Keepers of the Jun­gle

In a far-flung patch of for­est in In­done­sia, one of the planet’s most en­dan­gered pri­mates clings to a pre­car­i­ous ex­is­tence. Saki Knafo trav­els to deep­est Su­ma­tra for a rare en­counter with th­ese wise, watch­ful

Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia - - CONTENTS - By Saki Knafo. Pho­tographed by Ste­fan Ruiz

In Su­ma­tra, en­dan­gered orang­utans cling to ex­is­tence.

of their own, and over time their de­scen­dants drifted apart to the point that they could no longer be con­sid­ered one type of ape, but five. All were highly in­tel­li­gent, but one was smarter than the rest. With its gift of speech, this su­per­s­mart ape gave the oth­ers names: “go­rilla,” “chim­panzee,” “bonobo” and “orang­utan.”

This in­tel­li­gence, how­ever, came at a cost. Though this talk­ing ape was ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing won­ders, it was also ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing them. Among the won­ders it de­stroyed were many of the forests in which the other apes lived. One such for­est is on the In­done­sian is­land of Su­ma­tra, where mem­bers of a unique species of orang­utan are cling­ing to what lit­tle re­mains of their na­tive habi­tat. Last sum­mer, feel­ing less con­fi­dent than usual in the mer­its of my own species, I went to Su­ma­tra my­self, hop­ing to meet one of th­ese sur­vivors. My des­ti­na­tion was the Leuser Ecosys­tem, a sprawl of jun­gle in the north of Su­ma­tra, the western­most of In­done­sia’s more than 16,000 is­lands. Orang­utans once lived through­out South­east Asia, but to­day the only two sur­viv­ing species are con­fined to the scat­tered rem­nants of rain for­est on Su­ma­tra and nearby Bor­neo. The Su­ma­tran orang­utans, al­most all of the re­main­ing 7,000 of them, live in the Leuser—a nom­i­nally pro­tected strong­hold of bi­o­log­i­cal diver­sity that is grow­ing smaller and less bi­o­log­i­cally di­verse with each pass­ing year. Log­ging, hunt­ing and the il­le­gal pet trade have all played a part in the orang­utan’s demise, but the main cul­prit is the global de­mand for palm oil, a com­mod­ity of­ten pro­duced on de­for­ested land.

Con­ser­va­tion­ists warn that the Su­ma­tran orang­utan could be­come the first great ape to reach ex­tinc­tion, with the Bor­neo species fol­low­ing close be­hind. Mean­while, the slas­hand-burn con­ver­sion of their habi­tat into palm plan­ta­tions is help­ing fill the earth’s at­mos­phere with ex­cess car­bon, threat­en­ing the ex­is­tence of us all. Trav­el­ers who don’t want to spend their va­ca­tions con­tem­plat­ing such truths may want to give Su­ma­tra a miss. But those who want to see wild orang­utans, and tigers, and flow­ers the size of truck tires, and the van­ish­ingly rare Su­ma­tran rhino should make it a must. Al­though Su­ma­tra’s tourism in­fra­struc­ture is im­prov­ing, this vast, wild, jun­gle-clad is­land re­mains much less de­vel­oped than a place like Bali. For a cer­tain kind of trav­eler, that’s pre­cisely why it’s such an ex­cit­ing place to go.

ON MY WAY to the Leuser I spent a night in Medan, the cap­i­tal of North Su­ma­tra prov­ince, be­fore head­ing to the jun­gle the next day. Rid­ing out of town, I found it hard to imag­ine that in less time than it takes to drive from New York City to Bos­ton, I would ar­rive at the edge of one of the rich­est forests in Asia. Medan was a crush of peo­ple and mo­tor­bikes and trucks and end­less rows of street stalls. We passed a purse ven­dor who had hung her wares from the sprawl­ing limbs of a tree, prompt­ing my travel com­pan­ion, Ste­fan Ruiz, who took the pho­to­graphs for this story, to make one of his trade­mark ob­ser­va­tions: “It’s lit­er­ally a money tree.”

Fi­nally the traf­fic thinned and the city faded, and we were rum­bling through the palm plan­ta­tions, the tall, spare trees stretch­ing as far as we could see in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Palm oil is the most com­monly used veg­etable oil in the world, found in snacks, soaps, cos­met­ics and a good num­ber of the other prod­ucts on our shelves, and In­done­sia pro­duces more of it than any other coun­try, ac­count­ing for about a third of the world’s sup­ply. If there is a money tree in In­done­sia, it is the oil palm.

