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.

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