Wednesday, June 6, 2012

An Ecotour to Visit Princess- Part 2

October 2011 Ecotour continued....  The following morning after breakfast we headed to Pondok Tenggui, another orangutan viewing area about 10-15 kilometers downstream from our position in the Lakes. We arrived before the morning feeding and were able to watch numerous orangutans come down from the trees to feed on bananas and unsweetened reconstituted powdered milk provided by station staff. This included adult males with cheek pads and mothers and dependent offspring. Such provisioning has been a tradition for both Camp Leakey and Pondok Tenggui- it provides sustenance for the orangutans while providing an opportunity for visitors to watch the red apes at a closer distance. Even after these many years, I have tremendous respect for the size and power of an adult male orangutan. I keep my distance and have little desire to get too close to individuals I do not know.

We had a informative talk with the station manager before heading upriver to reach Camp Leakey well before the feeding. We did not want to be late and miss an opportunity to have my reunion with Princess. The trip upstream is always magical not matter how many times I have taken it. The pandanus and riverine trees provide a natural edge to the river that winds and narrows as we approach the Camp. Along the way we saw small troops of long-tailed macaques and proboscis monkeys and the occasional kingfisher and majestic rhinoceros hornbills.

Once we reached Camp Leakey, we made our way to the feeding station and asked people we met along the way if they had seen Princess on the trail or at the station. Everyone we asked either answered, "who is Princess?" or "we haven't seen her". We kept pressing on the trail and finally reached the feeding station. There were numerous people there, foreign visitors and local people and their families, adults and children.

All were watching the ex-captive orangutans come down from the trees and climb onto the raised feeding platform where bananas and milk were being served by Camp staff. Adult females with clinging offspring, juvenile orangutans and subadult males came to the station that day. All took what they could and departed for the forest once more. The provisioned food is meant as a nutritious supplement for occasionally meager assortment of quality foods normally found in the forest. It also serves as a way to get the great apes to congregate for a brief time for the viewing enjoyment of ecotourists. All of a sudden, someone yells, "Princess is here!" I come racing down the path and come to a gathering group of tourists near an orangutan that I clearly recognize as Princess, my orangutan daughter.

I call for Princess to come towards me and sign for her to sit down, which she does. I then start asking her questions in sign language and Bahasa Indonesia, "what this?" "what do you want?" She looks at me, now slightly older but with a glimmer of recognition, and signs, "Food", One of the Camp staff has some bananas and allows me to use it for a brief signing lesson. I also show her my hat and ask her to name it, which she does. When I ask her "what do you want", she signs "scratch" to the top of her head. While we do not encourage anyone touching the orangutans now for health and safety reasons, Princess and I have a special relationship. She is, after all, my adopted daughter. I honor her request by scratching her head. I see a gleam in her eyes and know she enjoys the contact, perhaps also remembering how she felt three decades ago when we spent so much time together both in the classroom setting and just as family. She is now a grandmother, an independent adult no longer in need of my providing her food and comfort, but I sense she appreciates the attention and brief provisioning.

All too soon our tour group needs to return to the river, and Princess, as she has done for many years, takes me by the hand and pulls herself upward to a bipedal stance to walk along the main trail with the group. Along the way she stops to take a rest and adjust Putri. Once we get back to Camp Leakey, Princess starts looking over her shoulder for other females who might threaten her. She separates from us and heads for the nearby forest to take refuge. As she enters the brush, she turns to look at me one more time then disappears into the green.

After contemplating her departure, our tour group heads to the river for our trip to the ecolodge. Our time at Camp Leakey is over.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

An Ecotour to Visit Princess-Part 1

It was good visiting with Princess and some of the other orangutans at Camp Leakey in late October 2011. It had been over 3 years since my last visit so I was curious to see how my adopted orangutan daughter was fairing. I did hear rumors that she was nursing an injury from an encounter with one of the more aggressive adult females. As any dad would feel, I hoped she was OK and wasn't in any pain.

