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....