Deep within Sumatra’s Gunung Leuser National Park is one of the last places on earth to see the critically endangered orangutans in the wild. Deforestation has reached alarming levels due to increased levels of logging and growth of palm oil plantations. Eighty percent of Earth’s animals live in forests and many are unable to survive the deforestation which is destroying their homes. Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t miss out on this journey to see the orangutans now.
1. The Orangutans!
Imagine walking through the UNESCO World Heritage National Park of Gunung Leuser and suddenly coming face to face with the great ape swinging from a tree. That is the magic of a trek through the jungles of Sumatra, the closest Indonesian island to mainland Asia. The orangutans, once widespread throughout Southeast Asia, can now only be seen in the wild in two places: Sumatra and Borneo. The Sumatran orangutans are smaller and rarer compared to their Bornean relatives. It’s a real treat if you can catch sight of an orangutan swinging from branch to branch. Sometimes they may act coy and turn their back to you as they busy themselves with some important activity like scratching the hair on their head, or they may appear deep in thought as they stare into the distance, once in a while locking eyes with you and giving you a fabulous opportunity to capture that soulful gaze if you have the right camera gear.
It’s remarkable how these great apes share over 96.5% of their genetic DNA with us. They are highly intelligent and like humans in many ways. If you’re lucky to see an Orangutan peeling a banana and handing it to its little one, you’ll see how human-like these actions are, including the way the adult interacts with its child. The Sumatran orangutans grow to about 1.4 meters tall and males can weigh up to 80 kilograms. Females however are smaller and can weight up to 40 kilograms. Their life spans around 45 years in the wild and they produce an infant only once every eight years. Orangutans spend most of their lives in the tops of trees, swinging from branch to branch, looking for food and finding a new nest every night for sleeping.
If you ever have the opportunity to observe a nest you’ll see how an orangutan can build a pretty impressive bed from basic materials such as sticks, branches, and leaves. It’s even more interesting then that though the orangutan values a good night’s sleep and will go to lengths to create a comfortable bed, it will also typically abandon its nest for a new one as it moves through the jungle looking for food. Therefore it makes sense that their way of life isn’t suited to a rapidly shrinking forest as space is important for them.
2. Other Wildlife
Hiking through the Gunung Leuser National Park, you also get an opportunity to spot other wildlife such as butterflies, birds such as hornbills, owls, and woodpeckers, white handed gibbons, hornbills, Thomas leaf monkeys, various reptiles and possibly even a Sumatran Tiger or Sumatran elephant. Often while trekking, listening to the sounds of the jungle can be soothing and the best thing about the national park is that it’s wild and untamed as a jungle should be. With your guide navigating the trail, you will experience a bit of adventure and wildlife. You will also have the opportunity to visit the Sumatran Elephant Sanctuary outside the national park to observe rescued elephants. These elephants are no longer wild and are used by the locals to patrol the park to help protect the endangered wild Sumatran Elephants from poachers. You will have the unique experience to interact with the elephants as they wash in the river.
3. Increased Awareness of the Impact of Deforestation
While many of us probably understand the concept of deforestation, seeing the orangutans in the wild helps drive home the startling fact that deforestation is the primary threat to the orangutan, an animal that lives mainly in trees. In an article in the ScientificAmerican.com, in 2007 the United Nations Environment Program predicted that the orangutans will cease to exist in the wild within two decades, if the present rate of deforestation continues. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature has thus classified that the Sumatran orangutans as critically endangered. The tropical rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are rapidly being cut down (in many cases illegally) so farmers can plant crops, or for the development of the palm oil plantations. These palm oil plantations can stretch for acres, reducing the size of the rainforests.
For example in Indonesia, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) reports that the total land area for palm oil in Indonesia has grown 30-fold to over three million hectares in the last four decades. Another alarming issue is that orangutans are often being killed by poachers for food for the bush meat trade. The Orangutan Conservancy claims that many logging companies don’t provide their employees food so while they are required to work long hours cutting down trees, they must feed themselves and many hunt orangutans, birds and small mammals. Illegal wildlife trade is also rampant amongst poachers who often will kill the mothers and sell the babies as pets. Unfortunately at some point, the baby orangutans stop being cute and cuddly and grow big and become unruly, especially as they are confined. Many are then discarded and have been rescued by rehabilitation centers in national parks such as the Tanjung Putting National Park in Borneo. Observing the orangutans in the wild and seeing how they need to live, brings about an increased awareness of why it’s critical that these rainforests be protected.
4. Experience a Local Village and Culture
The jumping off point to the Gunung Leuser National Park is the charming village of Bukit Lawang, situated on the edge of the dense national park and along the banks of the Bohorok river. Here the separation between jungle and village becomes a bit of a blur as you will often see monkeys playing across the roofs of houses and hear cicadas at night. The village also has a suspension bridge that can be quite exciting to walk across to really explore both sides. Tubing down the river, taking arts and handicraft classes, birdwatching and nature walks are all part of the short list of must-see attractions here. The laid back, peaceful vibe in this village makes for a perfect stop for a few days before beginning your trekking adventure.
5. Enjoy Indonesian Cuisine
Bukit Lawang is home to small guesthouses and restaurants and you will have the opportunity to try Indonesian classics such as the fried noodles (Mie Goreng), chicken, and vegetable curries.
Post written by Preethi Chandrasekhar, follow her on Facebook