As we neared the for­est, I asked our driver, Adi, who didn’t speak much English, if he had seen a lot of wildlife over the years. He started talk­ing ex­cit­edly about some­thing called a “mina,” which I as­sumed was a kind of mon­key, or maybe a lo­cal word for orang­utan. In fact, Mina was the name given by re­searchers to one par­tic­u­larly no­to­ri­ous orang­utan. As a lo­cal would later put it, “she had men­tal prob­lems.” There were ru­mors that Mina had bit­ten tourists. It turned out she had a trou­bled past: cap­tured as a baby, she’d spent years in a cage. Even­tu­ally, she was res­cued and brought to a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion cen­ter for orang­utans in Bukit Lawang, a vil­lage on the out­skirts of the Leuser rain for­est. But by then, her time with hu­mans had taken its toll.

The Bo­horok Re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion Cen­ter closed in the 90s, but sev­eral of the orang­utans that passed through it still live in the part of the jun­gle clos­est to the vil­lage, and so do their prog­eny, who tend to take af­ter them. Con­sid­ered “semi-wild,” they gen­er­ally aren’t afraid of peo­ple, and


some of the guides cap­i­tal­ize on this fear­less­ness, lur­ing them closer to tourists with fried rice.

Green Hill, a com­pany that or­ga­nizes jun­gle treks and runs the vil­lage guest­house where we stayed, doesn’t go in for that kind of thing. An­drea Molyneaux, who man­ages Green Hill with her hus­band, is an English­woman with a mas­ter’s in pri­mate con­ser­va­tion who did her field­work at Camp Leakey, on Bor­neo. The camp was es­tab­lished by the pi­o­neer­ing Lithua­nian-Cana­dian con­ser­va­tion­ist Birutė Mary Galdikas, who is to orang­utans what Jane Goodall is to chimps. An­drea’s motto is painted on a big sign out front: keep wildlife wild.

For the most part, Bukit Lawang re­sem­bles the other towns in the re­gion—hum­ble con­crete build­ings with rusty cor­ru­gated metal roofs. But at its far end, the road gives way to a foot­path that me­an­ders through the trees, and if you fol­low the path along the river, past the shops sell­ing orang­utan T-shirts and orang­utan carv­ings, you’ll find your­self in the ho­tel dis­trict, a sort of fan­tasy of an In­done­sian vil­lage filled with guest­houses made with bam­boo, jun­gle logs and branches.

That night, Ste­fan and I slept in rus­tic rooms over­look­ing the jun­gle. The next day, we planned to march

right into that seething mass of green. We were to spend the morn­ing close to the vil­lage look­ing for semi-wild orang­utans, which we were prac­ti­cally guar­an­teed to see. Then our guides would take us deeper into the for­est, to an area rarely vis­ited by peo­ple where the fo­liage would be thicker, the trails rougher, and the wildlife truly wild. We planned to camp there for two nights. If we saw an orang­utan in the deep for­est, we’d be among the very few peo­ple who ever have.

Early the next morn­ing, as the sun rose above trees across the river, we went into the for­est. Ste­fan and I were joined by our head guide, Anto Ce­bol, his as­sis­tant, Ipan, and a pair of col­lege stu­dents from Colorado. Anto, a na­tive of Bukit Lawang, is 38, with the long hair and philo­soph­i­cal out­look of some­one who has been ex­posed from an early age to the be­liefs and cus­toms of stoned Aus­tralian back­pack­ers. Sit­ting on a boul­der, he said, “No one knows how much longer the earth will be.” He smiled de­fi­antly. “Maybe we go to the moon.”

We’d been fol­low­ing him for a few min­utes when he pointed out a troop of black-mo­hawked Thomas’s leaf mon­keys in the trees. Though we were still on easy, well-worn paths, sweat started pour­ing out of me at a rate I’d never

The screech­ing ape demon­strates his mas­tery of sim­ple tools by break­ing off a stick and throw­ing it at you. Can you blame him?

imag­ined pos­si­ble. Then we saw it: our first orang­utan. This was ex­cit­ing, of course, that flash of orange in the trees, but she clearly wasn’t wild. She was stretched out on a limb, un­afraid and unim­pressed. Anto rec­og­nized her; he said he knew her mother. As we stood there star­ing, a long-tail macaque walked right past us, not even both­er­ing to glance in our di­rec­tion. Then a group of Homo sapi­ens ap­proached in flip-flops, tak­ing self­ies.

