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Orangutan in Gunung Leuser, Sumatra

Orangutan in Gunung Leuser, Sumatra

By Melanie Jae Martin

If you want to see great apes in the wild, Sumatra’s rainforest is one of the most accessible places to do just that. Seeing orangutans in the wild, along with silver Thomas leaf monkeys, pig-tailed macaques, and a diverse range of birds like hornbills, will leave you with a renewed appreciation for the beauty and ingenuity of other species. However, you need to know how to visit them responsibly or you could introduce illnesses, since they share over 97 percent of our DNA. Less than 7,000 Sumatran orangutans live in the wild, and they’re an essential part of the rainforest ecosystem, helping seeds to germinate and even pruning the canopy.

The Gunung Leuser National Park is part of the Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an excellent spot for ape-watching and rainforest trekking. The Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), a local, grassroots NGO, is working with a local guides association to certify guides in the popular destination Bukit Lawang.

OIC Director Panut

OIC Director Panut Hadisiswoyo

The OIC is an excellent source of information, and many of the guides are extremely knowledgeable and conscientious. However, because of the competition for visitors and tips, some guides do engage in unscrupulous practices like luring orangutans over with fruit, leaving fruit peels on the ground, or even letting visitors hug orangutans. Before you go into the forest, you’ll watch a short film on rainforest etiquette at the visitors’ center. Pay attention, and take responsibility for your own behavior. Better yet, download a copy of the park guidebook from the OIC website to prepare for your trip.

In Bukit Lawang, you’ll have the chance to see orangutans close up, either at the feeding platform or slightly further into the rainforest. These orangutans have returned to the wild after a life in captivity. Captured from the wild by poachers at a young age, they are learning to live in the forest again after a rigorous rehabilitation process. They grow adept at building nests to sleep and lounge in, climbing nimbly through the canopy, and raising the next generation of wild orangutans. Like humans, they don’t know how to live in the wild by instinct alone. In the wild, they might spend eight years with their mother, learning how to live in the jungle. Learning these skills as adults takes an incredible amount of intelligence, patience, and perseverance, just as it would for a human.

Deeper in the jungle, you’ll likely see wild orangutans from afar. You’ll have the option to take a one-day, overnight, or multiday trek. Local guides are quite flexible in making arrangements. If planning a longer trek, talk with the staff at the visitors’ center to request a knowledgeable, conscientious guide.

For a quieter experience, visit the farther-flung village of Ketambe, about 8 hours by van from the main city of Medan. Staying in this little village bedecked with flowers and fruit trees will let you experience a less-trafficked part of the Gunung Leuser National Park, or “Leuser.” You’ll easily arrange van transportation on arrival; just ask your hotel staff for details. Call ahead to book a room in Ketambe. The Friendship Guesthouse offers rustic one-room bungalows with bathrooms for around U.S. $6 per night, and tasty curries for around $2. The welcoming staff will connect you with a local guide as well.

As in Bukit Lawang, take responsibility for your own behavior. The orangutans around Ketambe are wild, meaning they’ll keep their distance. One was said to have thrown a beehive at visitors, I was told, in what I felt sure was a cautionary tale. Talk about tool use, I thought.

Unfortunately, Leuser is threatened by the oil palm industry and other forms of encroachment, like much of Indonesia’s rainforests. In June 2011, it was placed on the UNESCO List of World Heritage in Danger for this reason. While there, I volunteered at a restoration site in the district of Langkat, North Sumatra. The OIC had reclaimed this illegally logged and farmed section of national forest in 2007. Since then, the all-local staff had been working to bring the rainforest back to life.

Restorasi house and plantation

Restorasi house and plantation

The old “hantu” – what we jokingly called the dead oil palms – still stood menacingly in some parts of the forest, gray-white fronds draping around their rotting trunks like a veil. But the vibrant growth of young rainforest trees was enveloping them, weaving them into the ecosystem as life carried on.

One of the field assistants, Darjo, had carefully counted the bird species in the area – he’d spotted 83 so far. While collecting saplings in the deeper forest, the staff showed me huge elephant tracks. Very near the small house where we stayed, we saw the print of the rare golden cat.

Recently, after I’d arrived back in the States, the staff sent me an excited message: Orangutans were living at the site! They’d observed a male and pregnant female in the trees. The forest would take centuries, perhaps longer, to gain back the richness of the diversity it once had, but in the meantime, life will continue to thrive – as long as we let it.

More Information

Unesco World Heritage Centre: Danger listing for Indonesia’s Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra

Orangutan Information Centre: Project Reports

Ketambe: The Friendship Guesthouse & Restaurant

Orangutan Information Centre: OIC Restoration Site Performance Report, 2010-2011

Photos by Melanie Jae Martin

Melanie Jae Martin writes on social and environmental issues in the U.S. and abroad. To read more of her work, please visit www.ravensongstudios.net.