My thoughts about her condition were temporarily displaced by my attention on preparing a private ecotour. The tour would be an opportunity for my supervisor, Dave, and his wife, Sayareh (from my State job) some members of my wife's family in Indonesia and their friends as well as a business partner to see and experience much of what I have been talking and writing about for many years. Putting on a tour takes time and attention to detail, something that is challenging in a country like Indonesia. As it turned out, we had to change itineraries only days before the scheduled departure date because the local airline decided not to fly on the dates for which we had purchased tickets. Luckily Dave and Sayareh were coming into Indonesia a day earlier than first planned so we were able to leave a day earlier to our Borneo destination of Pangkalan Bun. It meant, however, that our return flight was not direct. This added time and expense to the tour price.

Our commercial jet landed in Pangkalan Bun in the afternoon. After checking in at the Blue Kecubung Hotel and having some lunch, we had enough time to make a quick trip to a local nonprofit helping to educate people about orangutans and sustainable agriculture- something I am interested in. Our trip to see Princess would have to wait until the next day. Yet I kept thinking about her and her health. This orangutan dad sometimes worries about his daughter.

The following morning, we headed upstream in a live-aboard riverboat, called a kelotok, that took us upstream to Camp Leakey. The kelotok served as our means of transport, our dining area, our shelter from the rain, our restroom, and our sleeping quarters. It was spartan, but multipurpose and a wonderful way to see travel to Tanjung Puting National Park.

As we entered the mouth of the Sekonyer River, beautiful vistas unfolded after every bend in this fascinating river. Nippa palms, a common estuary tree, eventually gave way to an assemblage of riverine vegetation including sweet smelling Pandanus and trees that provided sanctuary for birds and monkeys. We saw groups of long-tailed macaques and the endemic Proboscis monkeys.

Upon arrival at Camp Leakey (named after Louis Leakey), we encountered Siswi, an orangutan I had the pleasure of knowing since the day of her birth on September 9, 1978. In fact, I named her after her mother, Siswoyo, who died a number of years ago. Siswi inherited her mother's dominant status at Camp Leakey. It was now Siswi, an overweight, overly friendly orangutan who greeted most visitors to this distant outpost- but many female orangutans were afraid of her- including Princess. Could it have been Siswi who injured Princess?

After paying our respects to Siswi, we headed to the feeding station east of Camp Leakey hoping to encounter Princess and her infant daughter Putri. But who was reclining on a low hanging branch? It was non other than Percy, Princess's 2nd youngest offspring- a juvenile male with a relaxed smile that resembled his mother's when she was younger. He seemed disinterested with our being there.

We heard Princess was at the feeding station but it was already late in the day. We hurried up the main trail, Jalan Toges, to catch the afternoon feeding and hopefully Princess. After about 10 minutes we neared the station where a film crew was videotaping. To my delight, one of the forestry officers providing film team support was Mr. Gedol, an old friend from 33 years ago when I first arrived at Camp Leakey. He was one of the camp staff that came from the dayak village of Pasir Panjang. He was also married to the daughter of the village chief at the time. After so many years he still had his infectious smile, even if he was more grey and thinner. However, Mr. Gedol informed us that Princess had been there but had already left the area.

Calling for her did not good. So we simply enjoyed watching the few remaining orangutans at the feeding station as the film crew was wrapping up. We would have to come back the following afternoon.

The trip was beginning to remind me of my last expedition to find Princess in 2008. On that excursion, we had to return the following day to find Princess- an orangutan who spent much of her time in the forest. There is no guarantee you will meet the orangutan you seek- except for Siswi of course.

We spent the evening on the Lakes area of the Sekonyer River, a mere 3 or 4 kilometers from Camp Leakey. This was an area I had studied in 1986 for a six-month post-doctoral study. It is a grassy area that becomes inundated during the rainy season forming seasonal lakes- very important for fish, amphibians and aquatic reptiles. We tied up for the night here and enjoyed delicious seafood prepared by the cook, exchanged stories, and prepared to sleep under the stars. The sounds of the frogs were at times deafening but after a while we all drifted off to sleep.

to be continued....

