King and Queen of Kal­i­man­tan’s Jun­gle

A jour­ney into Camp Leakey Orang­utan Cen­tre to meet Tom and Tutu

Asian Geographic - - Feature - by Tommy Schultz

Nearly 24 hours spent aboard the tra­di­tional wooden klo­tok river­boat and the only pri­mates we’ve seen are a few pro­boscis mon­keys cack­ling through the emer­ald green of the up­per canopy. This is a poignant re­minder that the pop­u­la­tion of wild orang­utans here has fallen by more than 50% in the last decade.

Camp Leakey, a home for orang­utans

The river­banks nar­row as we travel fur­ther into Cen­tral Kal­i­man­tan’s Tan­jung Put­ing Na­tional Park, the tan­nin-

stained wa­ter con­ceal­ing count­less fish, frogs and the oc­ca­sional croc­o­dile – the un­spo­ken rea­son no­body chooses to es­cape the trop­i­cal heat with a quick swim.

We’re vis­it­ing Camp Leakey, the tiny re­search out­post cre­ated by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas and her staff in 1971 and named in hon­our of Louis Leakey, the leg­endary Kenyan pa­le­oan­thro­pol­o­gist. To­day the camp has grown to be­come one of the lead­ing orang­utan re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion fa­cil­i­ties in the world to re-in­tro­duce th­ese an­i­mals to their nat­u­ral habi­tat in Bor­neo.

The tan­nin­stained Sekonyer River con­ceals count­less fish, frogs and the oc­ca­sional croc­o­dile

Orang­utans ar­riv­ing at Camp Leakey are usu­ally or­phaned, in­jured or for­merly held in cap­tiv­ity. The goal of the camp is to pre­pare the an­i­mals to live in their nat­u­ral habi­tat again through a process of grad­ual ex­po­sure. Over the course of months (and of­ten years), Camp Leakey staff as­sist the an­i­mals un­til they are deemed ready to be re­leased to live on their own again.

Some orang­utans never really leave the camp. Hav­ing formed a bond with their hu­man care­tak­ers, they stay within the bound­aries of their new home. Th­ese are a few of the an­i­mals that we’ll be meet­ing when we ar­rive at Camp Leakey, which has grown to be­come one of the most unique places in the world to have a very per­sonal en­counter with an orang­utan.

Hav­ing grown up vis­it­ing zoos in big cities like Wash­ing­ton DC and San Diego where the bound­aries be­tween hu­man and wildlife are very firmly drawn, it’s dif­fi­cult to make a com­par­i­son with Camp Leakey.

All eyes on Tutu

As our boat ap­proaches the mod­est wooden dock which ex­tends out from the swampy jun­gle into the river – the only vis­i­ble sign of the camp – we spot our first orang­utan. She’s a ma­ture fe­male named Tutu, hold­ing an in­fant within the safety of her ma­hogany­coloured fur.

No hu­mans are in sight and it’s as if the an­i­mals are really run­ning the show here. I can al­ready sense this is go­ing to be an ex­pe­ri­ence like no other.

Our lo­cal Dayak guide has been here many times and Tutu seems to ca­su­ally ac­knowl­edge him as he steps onto the wooden planks be­side her and ties our boat to the dock. Con­ver­sa­tions stop on the boat, with all eyes on Tutu who re­turns our gawk­ing stares with a steady gaze, nei­ther alarmed nor par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the new­com­ers.

Rais­ing the cam­era, I com­pose a por­trait of Tutu as she turns to look into the lens. Through the clar­ity of the tele­photo, her eyes hold a melan­choly wis­dom that seems to speak to the weight of her years and the ex­is­ten­tial strug­gle she and her species face in the com­ing years. Maybe I’m an­thro­po­mor­phis­ing here,

Some orang­utans at Camp Leakey never really leave, hav­ing formed a bond with their

hu­man care­tak­ers

but it’s hard to over­state the im­me­di­ate con­nec­tion ev­ery­one seems to be hav­ing with this en­voy from the wilds of Bor­neo.

Gray, a Bali ex­pat orig­i­nally from Cal­i­for­nia, ap­proaches Tutu cau­tiously and sits be­side her. I’m re­mem­ber­ing the warn­ings about the dan­gers of get­ting too close to an an­i­mal with a baby and won­der­ing if Gray is about to re­ceive the thrash­ing of his life, but Tutu serenely ig­nores Gray as she cra­dles her in­fant in her enor­mous arms.

