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Postcards From Borneo: The World’s Stinkiest (but Best) Fruit

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Russell Laman splits open wild durians for a snack while out in the forest searching for orangutans.

Crash! The huge male orangutan swings over into another tree, searching for fruit. He climbs higher, overlooking the canopy searching for another meal. Every day while following orangutans I notice how many different fruit trees they go to, usually around 15 or so. They crash and clamber through the forest like hungry, hairy acrobats searching for the most nutritious meals. One of the orangutan’s favorites is a fruit called durian.

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The interior of a wild durian, split open with the sections of creamy flesh visible.

I am basically crazy about durian, maybe even more than the orangutans. Most people probably don’t even know what it is, especially if they don’t live in Southeast Asia. Durian is a pineapple-sized yellow or green fruit that is covered in sharp spines. It grows on large trees and is cultivated by the local people in Borneo. The fruit has concealed sections that contain their seeds covered in edible flesh. To open a durian, I have to carefully search for the place where the sections meet. Then I insert a large knife and twist, popping it open. The orangutans however pry them open with their teeth and bare hands, seemingly with ease. The pulp that covers the seeds is unlike any other fruit. It is creamy yellow or white. It tastes a little like butter with a hint of banana creaminess, but each fruit tastes different and it is virtually impossible to describe in words. To really understand the taste and why I love them, you have to try them yourself.

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Russell Laman and orangutan researcher Wahyu Susanto examine cultivated durians at a stand in Sukadana village on the way to Gunung Palung.

Each year that I visit Indonesia with my family, my first question is always, “Is the durian in season?” It is sold all over the small towns in Indonesia. Probably the most popular fruit, it dominates the market. As I drive down the streets I am immediately aware when durians are near. The odor that they release will clog your nose and overpower your sense of smell. Yet for me the smell holds the promise of durian, and so I have come to love a smell that many find so repulsive that the fruit is banned in hotels and on planes. When I visit a durian stand I am very into picking the best fruit. Each one is extremely different and unique, one of the aspects I have fallen in love with. I sniff and smell the durian, constantly turning it over and making sure there are no worm-holes. Then we crack them open and eat, discussing how this one compares to the last and the one prior to that.

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Russell Laman sits at a table in the research camp after an evening feast of wild durian.

Before this summer I had only tried the domesticated variety sold in the villages, but once I arrived at my Mom’s research camp in Borneo, I heard that the forest durian were ripe and falling. This meant a “mast fruiting,” an occasion that happens only about every four-five years when tons of trees fruit at the same time. This is an effective strategy for certain species of trees that are popular with animals because during masts there is way more yield than the animals can consume, making certain the possibility of the seeds sprouting. Often while following orangutans they lead us to durian trees and after they move on we mark where the trees are located. Every day we bring back another load of durian from the rainforest. The wild variety is different from the kind in the towns, they are smaller and green and only have one piece of fruit, if any, in each of their sections. But they make up for their size with taste. The orangutans got lucky, their durian are even better than the domesticated kind. They are creamier and have a more rich and vivid taste than those in the town. This leads us to continuously collect them and glorifies my love of the forest.

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An orangutan feeds in a wild durian tree in Gunung Palung, holding several fruits of this small variety in his hand.

As you follow orangutans there are always moments where they are in the top of a gigantic tree eating and you have no view of them. One such time I was sitting on the forest floor waiting for the orangutan to leave a tree. Then plop! A forest durian landed not a foot from my head. I immediately moved as I realized I was right under the orangutan. Every day in the forest we have more adventures with orangutans. I have come to realize and notice the similarities between them and us. When you look into their eyes you see a deeper level of comprehension than in a monkey. They seem to have distinct personalities and are amazingly intelligent. This similarity between humans and orangutans makes me love being near them. It’s intriguing to watch and learn about these animals. They even lead you to durian trees. You just have to make sure you don’t get hit in the head.

Over the past weeks, Proof has been following the adventures of Tim, Cheryl, Jessica, and Russell in the rain forests 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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