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Abandonment and Karma

It’s hard to be an Orangutan Dad in exile. Separated by thousands of miles from the child you raised, now a grown lady. Princess is in her mid-to late 30s now, a mother of five (four surviving offspring) and a grandmother of two. My entire orangutan family (Princess, Peta, Pan, Percy, Putri, and Peta’s kids) live in a forest far, far away. I know she is doing well in Borneo, but that doesn’t stop me from missing her or thinking about her.

Perhaps it is only fair that I feel the pangs of separation now in light of the feelings of abandonment she must have felt when I left her for a year in 1980. I left to return to the United States that June day after spending nearly 2 years at Camp Leakey conducting my doctoral research. I had made occasional trips away from Camp to do the usual shopping and occasional expedition. Each time I left Camp and Princess, I heard she would come to the dock and wait for me. At 4-5 years of age, she would still be with her mother. Already she experienced the loss of her biological mother- an act that was both terrifying and psychologically stressful for her. Now, she was facing the classic abandonment phenomenon and each time I returned to Camp, she would cling to me even tighter.

Her attachment to me was reinforced by the daily life she led with me as her orangutan dad. I would bring her breakfast which was used as the context of her sign language lessons. Not a particularly interested student, Princess would quickly head to the trees after the hour long lesson which gave me an opportunity to swim across the river to work with Rinnie (an adult free-ranging orangutan) or conduct a “special session” with orangutans Hampas and Rantai. They were two youngsters who along with Princess and Pola, formed the group of students that were the “subjects” of my dissertation study.

I would also take Princess to the nearby forest or the river to give her other contexts to learn and practice signs. Princess had become very capable of washing clothes after watching the camp staff, though she wasn’t that concerned about how clean they came out. If she smelled too ripe she would join me for a swim and a bath in the Sekonyer River. In the afternoon, she would be given milk and fruit with other orangutans if she wasn’t with me. But if we were together, I would let her explore and provide her with food and drink so she would have something of interest to motivate her to sign with me. Evening meals were taken mostly on the porch of the room we shared but occasionally in the staff dining hall.

In the evening as dusk fell when wild orangutans were making their nests preparing for their nightly rest, Princess would be finishing her last signing session and then taken to bed. I would lie in bed with her as she clung to me. Her coarse hair would sometimes feel uncomfortable against my smooth skin, but after a while, she would fall asleep and I would slowly extract myself from her grip. Usually, I was able to do some work on the data collected before the dinner bell sounded. Occasionally, she would wake and begin to cry before I could leave my living quarters. Her crying quickly abated as she drifted back to her orangutan dreams. Just another day for the Orangutan Dad.

I made a choice to leave Camp Leakey after nearly 2 years. It was a difficult decision to leave Princess and the others but I knew I had reached a pivotal point in my academic career. I had to data to analyze, a thesis to write up and school work to finish. My sister wedding that month gave me further reason to leave at that moment. I made plans to return a year later. However, as I left Camp Leakey, I didn’t want to have an emotional goodbye – so I snuck out Camp Leakey “like a thief in the night” to avoid an encounter with Princess. She had already joined her friends for the afternoon playtime in the local forest. When I returned to North America, I heard she came to the river every day for months waiting for me to return to Camp- as I had done previously. But eventually she stopped coming to the river – perhaps giving up on my ever returning. Abandoned once again.

So the Orangutan Dad is getting his just desserts now. Princess is perfectly content without me in her life. Orangutan adults are very much self-contained. And as a mother, she has her hands full. But we humans need others to give our lives meaning and fulfillment. My orangutan daughter still means something important to me, and I will have to be patient until I see her again.


