Falling in love with the people of the forest

Laney Thornton, a passionate conservationist and long-time Rare supporter, just returned with his family from a five-day visit to a Rare Pride campaign underway on the island of Borneo.  Laney’s family witnessed first-hand both the beauty and the importance of saving this critical orangutan habitat, and learned what Rare and local partner Yayorin are doing to help this community successfully address this conservation challenge.

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Laney poses with Sampson

Grrrrrrggg!  is the sound that a Proboscis monkey makes.  I know that because our klotok was parked for the night along this Borneo jungle river underneath a tree in which a family of Proboscis monkeys were likewise parking themselves for the night not 30 feet above us.  The male monkey made that sound when its child started to wander off towards our boat.  Upon hearing this ominous sound, the child monkey immediately turned on its palms and headed back up to the top to its parents.

A klotok is the name of 40-foot long Indonesian-style sightseeing boats common in Kalimantan that plow up rivers taking people into Tanjung Putting National Park.  It’s in the evening that the top deck of the boat transforms from a communal dining facility into a mosquito-netted sleeping porch.  At night we’ll all go to sleep to the jungle sounds of crickets, gibbons, and the late evening chatter of the Indonesian crew finishing the dishes in their quarters below.

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Klotok Laney and his family took through the National Park

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Laney Thornton with Togu, Executive Director of Yayorin, Rare’s partner in Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve

World-class primate viewing happens at places like Camp Leakey, where a couple dozen orangutans seem to voluntarily split their time between the camp and the jungle. Unlike viewing the huge but indifferent mountain gorillas in Rwanda, these primates seem ready to invite you into occasional enticing relationships with them.

Whether on the klotok dock of Camp Leakey where orangutans meet and greet you, or on the hiking trail where they will often hike with you as you explore the deep jungle, this trip offered a unique interaction far different than our gorilla experiences in Rwanda.

Our travel companion this morning was Sampson, a 17-year old male who joined our hike 10 minutes into the forest.  He walked in line with us from the beginning of camp, as if he were a new member of our group.  At a couple of points in the hike, the guides allowed us to accept Sampson’s offer to hold hands for the trip for a few moments.  It was obvious from his touch that Sampson knew the strength of a human being, as he did not try to overpower me but instead allowed the lead to alternate from him to me.

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Laney pictured with his son, wife, and niece 

This gentle contact was very different from the grip I got a day earlier when an orangutan sprung on me to grab my coconut soda can — a grab that clearly meant to overpower me rather than engage in any kind of mutuality.   While habituated to humans, these are wild animals doing what they want to do whenever they want to do it. Even though some of their activities include just hanging and chilling with humans, some also include things that most humans would not call either polite or gentle.

After an orgy of picture-taking, I found myself just able to enjoy the animals without the need to stow away yet another visual photographic record of this trip.

In the last thirty years, orangutan populations have plummeted due to massive carbon emitting deforestation on the island of Borneo.  And this trip exposed the fragile nature of the forest, where former rice fields that were designated to be converted back to forest in the park simply do not grow back. Instead they remain areas of open low-lying brush constantly at risk of fire during the dry season.

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Where the forests have been cleared by logging or fire, low, scrubby invasives prevent an indigenous forest from again taking hold. (Photo by Jason Houston – view slideshow of his visit to Borneo)

My family’s orangutan experience only adds poignancy to the continuing sense of loss of what is visible all around us – precious habitat for the orangutans and global warming for all of us.  In any event, you can’t help a kind of “falling in love” feeling here with this orangutan community. I know we will all feel a pang of regret leaving this enchanted place and our new orangutan friends.

>>Read about the Rare Pride campaign currently underway to help protect threatened orangutans on the island of Borneo

>>Learn about other trips offered through Rare

If you are interested in joining an upcoming trip to a Rare Pride campaign site please contact Lindsay Hower at lhower@rareconservation.org.

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