts for the wild, by removing their fear which is often brought about by the influence of logging. They are encouraged to climb and find fruit in the forest on their own as well as making nests in the trees. One of the dangers these young orangutans face is their susceptibility to human diseases. In order to combat this the rangers give them a bath every day. 

Camp Leakey is one of the sites where you will encounter older orangutans. ‘Eprol’, one of the orangutans, is approximately 30 years old and the proud mother of a two-month-old baby. She was found homeless in a palm plantation seventeen months ago and now calls Camp Leakey and it’s surrounding forests home. ‘Unyuk’ is one of the not so friendly orangutan females. Traveling with her child in the trees above, she frequently decides that she will take a closer look at photography equipment carried by tourists. Unfortunately this is the result of her being mistreated by a previous owner before she was brought to Camp Leakey, and is a reminder that one should never underestimate the power of a ‘wild’ animal.

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Base camp for the police of Tanjung Puting.

The Parks Police Station is funded by the Orangutan Foundation International and is working to aid in the prevention of illegal logging and mining within the park. The station is situated at a fork in the river, one way leading to camp Leakey and the other leading further up stream to the mining area. The water flowing from the mining stream is very thick and brackish. At the opening to the tributary you can see the effects of the gold mining on the island as thick layers of sediment pollute the once clean waterways. In contrast the river from Camp Leakey is a rich black and throughout the day appeared as a pane of glass reflecting the overhanging plant life in all its luminosity. The orangutan habitat is rapidly diminishing as a result of large-scale logging and burning of forests. The massive forest fires on Sumatra and Borneo in 1997 and 1998 killed thousands of orangutans and destroyed the habitat of thousands more, endangering the survival of the species.

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'Michael' at home in the trees.

Pondok Tanjung the second station, home to a rather inquisitive Gibbon (Hylobates sp.) by the name of Michael. Gibbons do most of their traveling through the trees and have been seen to leap up to 9m / 30ft between branches. When walking along the ground they walk upright with their arms held out for balance. This impulsive little guy moves so quickly and with such intent. In just ten seconds he will go from the pier into trees. He will entertain; his acrobatic ability is quite amazing allowing him to avoiding being caught. Michael is another of the less fortunate in Kalimantan to have lost his original home due to deforestation, which is why you find him stationed at Pondok Tanjung.

Another of the less fortunate at Pondok Tanjung is ‘Copra’ a 9-year-old orangutan. She has become very dependent on human interaction and will climb between your arms the minute she catches sight of you. She is insatiably curious, wanted constant affection and attention, expressed emotions such as anger and embarrassment in a manner seemingly very similar to human beings. A 1-year-old orangutan merely clings to its mother, showing little interest in things other than to chew on them or put them on its head. The main interest in life seemed to be sustenance. This trait would continue throughout life if they lived wild; as they are extremely food oriented.

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Wisdom in the eyes of the human like visage of 'Eprol'.

Orangutans are characterized by coarse, long, reddish-brown fur; the feeling of the fur is much the same as the coarseness of a horse’s mane, even though to look at it appears soft. The gentleness of their eyes are one of the reasons I think many of us get so lost in the moment when looking at them. Dark chocolate brown pupils staring back at you, what else can you do but look also. Ears so soft and so like that of humans. Their high arched foreheads are another of the features that give them a distinctively human like visage.

The orangutan spends most of its time in trees, using its long arms and hook-shaped hands and feet for holding branches and vines. It rarely ventures to the ground, but when it does, it walks on all fours. Traveling through the treetops is difficult, so an orangutan only travels a few hundred meters each day. Walking through the thick vine covered forest floor you get a sense of the true environment in which the orangutans live. Looking into the trees you will discover that the orangutans make nests throughout the day in which to rest, each evening they build a new treetop nest in which they sleep at night. Old nests no longer in use will remain, if your lucky you may see a young female shuffle branches to make her nest, often by bending down fronds of a betel tree. Older males however have been noted to travel and sleep on the ground, like Kosashi at Camp Leakey.

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Kosashi, the oldest male a Camp Leakey

Male orangutans average about 95 cm (37 in) in length and about 77 kg (170 lb) in weight, although males recorded in captivity have been bigger and heavier. Females are smaller, reaching about 78 cm (31 in) in height and weighing only about 37 kg (81 lb). The male has puffy cheeks and a hanging throat-pouch. This pocket contains air sacks that help produce a groaning, bubbling call, that echoes through the forest and can be heard at least 1 km (0.6 mi) away.

