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....

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