Many of us already know that the forest is disappearing in Indonesian Borneo, due to the oil palm industry and forest fires. We see the devastation on television, in magazines and newspapers and the loss of habitat for wildlife such as the orangutans is worrying. We do what we can to reduce the demand for palm oil, however, the forest fires are often uncontrollable, once the local communities decide to burn land to encourage a better harvest. Travelling out to Indonesian Borneo allowed me to hear and see first-hand the efforts of groups like the Orangutan Foundation, whose aim it is to save the future of not only the orangutans but also the forests and the people.

I was travelling with Ashley Leiman, the OF founder, on the Steppes Travel small group tour.  It was through her that I got to meet key people who are on the front line in the struggle to save the Indonesian forests. I met vets who help rehabilitate rescued orangutans. Also, another NGO, Yayorin, who runs an education programme aimed at teaching the local community how to work harmoniously with the land to earn a living. Finally, I met OF staff who work tirelessly undertaking research, managing the release centres and manning posts around the park area to identify any illegal activities: a dedicated team of whom Ashley is extremely proud.

Clare Higginson, Borneo
Clare and Ashley

Their combined work is relentless, but progress can be seen in some areas, which was certainly reassuring. There is much still be done though and Ashley finds herself continuously meeting government officials and trying to keep on top of new policy developments in the area as well as overseeing the running of the foundation as a whole.

Through Ashley I also got to meet other special characters; Terry, Tim Tom and two-month-old baby Monty to name a few. Saving these people of the forest; the orangutan is a primary objective and seeing them in the wild certainly made me appreciate their unique qualities and fully understand why we need to save this endangered species.

Orangutan, Danum Valley, Borneo

During the trip, I was fortunate to have several extra special encounters. Seeing a pregnant female, an orangutan asleep in its nest and a cheeky youngster trying to get attention from a large male. However, it was the simple beauty of them swinging through the trees that brought tears to my eyes. When the treetops start to sway and the form approaching becomes clearer, you begin to appreciate the gracefulness of their moves. Their precision and balance are hugely impressive as is their apparent timekeeping. They often appear before the food at the feeding site has been placed on the platform but only with an approximate 10 minute wait. Pretty precise for not having a watch! The bananas are then devoured. Some orangutan decides to stuff the bananas between their toes plus grab a bunch or two and disappear up a tree for some peace and quiet whilst others relax on the platform munching away happily.

Getting to the feeding sites was also a joy. The boat locally named a klotok, cruised down the rivers allowing me to appreciate the forests in full glory with viewings of macaques and proboscis monkeys in abundance. The staff on board fully attentive serving meals and drinks along the way. Speedboats did become the order of the day to travel further afield but the James Bond-esque adventure of it all was thrilling.

Fast moving open topped long boatwith clients sat.
Indonesian Borneo

For the main part I stayed at Rimba Eco Lodge, in the heart of Tanjung Puting National Park. A basic, no-frills lodge that’s for sure but their policy to employ local villagers to offer an alternative to the palm oil industry is certainly commendable. Their recent addition of solar panels has also reduced their diesel consumption by between 85-90% so their commitment to helping the environment is evident too. It may lack refinement and luxury but as the gateway to an unforgettable experience, in my eyes, it was an invaluable base.

As I write this the orangutan are still swinging through the trees and I’d like to think that this will continue. However, without sustained work by organisations like OF and commitment from the government this could easily alter. We also need to continue our own efforts as the future of the orangutan, the forests and its people can be saved but the fight isn’t over just yet.

Thanks for reading

Clare Higginson, Borneo

Author: Clare Higginson