Bushwhacking in Flip Flops at Night: On the Trail of a Wild Orangutan


The day that I left Danau Alo at the end of ranger training I was taken to Tebol, a small town where the FZS rangers have a residence and base. From here I was told that a car would take me to Jambi the following afternoon. In the morning I got up early to beat the heat and went for a walk to town. I really wanted to walk over the big bridge on the Batang Hari River, after two hours of walking I was nearly there when Tomy (one of the rangers) pulled up on a motorcycle. Tomy informed me that I could not be out walking because they had not registered me with the local police. I therefore had no permit. I have been in Indonesia for over a month, this is the first time that this has been mentioned to me. I wanted to protest, I know I could have played the dumb-tourist card, but I like Tomy so I didn’t give him a hard time.

Feeling a bit grumpy in my confinement at the staff house I wandered around looking for someone converse with in English. I found Bawinny, the vet, and learned that for the past four days some FZS staff have been following a mysterious wild orangutan around a local farmer’s yard. The only population of orangutans in Central Sumatra is the hundred and fifty that have been reintroduced out of the Pengian station, 100 km north of Tebol. Furthermore Tebol sits on the South bank of the Batang Hari River and orangutans can’t swim. There is much speculation as to how this guy could have traveled this far and crossed the river. No one recognizes him. The released orangutans are almost all micro-chipped and tracked. It is possible that he is wild born, or that he was released a while ago with no chip. There is also a remote possibility that he is an escaped pet. What is certain is that he won’t last long near Tebol. The farmer is already outraged that this guy has been eating his durian fruits. He has called FZS to have him removed. Other farmers may have just shot him themselves.

The sad reality in Sumatra, and Indonesia, is that humans and wildlife often clash. The growing human population is expanding into orangutan habitat. Orangutans in turn are lured into plantations and fields by the promise of an easy meal. These unwanted interactions rarely end well for the animals. That is a big part of why FZS is working so hard to secure and protect the concession lands buffering Bukit Tigapuluh national park where Sumatran orangutans are being reintroduced. If the concessions go to logging, plantations or mining it will create more roads, more human traffic and less food to forage for the orangutans.

While I had my heart set on going to Jambi and finally getting some internet time, I realized that this would make a fantastic news story. With one phone call to the office I suddenly had a permit to be seen in public. Perhaps it was my grumpy mood, or maybe I was tired and dehydrated, but I wasn’t really thinking when Bawinny told me that we were going to go check out the durian tree at the farmer’s house. In my mind I envisioned a few fruit trees in a big open back yard, maybe some maize and a vegetable garden growing alongside a nice little path. I put on my flip flops, grabbed my camera and hopped on the back of a motorbike. Like I said, I really wasn’t thinking.

We drove out of town, the roads getting smaller and quieter. Then we turned into a narrow lane between two houses, I figured that we had arrived but we didn’t slow down. The lane turned into a bumpy, mucky path. The trees began to darken the sky. The underbrush lashed out and whipped us as we passed. Still the path narrowed to a faint single track. We were driving into the heart of a rubber plantation. Unlike neat industrial plantations the trees here sprouted up rather hodge-podgely. The path diverged at random, snaking its way into the belly of the beast.

Finally we stopped, dismounted and began our march. I followed Bawinny, Andy and Hendra as they watched their GPS units and sent text messages to the two orangutan trackers somewhere in the brush just beyond our bikes. They kept saying it was just a few hundred meters away and we kept walking in big zig zags. After an hour of bushwhacking through muck, downed trees and thorny shrubs my exposed feet were feeling abused. We found the trackers. They were lounging on a dead tree. We all sat and ate the lunch that Bawinny had brought, rice with sambal chicken and veggies, wrapped up in newspaper so we could take it to go. Having no utensils I ate with my right hand, which I am much less adept at than my Indonesian friends. It is seriously difficult to ball up spicy rice with your fingers while trying not to spill the whole saggy package off the newspaper. Mostly I just dribbled bits of rice down my front. By this time in the afternoon the mosquitoes were feeling merciless. With my lunch in my left hand and sambal all over my right I was powerless to swat them. My bare arms, face and feet longed for the bug spray that I had left behind. In my frustration I made a mental inventory of all the useful things I would have packed in my day pack had I known that this was where I was going. Topping the list was water, bug spray and a dry sack for my camera in case of rain.

