I could feel an incisor tooth gently grinding against my skin. No pain. Just pressure. Her teeth were clamped around my index finger, between the knuckle and nail.
Somehow my hand had ended up in the mouth of an orangutan.
Hoping to be given fruit in exchange for my release, Jackie – a semi-wild Sumatran orangutan – waited patiently while our guides nervously scrambled to find food in their overly-crammed backpacks.
Jackie kept her hand – which closely resembled my own – tightly coiled around my wrist; my bony finger protruding from her lips like a toothpick. A surge of anxiety rattled my body as I tried to pry my arm free from her grip. Orangutans being several times stronger than humans, I quickly realized that I had no choice but to comply with my red-haired captor.
It wasn’t your typical hostage situation, but it was evident that this particular great ape knew how to hustle in the jungle. Minutes later, Jackie was rewarded a ransom and I walked away with my appendages fully intact.
My run-in with Jackie took place during a two-day jungle trek through Gunung Leuser National Park in Sumatra. The Indonesian island is one of the last two places in the world where orangutans can still be found in the wild. (The other being Borneo.)
Orangutan observation tours not only fuel the local economy, but they also galvanize support for orangutan conservation; something that is so crucial to their livelihood, as deforestation continues to threaten their very existence.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists Sumatran orangutans as critically-endangered or, to be frank, on the brink of extinction. Estimates suggest that these highly-intelligent, thinking and feeling mammals – that also happen to share 97 percent of the same genetic material as humans – could be the first great ape species to become extinct in the wild, according to research published by the international conservation journal “Oryx.”
In fact, the IUCN (as of last year), stated that four out of six great apes – both kinds of orangutan and both kinds of gorilla – are currently listed as critically-endangered. To see that our closest relatives are on the verge of extinction is daunting, especially since their demise is almost completely due to human activity.
Indonesia and Malaysia are the world's chief palm oil producers. Palm oil also happens to be the biggest threat to the survival of the orangutan. As plantations continue to expand, they encroach on the orangutan’s territory. Adding to their decline, too, is the pet trade and illegal logging and killing.
Hope for the species lies in conservation efforts.
Jackie is one of more than 200 orangutans that were reintroduced to the wild by Bohorok Centre for ex-captive Sumatran orangutans – which gives her, and apes like her, a “semi-wild” status. Though the rehabilitation center closed in the ’90s, the area remains open to tourists who embark on two- to five-day observation treks into the biologically-diverse Gunung Leuser National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the tropical rainforest also is home to the Sumatran rhinoceros and tiger, but sightings are rare.
During my guided two-day trek with the aptly named Sumatra EcoTravel – an ecologically responsible outfitter that leads jungle treks and other tours – we saw an abundance of native insects and wildlife. Short- and long-tailed macaques, an Asian Water Monitor lizard, a Thomas Leaf Monkey and around a dozen orangutans, which included the cute-as-pie babies of rehabbed, semi-wild orangutans.
Bukit Lawang serves as the gateway to orangutan trekking in Sumatra. The small tourist-friendly village is connected by bridges suspended over the white waters of the Bohorok River. The villagers exude a contagious passion for the surrounding jungle and its inhabitants. Tourists are embraced with open arms, as they serve a local economy that doesn’t involve the destruction of the forest. Locals seamlessly intermingle with tourists, and it’s common for jungle nights to be spent at local, open-air bars that fill with the sounds of acoustic guitars, bongos, cajón drums and participatory singing of familiar western songs.
B&Bs and guesthouses strung along the riverfront are the main form of accommodation, but treks into the jungle mean camping and sleeping in said jungle – an unforgettable experience. (Imagine waking up to the pitter patter of little monkey feet on the roof of your bamboo hut.)
After six to eight hours of hiking in consistently changing elevation, tangled foliage and muddy, root-torn trails, a riverside campsite in the middle of the jungle greets its intrepid trekkers. But don’t think the wildlife watching ends there. Our arrival was soon met by Suma, another semi-wild orangutan and her baby. Some of the best orangutan observation took place at camp. The red-haired duo spent hours peering down at us from the treetops – watching us watching them. Suma even entered our campsite on multiple occasions to get a closer look.
It was at camp that I had my second memorable encounter with an orangutan.
After trekking, I changed out of my sweat-soaked pants and T-shirt and exited my sleeping quarters to find Suma standing five feet from me.
Standing upright on two legs like a person, Suma had been observing some “wildlife” of her own – human life. Orangutan translates to “people of the forest,” and it was when we made eye contact that I could see the “humanness” in her. There was something going on behind those eyes. An intelligence. A quiet tranquility. More than I think we, as human beings, will ever have the full capacity or ability to know or understand.
Spending time with the orangutans in their natural habitat wasn’t just an unforgettable experience; it struck a deeper chord. It reminded me of the connectedness of everything – of life. And how easily something as miraculous and perfectly imperfect as a living being – even an entire species – can disappear forever.
The situation isn’t hopeless. Conservation is key. But, if there was ever a time to make this trip to this place, it’s probably now. Now, because the near future might be too late for the “people of the forest.”
If you go
Sumatran orangutan jungle trek Tour operator: EcoTravel Sumatra
Location: Bukit Lawang, Sumatra
By the numbers
2 Number places where orangutans still exist in the wild (Sumatra and Borneo)
97 The percentage of DNA that orangutans share with humans
45 Average life span of a wild orangutan (in years)
8 The number of years between births (the longest inter-birth interval of any land-living animal)
40,000 The number of wild orangutans remaining in Borneo and Sumatra.
60,000 The number of wild orangutans remaining in Borneo and Sumatra as recent as a decade ago
230,000 The estimated number of orangutans that roamed in the wild a century ago
6,600 The number of Sumatran orangutans remaining in the wild.
– Statistics and estimations are taken from Orangutan Conservancy, EcoTravel Sumatra Bukit Lawang and Orangutan Foundation.