As soon as we touched down in Borneo we were greeted by our guide and taken to the boat that we would be living on for the next three days.
A very wet welcome to the rain forest.
Our first day was everything we could have wished for and more. Our guide Jeffery used to be a ranger so has close bonds with many of the orangutans as well as an instinctive understanding of their behaviour. He also knew the jungle like the back of his hand which was reassuring. The second we stepped off the boat an adolescent male orangutan was there to greet us (I’m pretty sure my heart actually stopped at this point). I’ve watched them on nature documentaries so many times but to see one in real life, in such close proximity, was unforgettable.
Because humans are gradually destroying the orangutans’ habitat, these beautiful creatures are sadly endangered. Feeding programs have been initiated to ensure they are getting the food they need. This is one of the feeding platforms where rangers lay out food twice a day. It makes me sad that this needs to happen but it’s essential to ensure they survive. If no orangutans come to feed, it’s a good thing – it means they’re getting everything they need from the forest.
We were offered a night hike through the jungle after dinner which I initially declined because, well … I can’t think of anything worse. But I later decided to man up and give it a go. It was cool until Jeffery started getting Bear Grylls on us and taking us through swamps in the pitch black and checking our ankles for leeches. The point that he warned us to be careful of stepping on snakes and tarantulas was the point I started hyperventilating knee deep in a swamp. Not one of my finest moments.
Shortly after breakfast, as we were floating along, the water suddenly changed colour from murky brown to black (tannin from dead leaves dyes the water red but it appears black en masse) It was like nothing I’ve seen before – it created a mirror and from that point on we saw everything in symmetry.
Camp Leaky has an information centre where you can learn more about Orangutans and the threats that face them, here are a few that I found particularly interesting.
- Borneo has 5000 known species of trees compared to just 34 native to England. In a single 25 acre plot of Bornean rainforest 783 species of trees were counted.
- Rainforests play a vital role in the fragile ecosystem of the world, they help regulate the world’s weather by absorbing solar energy which helps to drive the circulation of the atmosphere. This phenomenon affects rainfall and wind patterns throughout the world.
- The word orangutan comes from the Malay/Indonesian words Orang meaning person and Hutan meaning forest; Person of the forest.
- In the last 32 years Indonesia has lost 40 million hectares of forest. This equates to the combined size of Germany and the Netherlands or approximated 65 times the size of Bali.
- Indonesia has already lost as much as 75% of its original natural forest habitat.
- Indonesia has 763 species that are in danger of extinction; 140 of these are mammals – the highest number in the world.
The greatest threat to the rainforest is the continued expansion of palm oil plantations. Palm oil companies often use fire to clear plantation land. In 1997 a fire killed one third of Borneo’s orangutan population; more than 20,000 died.
Palm oil requires a tropical climate in which to grow and is cultivated in lowland areas near the equator, often replacing forest. Malaysia and Indonesia are the biggest producers of palm oil accounting for 90% of the world’s supply. The total area in Indonesia occupied by palm oil plantations has doubled in the last 10 years and I fear will only increase rapidly in the years to come.
It’s difficult to see in the photo but the land behind this village used to be thick rainforest full of life. All that’s left is charred stumps – it feels like a grave site to look at.
The good news is, we can do our bit to help, either by donating/ volunteering with charities trying to tackle these issues such as Heart of Borneo Project & Orangutan Foundation but also by stopping our consumption of palm oil. You may not even know you are a consumer but it is used in many food products such as margarine, cakes, biscuits, chocolate, crisps and ice cream as well as cosmetics, paint, feed for live stock and biofuels. Let’s start checking the label to ensure we are not contributing to this destructive industry that is slowly but surely destroying one of the most precious areas of our planet.