The Great Apes of Sumatra (A Travel Story) Part I

'Abdul' - Bohorok Rehabilitation CenterBy Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz

In the half-light of a misty dawn, we walked quickly down the narrow jungle path that wove its way along the high banks of the rocky river below. The thick morning fog oozed slowly down from the mountains all around us, shrouding its highest points in a mysteriously gauzy veil. We had only been walking for fifteen minutes, but already we were soaked in minute, iridescent beads of moisture.

We walked without speaking, each of us lost in the wonder of this magical place and our reason for being here. The rushing river below drowned out the softer sounds of billions of droplets of water falling from the lush canopy, but not the exotic bird songs or the gentle murmurs of waking monkeys hidden in their tree-top refuges. I wished that I had time to stop and absorb the feel and sound of this fantastic place, but we were in a hurry to reach our destination, for today, we hoped to come face to face with one of only three species of wild great apes left in the world.

As we walked, I was thinking of how lucky we were to be in Indonesia at all. This was the sixth Southeast Asian country we had visited since we left our home in the Missouri Ozarks back in February of 2006. Dean and I had been to Asia many times before, but on each of those trips we ran out of time and money to make it to the far-flung and enormous island nation of Indonesia. This time around, our entire journey would last for six months – plenty of time to get to Indonesia and do some exploring.

Indonesian Islands

Indonesia is made up of over 18,000 islands and choosing which one to visit was definitely a daunting task. We finally decided to focus on the northernmost island of Sumatra because it is one of only two places in the world where orangutans exist in the wild.

The Malay words orang hutan translate into English as person of the forest. Originally, these were the words the native peoples used to describe themselves. It was European explorers who bastardized the native people’s chosen name, applying it to an animal that they both feared and respected. The native Malays did, and often still do, refer to the great apes as mawas or mawais.

Before colonization, orangutans were very rarely hunted by local tribes for food or ornamentation. But in general, the large, powerful, and very intelligent orangutan was both feared and respected. For thousands of years the orangutans lived in peace and the mist-covered jungles in which they lived remained relatively untouched.

The status of the orangutan changed most dramatically during the period of colonization, which began in the early 16th century. Later they became targets for big game hunters and were exploited as curios, circus acts, zoo animals, and trophies for the rich and powerful.

Wild orangutan populations also came under increasing pressure from logging, mining, palm oil plantations, and the ensuing encroachment of settlements filled with humans hungry for land.  By the middle of the 19th century, it was rare to see an orangutan in the wild.  More recently, illegally obtained orangutans taken have been used as side a show attractions in which the animals are forced to box one another in a ring.   Over the last 200 years, the few orangutans that managed to escape humiliation and slow death at the hands of humans did so only by withdrawing into the deepest reaches of the jungle.

I was fully awake by the time we arrived at the dugout canoe that would take us across the rocky Bohorok River, which cuts the small mountain village of Bukit Lawang in half.  Just two years before, this small community was nearly wiped off the face of the earth when the river jumped its banks during a fierce rainstorm in the middle of the night.

The muddy torrent made its way swiftly down the narrow canyon at the head of the village and in only a few short moments, swept away nearly everything in sight, including 400 houses, 8 bridges, and 239 men, women and children.

Even as we arrived, the town was still being rebuilt. The depth of their sorrow was visible in every face, no matter how big the smile. As the locals told us their stories of that horrendous night, all pointed to the lush jungle-covered mountains and said that illegal logging in the jungle preserve was to blame for the terrible flash flood.

The entire country had been so focused on the aftermath of the recent tsunami along the Indonesian coast, that the little village of Bukit Lawang, which was hit by the flood less than 10 months later, was little more than a blip on the radar. With tourism all but dead prior to the flood, all the town had left was the strength and resilience of their community and the largely abandoned orangutan rehabilitation center on the edge of town.

B41 Kids in BLAll of this was on my mind as I walked silently down the narrow jungle path to the waiting dugout amidst the sounds of cascading water and birdsong. Although I hoped to see orangutans in the wild on this journey, at this very moment, I was completely satisfied just to be here in this stunning place with these incredible people and adding my small sum to the recovery of a community still struggling to survive.

Tune in next week to catch Part II of The Great Apes of Sumatra (A Travel Story), and our close encounter with wild orangutans!

© 2013 Jill Henderson


AJOS-214x328.jpgA Journey of Seasons
A Year in the Ozarks High Country

Set in the rugged heart of the Ozark mountains, A Journey of Seasons is memoir, back-to-the-land handbook and nature guide rolled into one.  Henderson’s 20-years of living off the land and foraging in the wilderness shines in this cyclopedic work filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor.  This is one journey you don’t want to miss.

Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.


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4 responses to “The Great Apes of Sumatra (A Travel Story) Part I

  1. Just another favorite, magical tale of your adventures in Asia that I dearly love. Your talent at making readers “feel” they are walking down those jungle pathways is abiding and always a treasure. Your reflections and awe for the natural world and all that is in it……….exudes respect. The world is loosing that empathy as time moves forward. You help others remember our priorities. Keep it up dear person. xo

    • Thank you so much, Jerre! Kind words, indeed! As a writer, there is no greater reward than having your readers not only like your work, but to feel as if they are in the story with you and say so. Bless you!

  2. Your post reminded me of Willie Smits, a forester who became and Indonesian citizen (I think he married a woman from there), and also fell in love with the orangutans. He saw that the forests they depend on were being destroyed by sugar palm plantations. So for the last over 20 years he’s been working with the whole system, people and animals and land, to make space for all. He’s an incredible example of action: http://www.masarang.org/ . Looking forward to reading Part 2.

    • Thank you, Sara. I look forward to reading more about Willie Smits and his organization. Over the years, more and more people have joined in the fight to save wild orangutans and other jungle-dwelling species under threat of extinction in SE Asia. The Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre that I speak of in the article was begun by two Danish women and eventually turned over to a large, internationally recognized organization. At the time we visited, the center was officially closed, with no funding either from the government or from the operating organization. The locals in the village worked with the remaining orangutans because the knew if they didn’t, no one would. The small fee we paid to visit went to support their efforts. Incredible sacrifices by incredible people.

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