So by the time we got on the mo­tor­bikes and headed down the road to­ward a more re­mote area, I was ready to go a lit­tle deeper. Af­ter a bumpy ride through palm plan­ta­tions, we ar­rived at Bukit Ken­cur, a ham­let on the edge of the part of the jun­gle that the Green Hill staff had de­scribed as un­touched. It was clear that this place didn’t get many for­eign vis­i­tors. Clus­ters of red­dish palm fruit sat in the dirt out­side the sun-bleached wooden huts. The vil­lagers who came over to look at us didn’t at­tempt to speak English, and no one tried to sell us orang­utan carv­ings or any­thing else.

One of the vil­lagers ap­proached with a bas­ket of sup­plies. His name was Chi­lik, and he was go­ing to serve as an ex­tra guide for the rest of our trip. His train­ing, as I’d later learn, had been un­con­ven­tional. Some years ago, he got lost in the for­est while gath­er­ing medic­i­nal plants and sus­tained him­self for five days by watch­ing the orang­utans to see which fruits they ate. Chi­lik didn’t speak any English. Un­like Anto, he wore his hair short, and did not bother with the rub­ber trekking shoes worn by the guides in Bukit Lawang. He led us through the jun­gle bare­foot, scrap­ing leeches off his an­kles with a rusty ma­chete, and he car­ried most of our sup­plies on his back in a bas­ket made from rat­tan vines, which the Bukit Lawang guides had long since aban­doned for back­packs. Dur­ing snack breaks, he would go off by him­self and squat on the for­est floor, chain-smok­ing un­til it was time to leave.

That first day, we hiked only a short dis­tance, maybe half a kilo­me­ter. Still, it was tough go­ing, as the rest of the trip would be. The trail rose and fell at such a steep in­cline that we of­ten had to grab at roots and vines just to stay up­right. At times it dis­ap­peared com­pletely, at which point Chi­lik would move to the front of the pack and hack a path through the bush with his ma­chete. At last we came to the camp­site. It sat on a slope over­look­ing a pic­turesque river. As we rinsed off in the cool, clear wa­ter, a pair of cooks showed up out of nowhere and built a fire. They boiled a pot of rice, fried some tem­peh, sautéed a sack­ful of tapi­oca leaves, and whipped up a de­li­cious dish of dried an­chovies with wild gin­ger and chili.

We slept be­neath a tarp stretched over a frame of lashed-to­gether bam­boo poles. The sound­scape was a lay­ered mix of ci­cada, bird, stream and rain, with a smat­ter­ing of mon­key howls thrown in. We awoke early the next morn­ing, at the first hint of day­light. Toast, eggs, strong Su­ma­tran cof­fee, then back on the trail, paus­ing ev­ery 15 min­utes so that Anto could pass out pieces of leaves and bark, school­ing us on the names and medic­i­nal or culi­nary uses of each species. There was the hot-pink flower of a tree he called as­sam kim­chin. (A lemony herb; goes well with curry). The woody stalk of pasak bumi. (Bit­ter; de­fends against malaria). The glossy leaf of the satykop bush. (Per Anto: “To make not bro­ken the first baby when baby is still drink­ing from mama and mama preg­nant.”) On we hiked, our eyes lifted to the tree­tops, when sud­denly Anto saw some­thing that made him break into a sprint. “Mawa!” he shouted, crash­ing through the fo­liage. “Lucky!” Mawa, I knew by then, means orang­utan. See­ing a truly wild orang­utan does feel dif­fer­ent from see­ing one that has grown up around hu­mans. You see in his eyes that he is fright­ened, and in his in­no­cence and awe, he re­minds you of a child. You feel a rush of nos­tal­gia for your own child­hood, when all the world felt like this cor­ner of the for­est, mys­te­ri­ous and full of won­der. At the same time, you can’t help sus­pect­ing you feel this way pri­mar­ily be­cause you come from a de­vel­oped econ­omy, where you and your com­pa­tri­ots, hav­ing ben­e­fited from cen­turies of en­vi­ron­men­tally de­struc­tive agri­cul­tural and in­dus­trial prac­tices, have for­got­ten the hard­ships of for­est life. This is one of the rea­sons you can af­ford to look back at that by­gone ex­is­tence through a ro­man­tic lens, much in the way you can af­ford to ro­man­ti­cize your child­hood only af­ter the pain of grow­ing up has re­ceded. You think th­ese things, and you won­der what the orang­utan is think­ing. And then the screech­ing ape demon­strates his mas­tery of sim­ple tools by break­ing off a stick and throw­ing it at you. Know­ing what you know about hu­mans, can you blame him?

