The Beauty Secrets of Pot-Bellied Ginger Dwarves

Bukit Lawang Travel Blog

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The deliriously cute Raddar chows down.
It's not every day that I declare a hairy ginger dwarf with a pot belly and exceptionally long arms to be beautiful. But the orangutans of Sumatra are just that. Orangutans have long been my favourite animals, they knocked dolphins off the top spot when I was a fickle 10 year old and saw the amusing Clyde crapping on a police car seat in Any Which Way You Can. That was one funny monkey (I know, I know: ape not monkey, I've read Terry Pratchett since) and smart too. So the motivation behind this little side trip to Sumatra was always really about getting to see them at close quarters.

The Rehabilitation Centre at Bukit Lawang takes in orangutans rescued from captivity in unlicensed zoos and from private owners.
Nat and Fi on our little jaunt into the rain forest.
They gradually attempt to wean them back onto the ways of the wild, reintroducing them to natural habits such as tree dwelling and nest building. Oh yeah - orangs build nests up in the trees, every couple of days. Twice each day, the rangers allow tourists to watch the semi-wild orangs being fed bananas and milk at a platform close to the edge of the rainforest. The tediously plain grub is meant to encourage the apes to forage for themselves and, slowly, grow less reliant on their human helpers. The eventual aim is that they disappear into the forest to live as wild arboreal orangs.

It's a procedure that seems to be succeeding in a modest, long-term way, with some orangs more eager to return entirely to the wild than others. This echoes the fact that they share a remarkable amount of DNA with humans and have very distinct individual personalities.
Meena and her baby, comfortably numb due to banana overload.
We were told more than once that orangutan literally translates as "person of the forest." This seems most appropriate when you see them up close, face to face; there's unmistakeably a lot going on behind those eyes.

I felt this most keenly when, along with the two English girls, Nat and Fiona, we met in Medan, I went on a day trek into the forest. Within an hour we met Meena, a bit of a local celebrity, famed for her aggression and habit of biting the local guides who refuse to feed her. She swung down towards us and we hurried away, anxious not to be attacked. One of the guides however, stayed behind, handing her a few bananas which she skinned and hoovered up in a matter of moments. He returned to us reporting that she seemed in an amazingly good mood.
Suma, with me lurking uncertainly in the foreground.
Normally she's constantly raging.

I was not too thrilled by the behaviour of the guides; they are not supposed to feed the orangs, it inteferes with the process of rehabilitation. They explained to us that Meena is a law unto herself and almost all of the guides and indeed many of the rangers feed her, they do not feed any of the others. I remained unsure about the methods but, nonetheless, edged closer to Meena, ready to leg it if she spat the dummy for any reason. But she didn't, simply content to hang there looking me over with big brown eyes, a small baby clinging tightly to her side.

It became obvious that she was evaluating me in an astonishingly human way. And while she studied me, I returned the compliment, noticing the mark on her forehead where, some years ago, she was struck with a blade by a local, no-one knows who.
The big male makes his entrance and then hangs around.
It appears it was that attack that left her virtually uncontrollable. Same old story - man corrupts, animals suffer. I snapped a few photos and eventually, it was time to go. Meena's story left me feeling genuinely sorry for her; it appears that, with the cycle of aggression and appeasement feeding that surrounds her, she'll never now take the opportunity of returning fully to the wild. Nonetheless, I hope that somewhere in that mercurial mind, she can be happy in her own way; the fact that she's been a mother more than once suggests it may be possible.        

On our next visit to the platform, the day after the trekking, we saw about ten orangs, all either females or young males, swinging down to claim the bananas and milk on offer. They hung around (literally - in the trees) for a while afterwards with the dominant female, Suma (who takes shit from no-one; even Meena is scared of her), happy to study us and be photographed.
If I was a better cameraman then this would be a great action shot. Unfortunately I'm not. So it isn't. You can still see how big he is though. So don't complain. Pedants.
This was obviously great, but I had heard that a mature male orang was in the area, a semi-wild one that had been released 10 years previously but returned to the area every couple of years to find females. He had been hanging around and a few tourists had been lucky enough to see him; something I wanted more than anything.

The feeding period on my final morning in town was my last chance and the early omens weren't good. There were no orangs around at all and my wish to see the big male looked as though it was to remain unfulfilled. Then, suddenly, a big ape emerged from the cover of the forest to the right of the feeding platform. It was pretty obvious from both his size and the cheek pads developing on his face that the mature male had returned. The rangers got a little jumpy and ushered us a little way back away from him, but it didn't matter, we got to see him snatching up bananas, filling his face and then swinging his great hairy bulk around in the trees circling around us and waiting for females to show.
Grub up! Apparently this geezer has no top front teeth. You can kind of tell on this one.
I had got what I came for and I was more than happy.
           
As the bus bumped its rickety way back to Medan, I sat there feeling as if I had achieved one of the things that had been a personal wish since childhood. It's true to say that I never got to see a wild orangutan, but that's ok. My audiences with the semi-wild ones were more than enough. I was utterly content. And that, well it's a rare thing indeed.
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The deliriously cute Raddar chows …
The deliriously cute Raddar chows…
Nat and Fi on our little jaunt int…
Nat and Fi on our little jaunt in…
Meena and her baby, comfortably nu…
Meena and her baby, comfortably n…
Suma, with me lurking uncertainly …
Suma, with me lurking uncertainly…
The big male makes his entrance an…
The big male makes his entrance a…
If I was a better cameraman then t…
If I was a better cameraman then …
Grub up! Apparently this geezer ha…
Grub up! Apparently this geezer h…
Bukit Lawang
photo by: vidalibre