Last week I arrived in the Indonesian village of Bukit Lawang, located on the outskirts of the famous Gunung Leuser National Park, to go in search of Pongo abelii- the Sumatran Orangutan. The experience was one that I shall never forget, but also one that I didn't expect...
With a name that literally translates as 'Forest Man' in bahasa, it was clear to us from the moment we arrived in the picturesque village just how revered Orangutans are by the local people. And with good reason. Ecotourism brings thousands of pounds into the small community every year, providing locals with a number of jobs ranging from shop keepers and restaurateurs to trekking guides and 'jungle taxi' drivers (people who transport tourists up and down the rainforest rivers in traditional rubber rafts). One local hotel manager even admitted to me, as we were sitting surrounded by Orangutan paintings in his candlelit lobby, that if the tourists ever stopped coming to Bukit Lawang they would be forced to exploit the Rainforest for money. This was a hard truth to hear, but a fair one.
Having arrived in total darkness the night before, on our first morning in Lawang I was greeted by one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Our balcony overlooked a beautiful section of jungle, and a river which ran straight past our hotel and meandered into the National Park. On the other side of the riverbank a South-east Asian Monitor Lizard sat basking in the sun, which I watched for a good half an hour until it had warmed itself up enough to slither back into the rainforest. Shortly after a troop of Long-tailed Macaques marched past-all together more wild looking than their urban counterparts- whilst a dozen Pacific swallows darted over the river, scooping up insects for their breakfast.
This was the first of two days we had in Bukit Lawang, our budget too overstretched to fit in anymore. We'd already used up a lot of money on our flights to Sumatra and our accomodation, and to pay for a two day trek would break us completely. With this in mind we decided to save some money and spend our first day at the old Orangutan rehab centre's feeding platform, assured by our guidebook that a sighting was garunteed.
How wrong we were. Once upon a time the rehab centre in Gunung Leuser rescued injured and captive Orangutans from across Northern Sumatra. Once rehabilitated they would be 'soft released' back into the wild (much in the way an injured Chaffinch might be back home) by letting them go free but still putting out food for them everyday so that they could come back for extra support if needed. Eventually, however, the funding dried up and animals stopped being taken there, and now no Orangutans have been spotted at the platform in over two months. "They're wild now", a local guide told me, "they don't need to come back anymore".
That was good to hear, but now the pressure was really on. We had one day left to see Orangutans and our hotel manager was quick to point out that there was no garuntee of finding them on our trek either. I went to sleep that night with snippets from Attenborough documentaries playing over in my mind. I'd have given anything to find them. If only we had a few more days!
The next morning we set off, with two guides and a honeymooning German couple as our companions. "We have about six hours to find them", one guide announced, "then it will be time to head back". Two hours in and all we had seen were Long-tailed Macaques. Usually I could watch them for hours, but we had a mission and were running out of time fast. The constant smoking breaks weren't helping my nerves either- our guides didn't like using insect spray which can be poisonous to the animals, so stopped to ward off mosquitoes with cigarette smoke regularly instead.
As we got deeper into the jungle we started seeing more. A group of Thomas' Leaf Monkeys, endemic to northern Sumatra, sat grooming themselves in nearby trees. A White-handed Gibbon swung over our heads as we ate a lunch of jungle fruits. We tiptoed through the undergrowth to get to quiet viewpoints of the river, from which we spotted Hornbills soaring between the trees and Pea Fowl displaying down below us. The guides' enthusiasm for everything around us- the trees, the monkeys, the termite nests- was infectious. Then a phone rang.
Now we were being rushed through the forest, no longer walking at the quiet, careful pace we had gotten used to. I asked the guide what was happening; "My friend says that there are Orangutans up ahead, but we must hurry". Soon I could here excited voices resonating through the valley, and as we reached the top of the hill a crowd of some 40 tourists were staring up into the trees.
There it was above us. A solitary, ginger haze sitting high up in the canopy, obscured by leaves. Luckily my camera had a good zoom. This was a female, and she sat and ate for a while before swinging to another tree, the crowd following her every move. Finally we had found the (wo)man of the forest.
Yet this wasn't how I had expected it to be. Perhaps I'd watched too many Attenborough documentaries, but surrounded by a noisy crowd of onlookers was a far cry from the quiet, personal experience I had hoped for. Children squealed excitedly. Others, trying to tempt the beautiful ape down with bananas, screamed as they were jumped on by hungry macaques. It may as well have been a zoo!
Suddenly a shout rang out, and everybody rushed down the hill to where a mother and her baby had come down for some food. Within seconds of taking the banana she was mobbed by a rabble of camera snapping tourists, some of whom were well within the forbidden touching distance. I stood back, and filmed her for a while with my zoom. "Was she released by the rehab centre?" I asked our guide, puzzled at how tame she seemed to be.
"It's hard to tell", he said, "the Orangutans are so used to seeing people that they don't hide from us".
For a moment I was enraged. Was this the price of ecotourism? Was this baby destined to grow up surrounded by the flashing of cameras, the screaming of children and contaminated bananas from mossie spray covered tourists? At home I'm used to creeping up, noiselessly, on animals from downwind, and doing every thing that I can to ensure I don't disturb whatever it is I'm trying to film. This went against every bone in my body, but surely I was just as much to blame?
But then I looked around properly. The tourists were smiling, the guides were happy, and the Orangutans were completely unphased. When she got bored the mother and her baby simply climbed back into the canopy and moved away. And the crowd- whose money is protecting not just the Orangutans in the National Park but also the Tigers, Elephants and Rhinos that live there as well- left too. Sure it could be run better. Crowds should be smaller, noise should be kept to a minimum and the rules on not feeding or approaching the animals should be strictly enforced. But just as our hotel manager had told us: as long as the tourists keep coming, these animals will be protected for many more years to come.