Even­tu­ally the orang­utan calmed down and just hung there from the branches star­ing back at us. Then we heard a rustling of leaves a lit­tle way off. “An­other one!” Anto cried. Two, in fact—a mother and baby. So that’s why the first one hadn’t fled at the sight of us: he was pro­tect­ing his fam­ily. The mom and baby were mov­ing slowly through the tree­tops, not leap­ing like mon­keys but plot­ting a care­ful course, shift­ing their weight from foot to foot, and hand to hand.

MY LAST FEW days in North Su­ma­tra un­folded at a ram­bling ho­tel on the shore of Lake Toba, eight hours south­east of Bukit Lawang. At 700 square kilo­me­ters—about the size of Sin­ga­pore—Lake Toba is the largest vol­canic lake in the world, and maybe the nicest. The wa­ter is sparkling and calm. Soft green moun­tains rise all around it. The ho­tel, Carolina Cot­tages, is a col­lec­tion of bun­ga­lows with sharply peaked roofs and or­nately carved

wooden façades, a trib­ute to the tra­di­tional lo­cal build­ing style. A breeze blew onto the ho­tel ve­randa, ruf­fling the edges of the batik table­cloths. On the beaches, the Coke came in glass bot­tles and the co­conuts came with straws.

At the cen­ter of the lake lies Samosir Is­land, the heart­land of the Batak, an indige­nous group known for their love of singing. One night, we par­tied with a crowd of Batak school­teach­ers on their sum­mer break. They fed us boiled eggs with chili paste and passed out cups of herbal liquor and brought out a gui­tar and sang for us and begged us to dance with them and laughed hys­ter­i­cally when we did. Even Ste­fan, who has been ev­ery­where and isn’t eas­ily im­pressed, con­ceded that one of the guests had a solid case when he called Lake Toba “heaven on this earth.”

On my way back to Medan, as I boarded a ferry headed across the lake, a stranger handed me a pocket map. He turned out to be a map­maker from Java who had trav­eled all over In­done­sia for his work. He told me Toba held a spe­cial place in his heart. For years, he said, the In­done­sian gov­ern­ment had done too lit­tle to de­velop the tourism in­dus­try in this pro­vin­cial out­post, but that was be­gin­ning to change. An air­port had been built nearby, and there were plans to ex­tend the high­way from Medan to the lake. “We want peo­ple to know the story of Toba,” he said.

The story of Toba is one worth know­ing. The mas­sive vol­canic erup­tion that cre­ated the lake some 70,000 years ago nearly wiped out the en­tire hu­man species—and may have made us who we are to­day. Ac­cord­ing to the “Toba catas­tro­phe the­ory,” orig­i­nally posited by the science writer Ann Gib­bons, the blast plunged the earth into a six-year win­ter, leav­ing as few as 3,000 peo­ple alive on the planet. Those sur­vivors were the most re­source­ful of our kind, and they passed on those qual­i­ties to their de­scen­dants, our an­ces­tors, plant­ing the seeds of hu­man civ­i­liza­tion.

It was per­haps be­cause of Toba that our an­ces­tors learned to make fire, and grow crops, and cure dis­eases, and come up with clever the­o­ries about hu­man civ­i­liza­tion. And it was per­haps be­cause of Toba that we learned to clear forests, and de­vel­oped a habit of wip­ing other species off the face of the earth.

As the ferry pulled into the dock, I said good­bye to the map­maker and hauled my bags to the driver wait­ing on­shore. Then we be­gan the jour­ney back to Medan, with its truck­clogged streets, pass­ing palm plan­ta­tions where there used to be for­est. With luck, you’ll get to visit one of the forests that re­main. If you do, keep your eyes raised to the tree­tops. You might see some­one you used to know.

One of the re­sorts on Samosir Is­land, a pop­u­lar stop for vis­i­tors to Lake Toba.

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