Survival Guide: Orangutan to the Rescue

Picture of Augustin Fuentes

Agustín Fuentes
National Geographic Grantee
Expertise: Primatologist
Location: Borneo

Photograph by Rick Zhang

 

Image of a man shining a light on an orangutan in a tree
Art by Istvan Banyai

 

 

This kind of getting lost doesn’t happen anymore; I would have a GPS with me now. But two decades ago at Camp Leakey, an orangutan research camp on Borneo inside Tanjung Puting, the rain forest was an unknowable place. I was trying to find the maroon leaf monkey. One day, after four hours of following marked trails, I thought I saw one. I risked it and went off the trail. Forty-five minutes later, I was still wandering, no maroon leaf monkey in sight. I assumed the trail had to pick up somewhere near where I was, so I used my compass to make a guess. Another 30 minutes later, I wasn’t panicked, but I was definitely a little nervous. I had a headlamp, so I was somewhat prepared, but darkness was coming on quickly and finding my way back was only going to get more difficult.

There was much to admire off-trail—passing humans hadn’t disturbed these parts of the rain forest yet. At one point I saw a shimmering metallic blue pool in an opening. I moved closer, and it vibrated, and hundreds of butterflies took wing. What I saw in their place was the sea of pig feces that had so interested them moments before.

I picked south on the compass. I figured I’d eventually hit the river, if not a trail first. It paid off. After about 20 minutes I saw an unmarked trail. Seconds later, I heard a rustling. I was thinking it was feral pigs or a small wildcat. I shone my headlamp where I thought the sound was coming from. It was an orangutan. The face was familiar: one of the tribe being rehabilitated at camp. The orangutan and I looked at each other, and she held out her hand to me. Then she led me, hand clasped in hand, to camp. Just like me, she was heading back for the evening.

Related: Audio: Fuentes’ Work With Orangutans in Borneo.