Orangutan in a bag

Many of us have seen funny behaviors from apes in zoos, and they’re doing it because they’re bored out of their minds, and giving them toys and foreign objects to play with is a form of enrichment. But here at Camp Leakey in Borneo, these orangutans are wild-born EX-captive animals that have been rehabilitated and released into a protected forest. So they can spend as much time as they want in the forest, but choose to be around humans for entertainment occasionally.

So when we arrived outside the main dining room building at Camp Leakey today, Siswi arrived shortly thereafter. (Many of the orangutans here will similarly head thru the forest to the long boardwalks leading to the boat docks to see the visitors when they arrive, once that excitement is over they tend to go back to feeding and other ‘wild’ behaviors in the forest.)  She was sitting there watching us, but because we were prepping to film, we soon had our attention elsewhere. Then I saw her wander into an outdoor cooking area, so Mike and I returned to take photos of her, and she got into seemingly one of her favorite positions- prostrate on her back, legs akimbo, but each hand holding a foot, completed with a totally relaxed upside-down look into our eyes. It looked like some sort of orange ape yoga pose. We photographed her a bit but then wandered off to go get the gear ready. Then Siswi decided to up the ante, so she grabbed a thin plastic rain poncho, walked around the front of the dining hall, and began putting it on, and playing around inside it. That was too good to resist, so we filmed that for a bit. She really seemed to enjoy just playing in it, sometimes getting entirely inside it and then rolling on the ground, sometimes poking her face through the arm holes. (The perfectionist humans of course were waiting for her to put it on ‘properly’ with her head poking out of the hood, so we kept waiting for that. But this was not a human, it was an orangutan playing with an article of clothing she’d seen humans wear, and often I had this feeling that her intentions oscillated between general enjoyment and manipulation of us through our reactions.) I was amazed again at how gentle she was, stretching and playing inside this thin film of plastic, but never destroying it, though I myself find it hard to get into those things without ruining them. She did her yoga pose inside the rain poncho and we eventually had to wander back to our preparations. We were off to film the orangutans at the feeding station.

The ex-captive now wild orangutans that live here in Tanjung Puting National Park need to have their diet augmented by a feeding station, but that’s because sadly, the acreage in the park does not provide enough wild food to support the hundreds of animals that have been released here. So each day at the same time, bananas and milk are brought to a platform in the forest and any orangutans in the area can come to eat. Seasonally, when fruits are more plentiful in the forest, attendance at these feedings is lower, showing that it may not necessarily affect their ‘wild’ behavior unless they need or want the food supplement. This feeding is also a great opportunity for tourists to see many orangutans together and interacting (which is quite rare in the wild for these mostly solitary apes).  Today the film crew and about 60 Indonesian visitors had come to see the spectacle!

Camp Leakey definitely makes for a unique tourist destination. There are not many places in the world where you’d have this kind of access to wild endangered animals. Unlike other parks where there are rangers there to protect the animals and keep the tourists to strict rules, here, there are only the ‘rangers’ hired by Dr. Birute at Camp Leakey, and for the most part they let the apes do as they please, and the visitors too for that matter. It’s all very laid back.

The purist in me struggled with the fact that I was coming into closer contact with these orangutans than I would if I were with wild apes in National Parks elsewhere. And there are wild orangutans in this park, but those rarely come to Camp Leakey. Wild apes that have never been captive, even when habituated to human presence for research or tourism, usually keep their distance and tend not to interact with people very often. For the wild-born ex-captive orangutans that frequent camp, I worried about their medical health, coming so close to humans. But I guess since they’ve been fostered by people for so many years, they’ve probably been exposed to our diseases and developed immunity to them, much like human children do.  And honestly, the animal-hugger in me was enjoying the prospect of having an orangutan just stroll past me and whether they decided to dress up in a poncho, or just walk very close to me, I knew it was because they chose to.  

Mike Dillon films Siswi and her poncho:

Mike Dillon films Siswi and her poncho

siswi and those meaningful looks

Siswi and those meaningful looks

Siswi in her poncho sleeve

Siswi in her poncho sleeve

Siswi plays inside a poncho

Siswi plays inside a poncho

Siswi looks to make sure we’re still interested

Siswi looks to make sure we're still interested