The other day, I had the chance to follow a wild orang-utan with Ben, who’s doing his PhD on male orang-utan home ranges. We were following Salvador, a large flanged male who is doing well for himself in the forest hierarchy.
We woke up at 4am and walked in the dark to find him sleeping in his nest where Ben had left him the previous evening.
I hadn’t realised how close to him we were or how low the nest was until it became light. With a crashing sound, he emerged from the leaves, a massive bulk of orange hair and cheekpads.
To travel about in the canopy, the orang-utan uses his weight to bend the tree he is on and reach out to grab onto the adjacent one-once he has moved onto the next tree, he releases his grip, sending the bent tree springing back into place, with a tremendous tremble and shake of the branches and leaves.
Salvador quickly left his nest, swaying from tree to tree. He soon came across a big ahang tree and stopped to feed for a couple of hours, allowing us to take out our packed breakfast and talk for a while, enjoying the coolness of the early morning. Around us, the dreadful sound of hornbills- (magnificent birds that were somehow cursed with a phlegmatic 70-year-old-Bob-Dylan shriek) - and the distant sound of klotoks motoring down the Sabangau river on their way to the fishing posts.
As if Salvador knew I was a rookie in the forest, he decided to travel very far through difficult areas of forest for me, full of muddy holes, sunny and swelteringly hot canopy gaps and dense undergrowth. Ben ploughed on first with his parang, slashing through the branches and pandan, which kept hooking onto my shirt and trousers and cutting my skin like razors.
Occasionally, Salvador would stop briefly to eat some leaves or fruit, allowing me to take a breath and a closer look. I was amazed at the way he hung from the trees, supporting all that weight just with his powerful arms, looking out onto the forest as if looking out on his vast kingdom.
At these moments, especially when he stopped in a sunny spot and the light caught his beautiful orange coat, Salvador looked magnificent. He seemed to me like a proper monster, with his massive cheekpads and his thick orange beard- a proud and incredibly strong creature that I couldn’t believe I actually had the honour of sharing the same space and oxygen with that morning.
At other times, Salvador would come down on the ground to eat termites. When he is on the ground, the orang-utan is easy to lose- much like his human syntopites, he disappears into the thick forest without a trace, his orange hair blending in with the greens and browns of the forest in a mysterious way.
In such a manner, Ben and I lost Salvador, in one of the tough parts of the route- lots of fallen logs and branches were blocking our way and we couldn’t see clearly beyond a few metres. At one moment, we came upon a big fallen tree. As Ben peered over its trunk, he saw a massive black dark face emerging from behind it. In a flash, I saw Ben turning around and falling on his knees, covering his head with his hands, so I crouched down too- I was 2 metres away from Ben, and though I couldn’t see the orang-utan behind the log, from his monster growl and branch-crashing, I knew he was only a breath away, and he was pissed off.
We stayed there for a minute or two- that felt like far longer obviously- trying to make ourselves look as small and insignificant as possible. I could hear my heart struggling to escape my body. I could almost taste it in my mouth. Ben was facing me with his back turned on Salvador and I tried to decipher from his face if we would get out of this one and what should I do if the orang-utan comes closer. Ben’s face, however, bore the slightly stupid smile of the PhD student who has spent too much time in the field and is on the verge of a permanent eye twitch and thumb-sucking behaviour.
Salvador finally walked away; Ben just stood up and resumed the follow. Ten minutes later, I was still trying to understand the amount of fear I had just experienced and the fact that I felt very intensely alive. My legs still shaky and my body stiff and tense from the effort to stay absolutely still (and my insides quivering like the leaves of a tree that an orang-utan has just catapulted in the air), I stumbled behind Ben. He’s been doing this for the past 3 years.
Ben does this everyday.
It was clear to me that Salvador was making the rules. Despite tolerating our presence there- and very annoying we must be- he had a limit on physical proximity. I know orang-utans have never harmed any of the behavioural staff and as long as they are not challenged they are not likely to attack. I guess they wouldn’t want to waste their valuable energy on such unworthy opponents (Salvador could definitely swat me like a fly). They just make themselves look as intimidating as possible to warn you and let you know who’s boss- it’s what male orang-utans are built for and oh what an AWESOME way to experience one! My only regret is not being able to see him properly during the incident- although I suspect I might have shat myself at the sight of the wide flanges and flashing canines.
At about 2 o’clock and with no break for lunch I started getting tired. Ben was still powering on ahead and all I could do was pray to the forest spirits that Salvador finally finds another big tree to feed on and gives me a fucking break for a few minutes.
After travelling all morning, Salvador finally reached a big Nyatoh Gagas tree at 3 o’clock and fed there for two hours. I could no longer keep my eyes open so I just surrendered to sleep, leaning against a log, a swarm of mosquitoes feasting on me even through my thick field clothes. As I was just the GPS bearer and had already marked the last point on the route, Ben, who collects the main behavioural data for his project, let me indulge in a few moments of forest dreaming.
When I woke up, Salvador had already made his night nest next to the feeding tree (what a blessing for the exhausted research assistant) and was getting cosy and ready to sleep. With my eyes glued together, I wished then that he would let me climb up into the nest too and curl up under his thick orange flokati.
But, alas, I had more than 2 kilometres of forest to walk until camp (which, by the way, is nothing for the people who are not completely useless in the forest like I am). Luckily, Ben was kind and really patient and waited for me while I dragged my body across the forest, stopping every two minutes to dislodge my wellies (and occasionally my face) from the squelching muddy holes that are strewn along the transects like old-skool-cartoon traps.
On the whole, this has been one of my best days here so far and one for the long-term memory cache. I can’t wait for the opportunity to go on a follow again and hope it arises soon.
*Update: The following video of Salvador was taken by Nick Marchant, a researcher in Sabangau.