Adult orang­utans are in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful. Males have a reach that stretches to more than two me­tres

when fully ex­tended and are be­lieved to be four times stronger than hu­mans. As the ma­tri­ar­chal fe­male of the group at Camp Leakey, Tutu is a bit smaller than the largest adult male, but her strength is more than enough to com­pletely over­whelm any of us.

Gray is the first to reach out to Tutu, lit­er­ally. Sit­ting cross-legged be­side her, he ex­tends his hands, palms raised. It’s the least threat­en­ing ges­ture he can muster, and af­ter a tense mo­ment, Tutu reaches out and clasps Gray’s hand in her leath­ery hands. Tutu is ob­serv­ing each of us in turn as this first ges­ture of friend­ship is made.

See­ing that Tutu is open to wel­com­ing us to her home, ev­ery­one takes turns to greet Tutu with a hand­shake. While the oth­ers are in­ter­act­ing with Tutu, I’m try­ing to cap­ture a por­trait of this amaz­ing an­i­mal that does some jus­tice to the quiet dig­nity em­a­nat­ing from her.

Fi­nally, it’s my turn to meet Tutu. I put the cam­era down and ap­proach steadily, but slowly, care­ful not to make too much eye con­tact or flash a smile that orang­utans usu­ally in­ter­pret as a sign of ag­gres­sion.

Tak­ing a seat be­side Tutu, she makes brief eye con­tact to ac­knowl­edge my pres­ence, then turns her gaze to the river­boat be­hind me. The guides are preparing a few ba­nanas to of­fer the orang­utans of the camp.

Not sure ex­actly what to do, I of­fer an open hand to Tutu. She takes it in a sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful grip,

Tutu makes brief eye con­tact to ac­knowl­edge my pres­ence, then takes my hand in a sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful grip

mus­cles mov­ing like con­stric­tors be­neath the dense coat of or­ange fur.

No­body ap­proaches Tom. In fact, there was a pal­pa­ble feel­ing of ex­treme peril if any­one were fool­ish enough to in­vade his ter­ri­tory. I max out my zoom lens at 200mm and take a se­ries of por­traits of Tom – an en­tirely dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence from be­ing near the gen­tle and ma­tri­ar­chal Tutu.

Main­tain­ing a re­spect­ful dis­tance from Tom, we spend the af­ter­noon watch­ing the an­tics of ju­ve­nile and sub-adult orang­utans as they play and chat­ter with each other near watch­ful si­lence of the silent pa­tri­arch.

Even­tu­ally Tutu ap­pears again, her in­fant cling­ing around her neck. Tutu doesn’t di­rectly ac­knowl­edge us or Tom, but fades into the green fo­liage of the for­est, in search of food or a bit of soli­tude.

The hours pass quickly here, and be­fore I re­alise it’s al­ready time to point our klo­tok down­stream and be­gin the trip back to civil­i­sa­tion. The fiery sun­set that fades in the af­ter­noon sky above where our boat stops for the night is nearly iden­ti­cal to the colours of the ‘peo­ple of the for­est’, the Malay trans­la­tion of the name given to th­ese gen­tle and wise an­i­mals.

For any­one lucky enough to travel to their na­tive habi­tat to ex­pe­ri­ence an in­ter­ac­tion with Tutu and the other orang­utans at Camp Leakey, the idea of los­ing th­ese an­i­mals to de­for­esta­tion and ex­tinc­tion is un­think­able. But it’s an ac­knowl­edge­ment of this un­cer­tain fu­ture that I see ev­ery time I look at my favourite por­trait of Tutu – her melan­choly eyes ex­press­ing the sad­ness of a species dis­ap­pear­ing into the grow­ing dark­ness of twi­light. ag

TOMMY SCHULTZ is an Amer­i­can travel and ad­ven­ture pho­tog­ra­pher who has been based in South­east Asia since 2004. Based in Bali for much of the year, his work has been pub­lished by Na­tional Ge­o­graphic, Patag­o­nia, The Surfer’s Jour­nal, The World Wildlife Fund, Delta Air­lines, Garuda In­done­sia and more.

The idea of los­ing th­ese wise and gen­tle an­i­mals to de­for­esta­tion and ex­tinc­tion is un­think­able

be­low right Tutu ac­knowl­edges us with a steady gaze, as our Dayak guide ties our boat to the dock Tom’s rum­ble of deep grunts and bel­low­ing echoes could be heard through the trees

far left Tutu fades into the green fo­liage of the for­est, in search of food or a bit of soli­tude

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