Shortly after our meal the orangutan woke up. Until now he had been sleeping the day away in his nest. I got my first look at him as he stretched out and swung over to the durian tree for a snack. His fur is a deep rich brown highlighted with a long golden beard. While he is beginning to show some distinctly male characteristics, he is still young and doesn’t have the adult male cheek pads. When I took my first picture I forgot to turn off the flash, he clearly disliked this. He winced, then bolted high up to the tree top. From that moment on he hid his face upon noticing my camera. Having just begun his day at three in the afternoon he had only a few daylight hours to forage. Soon he grew tired of durians and was on the move while we hastened to keep up.

We spent three hours tracking below his route through the tree tops. He ate very little during this time. As the sun set at 6 p.m. he showed no sign that he wanted to settle down and build a nest. Orangutans have poor night vision. When it is dark they sleep in secure nests that they build out of leaves high off the ground. Finally at 6:15 he began construction. I was relieved to see this, the afternoon had been difficult, I was tired, thirsty and my feet were bleeding. Finally he hoped in and settled down and we were free to leave until morning. We marked the location on our GPS units and we called Andy and Hendra who had by now gone to find our motorbikes and search for a good route to bring a truck into the site. To transport him out we will need to get the truck as close as possible so that staff don’t have to carry a heavy orangutan too far through the plantation brush. We plugged in the coordinates of Andy and Hendra and began our dark march, with only the glow of the GPS screen to light the way.

I have done my share of heinous bush-whacking, but I would argue that you haven’t really bushwhacked until you’ve done it in flip flops in the dark. Bonus points if you are also hopelessly lost, dehydrated and it’s 35 C degrees and humid . We went in circles in the dark for over an hour. I kept losing my shoes in deep holes of mud. I took to walking like a football player doing knee up drills just to make sure that I got my feet over the invisible obstacles. We were all stumbling and falling as vines, stumps and downed trees got in our way. Then we heard the hum of the engines. It seemed to be coming from a towering wall of bushes. Without hesitation we charged right in, hurling our bodies at the tangles and forcing ourselves though.  We emerged to the blinding headlights of our rides home, which illuminate my final plunge into a deep marshy patch that separated me from salvation. Even though it was night the air seemed to have grown hotter. I was absolutely drenched in gritty sweat mingled with mud. The only word my dry mouth could conjure as we rejoiced at having made it out alive was “Ai-err,” meaning water (spelled ‘air’). I was handed a liter and downed my third right away, passing it off to my equally parched companions.

The drive back to town was invigorating. The stretch of road connecting the plantation to the town center was long, reasonably straight and well paved, meaning we could go very fast. My driver, Hendra could give the best motor bike racers a run for their money. Perhaps I should have been worried but the breeze was so spectacular that I couldn’t help but yell “woo-hoo!” as we sped along, eliciting further acceleration of the motorcycle. When we stopped in town for dinner my clothes were bone dry. I drained my big water glass the moment it hit the table and suddenly felt much better. The mango juice I had with my fried rice was the icing on the cake. Serendipitously we ran into some friends at the restaurant who had just arrived from the city with the government sniper from the ministry of the environment. We began hatching the plan to return the following day, now that we had a tranquilizer gun and a shooter, to catch the orangutan.

To be concluded in the next post.

This entry was published on December 19, 2012 at 12:00. It’s filed under Working at field stations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Bushwhacking in Flip Flops at Night: On the Trail of a Wild Orangutan

  1. ekbremner on said:

    So good!! Though I feel badly for your poor feet and exposed skin! I hope you’ve made a full recovery 🙂

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