Photograph by Tim Laman
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Jessica Laman and her mom, researcher Cheryl Knott, watch orangutans from a hillside in Gunung Palung.
Photograph by Tim Laman

Postcards From Borneo: Chasing Orangutans

My boot slips in the mud as I chase down the hill after the orangutan. I duck under thorny rattan vines as I scramble over roots and rocks that jut out of the earth in the most unexpected places. We are chasing after a young female orangutan named Walimah as she charges down the steep slope. We are in Borneo at my mom’s research site where she studies wild orangutans and my dad photographs them for National Geographic.

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The young female orangutan Walimah, who Jessica has seen every summer in Gunung Palung.

The field assistants who work for my mom following orangutans have to get up at three in the morning to get to the orangutans before they wake up. The orangutans sleep in nests that they build every night out of leaves and branches up in the trees. Even though I love to follow the orangutans, I’m glad that we don’t have to stay out from before dawn till after dusk when they go to sleep. They are really cool animals and it’s funny when you see them behave in a way that is so similar to humans, like when they make ‘umbrellas’ out of lumps of leaves even though they probably keep less than two percent of the rain off.

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Jessica Laman and her brother Russell cross the suspension bridge at the Cabang Panti Research Site at Gunung Palung.

But now, I’m slipping and sliding over the slick wet leaves, I grab small trees around me to keep myself from falling forward on my face as I race after Walimah as she sprints through the canopy. Even though we don’t think of orangutans as particularly fast animals, when they want to they can be super speedy. Finally Walimah decides to give us a break and settles down in a big tree overlooking the river at the bottom of the slope. I swat away a group of bees hovering around my head and pull my binoculars out of my backpack. I peer through them at Walimah. She is grabbing food with one foot and using her hands to shove it into her mouth. Unlike most mammals who have four feet, orangutans practically have four arms. All their limbs are long and their feet look a lot like hands. With longer fingers than humans on both their feet and hands, orangutans are perfectly adapted for swinging through the trees. If they want, an orangutan can hang upside down from a branch using only their feet.

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Jessica and Russell Laman try climbing vines like orangutans.

I feel something in my boot so I pull it off, I take off my sock and find a big fat leech, a worm-like creature that climbs on you and then suck’s your blood. As I tug it off, a small stream of blood gushes out. I put my boot back on just as I hear a crash and the cracking of branches. I know Walimah is getting up again. I slip down a rock and follow my dad and brother, Russell, as they head down a part of the hill so steep it is practically a cliff. The next time she stops, it’s right over our favorite swimming hole, Big Rock. Walimah starts eating so that the peels of her fruit fall into the water. Unable to avoid temptation, my brother and I jump in. The water is fresh and cool and clean. Actually up here at camp the water is so clean that we drink straight from the river. I dunk under and swim along the rocky bottom.

Watch Jessica Laman explain how leeches function

It’s great to be a kid at Gunung Palung. I’m only ten and going into fifth grade next year, and this is my fifth time coming to the research site. I love visiting camp. It’s so different than back home in Massachusetts. Here in Borneo unexpected things are always popping up, things you never could have predicted. For example, as I finish writing this a snake has just started slithering behind the computer. And now dad is telling Russell to steer it with a radio antenna so it will go into the right place for a picture.

Over the coming weeks, Proof will be following the adventures of Tim, Cheryl, Jessica, and Russell in the rainforests of Borneo. Tim’s story on orangutan behavior will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic. Cheryl is a 2004 Emerging Explorer and has received grants from the National Geographic Society for her work with orangutans.

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The snake that was crawling around the computer work table in the research camp at Gunung Palung while Jessica was finishing writing this blog post. You can see the draft of this blog on the screen.