The Orangutan Dad is also President & Co-Founder of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The mission of OURF is to save orangutans through education and other innovative collaborative projects. For more information visit

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Separation and Reunion

This Orangutan Dad misses his daughter Princess. The last time I saw her was in August 2008 when I accompanied an Indonesian film crew to tape OUREI's 3rd Documentary. Our reunion was brief, as it always is nowadays. One or two days at most.

When I do visit her in and around Camp Leakey in Tanjung Puting National Park, I call out her name to let her know that I am back. Inevitably (and it took a couple days to find her last time), she will come to the ground with a dependent infant with her (last time it was with her daughter Putri). There is no hugging or hooting as one would see with chimpanzees reuniting with lost relatives or friends. Orangutans are more subdued in their emotions. We will simply sit together, and I will go over some of the signs she learned years ago: leaf, hat, grass, and maybe a few food signs.

I am convinced Princess remembers me - her Orangutan Dad. I am convinced by her behavior. She sits dutifully as she did as a juvenile while I mold her hands and makes valiant efforts to recreate the signs she perfected during her daily lessons 32 years ago. At some point she will take me by the hand and lead me around Camp Leakey to a locked door behind which bananas are stored. She will tap the door knob (a poor sign for "open") as a request for me to open the door. On earlier visit, Princess pointed to the cuts or scars on her skin, perhaps showing me a type of "written" account of traumatic encounters in her life in my absence -now indelible on her skin. I put some ointment on her skin like I did decades ago and sign "hurt".

A wild orangutan lives a life of solitude in many ways- no community group to come home to - instead they spend their days alone (or with dependent offspring if a mother) in search of food, navigating the canopy, and making arboreal nests for resting. On occasion their lives are punctuated by interactions with other orangutans, particularly when feeding in trees with ripe fruit. Encounters with a specific individual are generally unemotional affairs. Even an independent female's reunion with her mother after many months (who typically ranges in the adjacent forest) would not stand out to the human observer as eliciting the same the type of excitement seen in social animals (dogs, chimps, and people come to mind). But they are very aware of the relationship. They will glance at each other while they feed, acknowledging each other's presence. Then they will part company and continue their journey perhaps with an understanding they will encounter each other again sometime in the near future.

The last time I left Princess was almost 3 years ago, departing like a sneaky burglar in the night, hoping not to be noticed. No goodbyes, no farewells. There are no tears when an independent orangutan takes leave of a family member. That is not the case for a dependent orangutan or a human -a topic for another blog. For now, this Orangutan Dad wonders about his daughter's forest exploits, her well being, and looks forward to seeing her again.


The Orangutan Dad is also President & Co-Founder of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The mission of OURF is to save orangutans through education and other innovative collaborative projects. For more information visit

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jury Duty for the Orangutan Dad

It must have made actress Kim Bassinger smile when she heard me answer the judge’s pattern questions to each potential juror. Yes, I was on jury duty that day, and yes, Kim Bassinger was on trial in a breach of contract lawsuit.

“Your honor, I am married, and have two children, one human and one non-human,” I proudly stated. A few stifled laughs could be heard in the courtroom, but after the judge gave me a follow up question to explain myself, I calmly mentioned that for two years I had adopted a juvenile orangutan as my daughter in the jungles of Borneo, taught her sign language as part of my doctoral research, and still consider her my child today. There, I admitted it in a court of law, not because I wanted to look like a kook trying to get out of jury duty, but because I am genuinely proud to consider myself the father (adopted father) of a wonderful and beautiful girl- even if she is several percent genetically removed from my own gene pool. To say that in a court of law only testifies to my own belief in the validity of the relationship and the connection I have shared with her in the years since first “adopting” her.

Kim, sitting with Alec Baldwin, gave me a wink as I passed by her on my way out of the court room. I was one of several prospective jurors excused that day from jury duty. But my duty as an orangutan dad continues to this day.


The Orangutan Dad is also President & Co-Founder of the Orang Utan Republik Foundation. The mission of OURF is to save orangutans through education and other innovative collaborative projects. For more information visit