Clinging precariously to a narrow tree branch by just the clutches of a few light brown human like fingers, arm fully outstretched and body dangling between the second arm which reaches in similar fashion to the opposite direction, the orang-utan is looking at me dead straight in the eyes.
Eyes blink, upper lip rolls rhythmically in the trademark movement which is missed in the glossy pages of a magazine. The glance between us is utterly mesmerising. Her nimble movements seem to defy the mechanics of seriously large beast and pure agility that should put humans to shame. She then swings her body sideways with enough momentum to grab lower down on the same tree with the bare strength of her feet, supporting her mid air in an orang-utan like crucifix position.
While noticing the frown lines in her forehead and further blinks of her eyes I become acutely aware there is little more than arms length distance between wild primate and me. Should she wish to exude her power, I would not last a nano second. This orangatun along with approximately 400 other wild and semi wild orangatun’s live In North Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park. The 2000 hectares of UNESCO World Heritage Site is known to be one of the most important ecosystems in the World and a fiercely protected piece of land. Here the orangatun’s road totally freely.
Before the 1970’s sites like this were virtually non existent. Orangutans were exploited, nearly endangered and used as either circus acts or cages pets. A German traveller was compelled to make a change and worked tirelessly with the support of the local government to set up an orangatun rehabilitation programme. The programme focused on nurturing the cages primates to survive in the wild through learning to forage for food and build their own nests. A law was passed rendering it illegal to exploit orangantuns, and the rehabilitation centre was set up in Ketambe. Not too long after the programme began, the centre was moved to Bukit Lawang where it successfully rehabilitated more than 200 oragatuns into the wild before its eventual closure in 2001.
The old centre can be seen close to the entrance of the Gunung Leuser National Park and many jungle treks in the region take trekkers past the now disused feeding platform.
Along with the success of the rehabilitation programme, Bukit Lawang steadily grew to become what is now a 300 inhabitant town on the banks of the Bahorok River, at the end of the Gunung Leuser National Park. Year round travellers journey to the remote village taking anywhere from 3hours to 7 days trekking into the jungle to be up close withe our orange haired cousins.
Of the 400 odd orangantuns in Gunung Leuser National Park (the exact number can never truly be counted as the orangatuns are not tagged or monitored), all are considered to be either wild or semi wild. The latter are the older of the primates who once were rehabilitated into the wild after their time in captivity. The former are the young, born in the park with no help at all from humans. The average lifespan of an oranagaran is 70 years old, and as such, sadly some of the creatures seen at Gunung Leuser National Park are those which were held captive in their former years. In males, after the age of 30 the face shape changes to a more rounder shape, creating an easily identifiable trait of those who have perhaps had a more sinister past.
It’s clear that the orang-utans, both young and old, are used to seeing humans regularly. Jungle trekkers wander through their natural home yet they remain content, calm and even appear curious, stopping to stare back in contemplation as we do with them. Catching sight of each other there’s a moment between two souls, each with emotions and thoughts, connecting in a common place; primate and human being.