Photo: Bornean orangutan tree branch

Man of the forest: To survive in the wild, orangutans need rain forest.

Photograph by Frans Lanting, Corbis

By Boyd Matson

From the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Here’s a tip I picked up watching Tarzan movies as a kid: When hiking an unfamiliar jungle trail with numerous intersecting paths and arteries leading who knows where, it’s wise to somehow mark your route so you can find your way out when you inevitably get lost. But on this trek, breaking branches, tearing leaves, or dropping bread crumbs would be redundant. The oppressive heat and humidity of Borneo’s Danum Valley Conservation Area have me sweating so profusely that I could literally follow my own river of sweat back to the rain forest lodge. I’m like a human snail leaving a trail of salty slime.

This is supposed to be a moderate, half-day hike through the rain forest, past waterfalls and mountain streams, up to a sacred burial cave, and then on to the top of a cliff above the forest canopy for a scenic overview of the valley. Let me interrupt the tourism brochures here for a reality check. Scenic? Yes. It’s a protected, pristine, 60-million-year-old rain forest with hundreds of species of trees and plants, over 300 species of birds, more than a hundred species of mammals, and scores of different types of reptiles and amphibians. If you wanted to stock Noah’s Ark, the Danum Valley would be a good place to start the boarding process. But, a moderate hike? Not exactly, unless you’re Tarzan or Sheena, Queen of the Jungle.

About three hours into the trek we hit a steep section. Climbing it is like working out on a StairMaster in a steam bath. The trail rises at a 45-degree angle, no switchbacks in sight. I’m gasping as though trying to swallow a lifetime’s worth of oxygen with each breath. Attempting to strike a deal with my body to get me through this, I promise to give up ice cream and go on a serious diet, beginning with a day of fasting. But with my next gasp, a couple of bugs fly in my mouth, breaking my no-eating promise.

I didn’t come to Borneo for the exercise or the bugs. I’m here because this island in Southeast Asia—divided among Brunei, Indonesia, and Malaysia—is one of only two in the world where orangutans can still be found in the wild. (Sumatra is the other island.) In Malay, orangutan means “man of the forest.” But these great apes are running out of forest. Logging for timber and clear-cutting forests for palm oil plantations are destroying habitat. With poaching for the pet trade adding more pressure, orangutans are now endangered, their numbers down to an estimated 60,000.

My first stop is the Rasa Ria Resort outside Kota Kinabalu in Malaysian Borneo. Here, a small rehabilitation center takes in orangutans confiscated from poachers. The center trains the animals to survive in the wild so they can be released into a protected rain forest. To help support the project, tourists can pay to watch feedings twice daily.

While I’m there, two young apes quickly finish their fruit and sugarcane snacks then take to the trees above us to put on a Cirque du Soleil performance. They begin with a chase sequence, leaping from tree to tree, and finish with an aerial ballet hanging to the tops of tall, thin trees that bend and sway, almost touching the ground before catapulting the orangutans skyward.

Next stop is the Sepilok Nature Resort next to an even larger orangutan research facility. Here you can expect extended viewings with good photo opportunities. I watch staffers place bananas on a feeding platform, which is like putting wedding dresses on the sale table at Filene’s. A free-for-all ensues in which the choicest items are ripped from the hands of weaker animals, who must settle for leftovers.

In the wild, orangutans don’t live in large family groups like the other great apes. They’re more solitary, and spotting them is much more difficult. But I want to try, which explains why I’m now in Danum Valley, feeling a bit like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, moving through a jungle filled with unseen enemies.

My first full day in this rain forest sweatfest results in exactly one hour of orangutan watching—of a mother and baby nesting in a tree about 75 yards from me. I spend most of the hour staring at the leaves of the nest while the orangs sleep, only occasionally glimpsing a raised arm or leg. During the night they move off deeper into the forest, the tasty fruits that lured them and other orangutans to this area no longer in season. With less chance of seeing Borneo’s star primates in the wild, I enlist Mohammad Salehjuddin Jais, or Din, as he’s called, to guide me on a “scenic jungle trek” that promises to take in waterfalls.

I’m already swimming in my own sweat by the time we reach the first waterfall. So I drop my pack, kick off my shoes, and plunge into the pool, clothed. Emerging cooled and refreshed, I hold out high hopes for the rest of the hike turning out memorable. I should have wished for pleasant instead. A few minutes later Din calmly observes, “There’s a leech on your neck.” It’s a tiger leech. There must be millions of them in the Danum Valley.

Leeches are little heat-seeking missiles with an uncanny ability to locate and attach themselves to warm-blooded creatures. When they bite, leeches inject a kind of anesthetic that numbs the victim to their presence. They also inject an anticoagulant so the blood continues to flow freely after they’re no longer attached, explaining why I look like a character in the Twilight series with blood still dripping down my neck 20 minutes after Din removes the leech. Soon I’m finding leeches on my pants, socks, shoes, shirt, and backpack.

One leech drops on the lens of my camera and starts wriggling toward my hand while I’m trying to take a picture. I remove 15 leeches before losing count. Back in my room, I discover one last tiger leech on my stomach. My memorable adventure does earn me an official Danum Valley Blood Donor Certificate issued at the lodge.

I’m not nearly as successful finding orangutans as I am at finding leeches, but I do see some, and that gives me hope that these great red apes still have a chance for survival. But it won’t be easy. Although orangutans are protected by law in Malaysian Borneo, money has its own law, which can basically be summed up as, “Everything has a price.” Right now selling off the rain forest is making a few people very rich. The message that has to be driven home is: Once the trees are gone and with them the orangutans, what do the people have left? Tourists will pay to take the orangutan tour, but if it’s just a leech tour, business will really drop off.

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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