Orangutans are solitary creatures. Except when mating, males wander the forest alone looking for the fruit that makes up most of their diet. The females are usually accompanied by one or two dependent offspring. When a female is ready to mate, she will seek out an adult male. The pair will stay together for several days until the female is pregnant, then they will resume their solitary ways. Immature orangutans, adolescent females and sub- adult males, are considerably more social than their elders. This can be observed at Tanjung Harapan, the first station within the park.

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Cuddly companions at Tanjung Harapan, the first rehabilitation station

The gestation period for orangutans is just under nine months, nearly the same as in human beings. Females give birth to a single infant about once every eight years in the wild although captives have been observed to give birth as soon as 4 years between.

”When we first met Beth in 1971, she was carrying infant Bert on her neck. Bert must have been approximately a year old, because he was briefly leaving his mother's body for short distances. Conventional wisdom at the time, based primarily on zoo data, indicated that wild orangutan females give birth every three to four years. But when Beth and then Fran gave birth again in 1979, it established that in two cases at least the interval was about nine years.” B.Galdikas

Infants stay very close to their mothers for the first three years until they are weaned. They spend the next three to five years becoming increasingly independent of their mother, gaining complete independence at about eight years of age. Occasionally, an adult female with a youngster will pair up with another adult female and her young for up to three days, during which time the youngsters play together.  

“I had raised Sugito from infancy. I had cuddled him, called him endearing names, and handed him tidbits of food. Taking my cue from the wild orangutan mothers I was observing, I had let him cling to me night and day ... But when Sugito became a juvenile, at about 4, the process of separation had been difficult. I lacked the orangutan mother's powerful jaws and large canines that enforce a juvenile's quick and relatively painless independence ... Now Sugito was 7, and I faced the dreadful consequences of inadvertently raising an orangutan as a human being." B.Galdikas.

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Sugene and Erwin  two of the rangers responsible for orangutan rehabilitation 
at Tanjung Harapan with Andi a guide from Kumai.  'Lady', one of the rescued
 juvenile orangutans at Tanjung Harapan. 

At Tanjung Harapan, the first station you can visit the information center and learn a little more about the rehabilitation program running within the Tanjung Puting National Park. Since the orangutans have been recognized as a flagship species to the park the Friends of the National Park Foundation have sponsored veterinary action. The FNPF is supported entirely by donations from visitors to the park and travel companies operating tours within the region. Thanks to their help and the help of organisations like Trekforce, who donated time into building the information center, you will find many people interested in this amazingly unique environment; one of the only remaining natural habitats for the orangutans. Take that little journey up the winding Sungai Seytonyer into the Eden of Tanjung Puting - you will never forget it.

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'Adung' 10 months old  taking a brake from climbing practice

The most important thing you can do to help is to lobby for the protection of these animals. Action needs to be taken within Kalimantan to preserve one of the planets most precious ecosystems and all that inhabit it, not the least of which is the orangutan.

Below are the fax numbers of government officials who have the means to reduce the impact of mining and logging upon Kalimantan's forests. We encourage you to write a note urging the restriction or, better still, legislation prohibiting deforesting activities in Kalimantan.

Minister of Environment
Sony Keraf
Jalan DI Panjaitan kav.42
Kebon Nanas, Jakarta
Fax (+62-21) 8580087


His Excellency the Minister of Forestry
Ir Nur Mahumid
Ud. Manggala Wana Bakit
Block.1 Lt.4
JI gatot subroto
Jakarta Pusat
Fax( +62-21) 573 4818

If you want more information about the efforts being made to conserve these wonderful creatures or have you’re say and try and stop illegal logging. You can check out the web site http://www.orangutan.org/index1.htm

To watch these magnificent animals in the wild made me aware of the efforts being made by the rangers within the park. It is plainly obvious that they enjoy what they do. It is a credit to Dr Galdikas and the National Park Authorities that the orangutans of Tanjung Putting are surviving. Although orangutans are on the brink of extinction, I am an idealist. I believe that as long as nature reserves such as Tanjung Puting in Kalimantan are around they have a chance, especially with the heart of the people fighting for their survival.

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Kosai, king of Tanjung Puting

Lou Oliver

Ronald M.Norwak (1999) Wlaker's mammals of the World, Sixth Edition, Volume 1, The John Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Galdikas B. "Living with Orangutans," Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.

Microsoft® Encarta® Encyclopedia 2000. © 1993-1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Dr Abdul Muin, Tanjung Puting National Park.
The Rangers at Tanjung Puting National Park