An Orangutan Adventure

This blog post was written a few days ago after an especially hectic and slightly nerve-wracking morning in the forest.  Read on for all of the details!

Today I decided to help team kelasi search for their monkeys, so Supian, Azis and I left camp at 5:30 am to scour the main habituated group’s territory.  After leaving Azis at his first transect, I started walking toward mine as well.  The tag that marks the start of that rtransect, however, has gotten lost recently, so I ended up passing the turn off- which led me straight into the path of a male orangutan feeding high up in a tree.  As with most orangutans, I could hear him crashing about in the tree before he came into view, so I wasn’t surprised to see him in a big tree right on my path.  He, on the other hand, was a bit surprised to see me, and immediately started to kiss squeak (a vocalization that often sounds exactly as its name describes, although this guy’s kiss squeak was more like the sound you hear when you step in mud and then quickly pull your foot out).  This is a common vocalization we hear from orangutans which are uncomfortable with our presence.  This guy also dropped a few small branches in my direction, so I backed off and watched him for a minute from a bit further away before continuing with my search.

A bit later, as I was approaching the spot where Azis and I had agreed to meet for breakfast, I again heard the trees shaking.  These were much more graceful movements than the previous crashes, so I knew it wasn’t an orangutan.  I immediately moved off the transect to get a better look, hoping to see a group of small orange monkeys bopping around.  Just as I was scanning the trees in that direction I heard yet another crash to my left.  Apparently I had inadvertently stumbled into the primate version of Grand Central Station!  Unfortunately, after a few minutes of observation I realized that the group to my right was gibbons, the animal to my left was the same orangutan as before, and I was left empty-handed with no kelasi (sidenote: you know your life is weird when you can say “unfortunately” and talk about seeing “only” wild orangutans and gibbons in the same sentence).   Although finding these other primates was a nice way to break up a monotonous searching morning, they weren’t what I was looking for, so I moved on for a rest and some breakfast.

After eating Azis and I split up again to keep searching.  I had only gone about 300 meters before hearing orangutan sounds again. I figured that, like before, he was in a tree somewhere near the transect, so I walked ahead slowly while checking the trees on either side of my path.  After a few steps I quickly looked down to make sure I wasn’t going to trip over anything, and as I did I caught a glimpse of something big and orange about 8 meters from me- and this big orange thing was sitting on the forest floor.  I stopped dead in my tracks.  Male orangutans are extremely strong, many times stronger than humans, and can move surprisingly quickly on the ground.  They aren’t usually aggressive, but if they feel threatened they can charge at humans, so I knew that I had to be very careful.  As soon as he heard me, the male climbed back into the trees and turned toward me.  I was thankful that he was no longer on the ground, but I also knew that this was no retreat.  He was kiss squeaking a lot, so again I moved back a couple of meters and sat on a fallen log to observe him.  He was putting on a bit of a show to try to intimidate me, which included pushing over a massive dead standing tree with one hand and then climbing through the trees toward me.  Although people naturally anthropomorphize primates they are in actuality very powerful wild animals (which I was acutely aware of after he yawned a few times to show me his sharp teeth), so even though I was at a safe distance I was still a bit afraid!

Luckily, after about 15 minutes he lost interest in me and turned to a feast of termites, kiss squeaking every so often to let me know that he still knew I was there.  I decided that it was time to go and moved off the transect to (very slowly) pass him, staying about 25 meters away the entire time.  I let out a small sigh of relief when I was out of his sight; it was the first time I had encountered an unhabituated male while alone in the forest, and was definitely a cool but slightly stressful experience!

So all in all, today was an eventful day.  Azis did end up finding the kelasi and the rest of the team collected behavioral data and followed them to their sleeping tree so that they could relocate them tomorrow.  I, on the other hand, came back to camp for a nice meal and long nap.  Hard life, yeah?

“Mozart”, a fully grown male orangutan that often comes near camp (the one I encountered was smaller than him, but more aggressive)

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One thought on “An Orangutan Adventure

  1. I have to say, I don’t really worry about you – you know out of sight out of mind – that kind of thing. BUT, I should not have read about agressive orangutan monkies in your space right before I went to bed and TRIED to sleep. I could only imagine you getting mauled by some crazy monkey!! I know, you are rolling your eyes right about now! -Mom

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