By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
When we left the story last week, Dean and I had just come face to face with an extraordinary creature named Abdul. A free, but not yet wild male orangutan whose eyes shone with an intelligence and knowing that was both unsettling and revealing. Just as we turned to hike up the mountainside towards the feeding platform a female orangutan named Jackie came into the clearing walking upright on two legs and waved at us. Instinctively, we all waved back.
She seemed to smile at us as she continued her rather quick approach. Everything about her radiated happiness and her gaze was directly focused on our guide, Dharma. After a cursory glance at us, she walked past the male orangutans eating their bananas, up the stairs to the porch, past all the other rangers and directly to our guide, Dharma. Within moments we realized that she cradled a small infant in her arm.
Jackie immediately took Dharma’s comparatively small hand in hers and stood quietly by his side. He quickly introduced Jackie to us and explained the situation. “She doesn’t want the food, she just wants to visit.” he said. “We have been friends for a long time.” The baby, he said, was a little male who was also named Dharma.
The other rangers insisted on this name because he and Jackie had spent so much time together that it was as if they were related. It was obvious that this was not Dharma’s idea, but that he was quite flattered by it because it honored the long hard road they had gone down together and celebrated Jackie’s successful return to the wild.
We oohed and ahhed over the spindly little baby orangutan from a few feet away. We all wanted to see more of him, but he was shy and kept his face tightly tucked into his mother’s protective arm, peeking out once or twice to get a little look at the pale strangers before him. After a few minutes of peek-a-boo, Jackie tugged gently at Dharma’s hand and they turned in unison towards the jungle. We followed behind, still smiling from ear to ear.
As we began our trek up the muddy, slippery path toward the feeding platform, some 30 minutes away, Dharma explained over his shoulder that Jackie had been successful in the wild and that this was her first baby. He pointed out that female orangutans begin to have young at around the age of twelve and that the gestation period was exactly the same as it was for humans; nine months. Orangutans have one infant every seven to eight years. Twins do occur but it is very rare. Mother orangutans will breast feed and carry their babies everywhere for the first five years of their life and sometimes as long as eight years. Even after the mother has weaned her baby, it may stay with her for as long as ten years.
Orangutans are semi-solitary animals. Breeding males are more independent than females, who often travel in small groups of other females and their young. Unlike gorillas, orangutans spend most of their time in the trees. Their powerful arms are much longer than their bodies and can reach between 7 and 8 feet across in mature animals. Orangutans also have opposing thumbs on both their hands and their feet and can walk on all fours or upright as they desire.
Though they tried to follow us up the trail, the two males we first met were made to stay back at the center because they are not quite ready to make that big step into the wild. Jackie led the way towards the jungle trail, walking upright on two legs.
For over thirty minutes of what I thought was a rather slippery, steep hike, Jackie walked upright all the way – holding baby Dharma with one hand and human Dharma with the other. It seemed to us that she had the two most important things to her, quite literally, at hand.
With her friend and trusted teacher on one side and her infant on the other, she seemed willing to do whatever she had to do to hold on to both of them all the way to the top of the mountain.
As we hiked closely behind the leading pair, it was all we could do not to reach out and touch her long rusty fur, or the now wildly waving baby Dharma who kept reaching out from under his mother’s arm to grab my shirt or anything that got within reach. It wasn’t hard at all to see the playful toddler in him – eyes glowing with laughter at the game.
I had a sense that Jackie wouldn’t mind if we touched her or the baby, but we had been told explicitly not to. Not because she was wild or protective, but because we humans could infect her and the baby – and perhaps all the wild orangutans – with our very human germs.
Because orangutans and humans share around 98% of our genes, it makes sense that the illnesses that humans have can infect them as well. These illnesses, particularly viruses, spread like wildfire through orangutan populations that have no antibodies with which to defend themselves. The result of transmitting an illness to just one of these animals could be disastrous for them all.
So we walked respectably close behind without touching. And we took turns walking behind Jackie so that everyone could get a better look at her and the baby in her arms. It was among the most magical thirty minutes of my life and it left me with the indelible fact that these animals not only think and reason and equate, but they love, too.
Once at the feeding platform, mostly overgrown with vines and covered in moss, two other young orangutans came to sip whey from day-glow pink cups and eat as many bananas as they were offered. These orangutans were shy of us and tended to seep back into the tree branches as they ate, just as they had been taught to do. Dharma explained that occasionally during mating season, large males would come in from the depths of the jungle in pursuit of females, but that otherwise, most of the apes that came here were young mothers and recently released orangutans.
Once the feeding was over the orangutans, including Jackie and baby Dharma, slipped swiftly and silently into the jungle without so much as a cracking a twig. Off to build a day-bed in the branches of some tall tree, or to browse for fruit or insects, or perhaps to sunbathe on the large flat rocks beside the river.
As we were left to wonder, a long-tailed Macaque who had been hanging out on the fringes, moved in to clean up the few bananas that had not been entirely eaten. “Cheeky monkey!” said Dharma. “You have to watch that one. He likes to steal bags and cameras”.
Before the words were out of his mouth, the Macaque slipped in between our feet and grabbed one of the ranger’s backpacks and scurried up the nearest tree. We laughed as he rummaged around in the pockets and opened all the zippers looking for food or shiny things, and once he realized there weren’t any bananas, the bag became worthless and was left hanging in the fork of the tree, completely out of our reach. The rangers just laughed and said, “We’ll be back”.
We turned reluctantly from the platform and made our way down the mountain again. As we descended, we caught a bird’s eye view of the valley below. Such a beautiful and far away place would surely remain a safe-haven for these wonderful beings; for who could destroy it knowing what lay at stake?
Our visit to the Bohorok Rehabilitation Center was an awe-inspiring experience. It made us look at our humanness in a way we never could before. To understand with such profound clarity how closely related we are to them, as with the other great apes of the world, is what you might call an epiphany. They are not merely similar to humans, they are kin.
It was love that made Jackie smile when she saw her human friend, Dharma, and it was love that shone in her eyes when she looked at her baby.
To stand beside these magnificent creatures and look into their eyes only to see ourselves reflected in them is a life-altering experience. So if you are lucky enough to be trekking along a mist-shrouded trail on the island of Sumatra, perhaps you, too, will see it for yourself.
If you want to learn more about orangutans and the ongoing efforts to rehabilitate them to the wild, check out the Orangutan Foundation International.
© 2013 Jill Henderson
A 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.