My Orangutan Story: Part 1

Posted on November 11, 2015 by Jess Baker | 0 Comments

Orangutan Awareness Week 2015

It's Orangutan Awareness Week here in the UK, led by Orangutan Foundation UK, so what better time to share my 'orangutan story' to explain why I'm obsessed with them and why I will never use Palm oil in MIMI products. 

It all began at an unplanned visit to Chester Zoo on my birthday, exactly 15 years ago. I never go to zoos on principle, but I think I was meant to be at this one as I came across an orangutan research facility and a large banner saying 'for more information on how you can get involved go to our website...'.

(I'm gutted right now as I recently scanned about 30 of my own photos from Camp Leakey, but can't find them on my server... I will upload them all here as soon as I have!).

I was accepted on to the Orangutan Foundation volunteer programme to go to Borneo for the summer of 2001. I was sitting on a long-haul flight to Jakarta while the rest of my psychology class was at their graduation ceremony. Several flights, bus trips and boat rides later I arrived at Camp Leakey in the heart of the Bornean jungle, where orangutan research began. 

Dedicated Women
The camp is named after Professor Louis Leakey who, after three years of being persuaded, finally agreed to fund the first ever orangutan research exploration in 1971, led by Dr Birute Galdikas. Prof Leakey had previously funded Dian Fossey to research mountain gorillas, and Jane Goodall to research chimpanzees.

Camp Leakey
Arriving at Camp Leakey from a long boat trip down the Seconyer river I saw the long raised jetty leading into the thick line of trees (the one you see in David Attenborough, Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson documentaries). I was excited and nervous and had no idea what to expect.

One or two inquisitive orangutans were hanging around, one in particular came to welcome us - Kusasi, the huge alpha-male. We'd already been warned about him, so we waited in the boat while the research assistants expertly chased him away (but even they looked intimated by him). I secretly hoped that I'd never see Kusasi again. But I would. 

The Camp itself was a small complex of basic wooden huts with chicken-wire windows: sleeping accommodation for the employed local research assistants and their families, volunteer's accomodation, a small research and visitor centre, and a larger hut that housed the kitchen and dinning room. 

Princess & Pan
I was delighted that several rescued orangutans still liked to hang out at the Camp. I got to know Princess and her son, Pan (approx 6yrs old) - they'd often sit watching us for a while then decide to join in. Sometimes they'd come down to the river and bathe with us (after steeling our soap), wash laundry with us (after stealing our t-shirts), and here they're 'working' with us while we built another hut on site at Camp Leakey.

Big Brother
We were a group of 12 volunteers with an interest in orangutan conservation and no experience in construction, living in the jungle, or working in 30+ degree heat with 100% humidity. It would have made great reality TV.

We were split into work-groups everyday, either helping to build Pondok Ambung, the research centre up river; clearing the research trails around Camp Leakey so that the research assistants could easily track orangutans 24/7; or helping to construct a new hut on Camp Leakey itself.

Each volunteer got one day off a week and each of us would get to go on a 'follow'. This is what we all came for... A 'follow' means trekking through the jungle at 2am with research assistants to find a particular tree that an organutan had settled in for the night.

Following Wild Orangutans
On my follow, after trekking for a couple of hours in the dark, we had time to hang hammocks and nap for a while before our wild orangutan woke up and moved off to find breakfast (fruit-bearing trees). As soon as he awoke we followed, but he moved quickly high up in the forest canopy and despite being a burnt orange colour, he was really hard to spot.

Fortunately the researchers are excellent orangutan spotters. I helped make notes of everything - the types of trees the orangutans settled in, ate from, including measuring the girth of the trees, collecting leaf samples, tasting its fruit, and collecting orangutan droppings. Special moments. 

Jungle Life
Of course, I'm not going to complain about the mosquitos the size of your thumb, fire ants that burn as they climb into your boots, bird-eating spiders that land on your chest, or leeches. Lots of leeches. These were all just part of jungle life.

On one of my days off I was resting in the hut, listening to the jungle calls and writing my dairy when I heard and felt a thud. Something was breaking into our hut, probably looking for food (one of the other volunteers was hiding sweets that inevitably attracted wildlife). I crept downstairs to see what was going on.

Kusasi Again
And that's when I came face to face with Kusasi. All 120kg of his body weight was leaning on the other side of the wooden door - the only door. He was seven times stronger than me. He stood 1.5m tall, with an arm span of 2.4m, and his long thick fingers were at least three times the size of mine, poking through the flimsy chicken-wire window. It was a moment I'll never forget.

Kusasi started picking at the wooden slats at the bottom of the door pulling them away almost effortlessly. If he broke in I'd have to somehow get past him and leg it to the research hut or kitchen for safety.

This is Julia Roberts being held by Kusasi. She was calling his name for ages, then became afraid when he reached for her. This is a screenshot taken from the documentary series "In the Wild", watch it 5mins 10secs into it:

While I tried to stay calm, I needed to yell for help. But not in a helpless feminine voice, no, I thought I needed to sound like the male research assistants who'd chased him away on my arrival at Camp. So I began to yell 'Kusasi, help, Kusasi' slowly in a deep voice in the hope that someone would hear me and come to my rescue. Fortunately two research assistants turned up and Kusasi eventually wandered back into the dense forest.

Gibbons & Klotoks
Almost every day Ibu Ada (the lovely cook and 'auntie') would casually mention that orangutans or gibbons had broken into her pantry. We ate mostly noodles, rice and more noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every few days fresh supplies like eggs, tempeh and vegetables (and lots of fruit for the orangutans) would be fetched via Klotok (named after the noise it makes), from Pangkalan Bun, a 4-hour one way trip up river. 

Day at the beach
On one occasion we were all treated to a day off. We headed down river into the heart of the jungle. We passed gold mining facilities dredging the river, pushing out clouds of black soot, with hoards of unhappy hard-working locals working on them.

We came to what at first looked like a beautiful Caribbean beach, a really surprising sight. This white sandy area stretched out for miles and miles. It took me a moment to realise that it used to be thriving dense forest, probably home to species we don't even have names for.

Slash & Burn
The forest and everything in it had previously been victim to a widely used annual process called 'slash and burn'. It's the quickest way to clear the forest ready for planting palm oil and unfortunately, the reason why the forest is still (as I write) burning out of control, chocking more than 500,000 people across Indonesia and Malaysia, leaving people homeless, and destroying so much wildlife it's too depressing to think about. 

MIMI - No Palm Oil
This is why I will never use Palm Oil in MIMI products and I do my best to never buy products that contain it. The Orangutan Foundation and various sister organisations all over the world, work closely with the Republic of Indonesian government to continue to protect large areas of forest, its people and wildlife. It's also on the agenda to be discussed at the UN Climate Change Conference that starts in Paris from November 30th. 

Orangutans are currently endangered, and it's said that in 20 years they could all be gone.

Fortunately, a lot of good work continues...

Orangutan Foundation UK:

Orangutan Foundation just giving page:

Orangutan Foundation Tours: Foundation International projects:

Sumatran Orangutan Campaigns:

Orangutans are endangered and could be extinct in 20 years outside national parks and reserves.

MIMI Skincare Kits
MIMI range of face and body products includes the Limited Edition Dark Chocolate Fresh Face Mask £15 using organic cacao. Take a closer look at the Kits...

Tom: Then & Now
Here's a picture of Tut-Tut and her baby, Tom in 2001.

Here's Tom now...



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