The Orangutan Health Project

Around four years ago, I was browsing around online when I randomly searched for volunteer programs, specifically related to primate research, and came across the Orangutan Health Project (OHP). Sitting at my desk in Palo Alto, going halfway across the world to Sumatra to track wild orangutans sounded like pretty much the craziest thing I could do. Crazy enough that I decided to do it one day.

So aside from meeting my parents in Vietnam, the main thing my Asia travels have been focused around is this program. I flew to Medan, Sumatra from Penang, and had the easiest visa experience ever (again, ironic since I was nervous about getting into Indonesia in the first place). No hard photo or application necessary, the immigration guy joked around with me and I was the only foreigner there to get a visa on arrival.

Anna, an OHP project assistant – a recent UCSB grad from San Diego – was waiting for me as promised, and we picked up the other two volunteers: Stephen, a middle-aged Australian in the process of getting his teaching certification, and Jo, an Irish woman who works in the medical equipment industry. Both were on relatively short breaks (3-4 weeks) and mainly spending time on the program.

We arrived at “Coconut” – the OHP office, located in the midst of rice paddies in the village of Timbang Lawan (a few kilometers from Bukit Lawang).

So, the 12 days of the program consisted of a couple of days of helping out in the office, with tasks such as:

  • Entering field data into Excel spreadsheets. This proved to be more interesting than typical data entry when notes about the orangutans’ behavior were in Indonesian… Google Translate helped!
  • Preparing sample containers of alcohol and other preservatives (one of the main goals of fieldwork is to collect orangutan fecal samples).
  • Creating a Facebook Page!

Back in my element...

A couple of the things other volunteers helped with were baking silica gel (used to keep things dry in the field – a major challenge) and organizing/preserving plant samples (stuff the orangutans have been eating).

When choosing a program, I liked the fact that OHP is an ongoing research project, so the volunteer program is less about catering to the volunteers’ experience and more about collecting real data. But two weeks is a very short time to really contribute when it comes to this sort of work. In Silicon Valley, I got used to everything moving so fast that documents from less than a year ago were hardly relevant. But in doing office work here and realizing some of the data is from three years ago, and the samples we collect now might be analyzed next year, was an eye-opening reminder of how things work differently in other fields.

Aside from the office work, the main part of the program involved a six-day trek into the jungle, in an area near Bukit Lawang that is less commonly visited and where wild (as opposed to previously captive, semi-wild) orangutans are known to live. We were told that spotting them is far from guaranteed, but since the project is all about the behavior of orangutans who have lived their whole lives in the wild and may know more about self-medicating against parasites, these are the ones that need to be researched.

After a fun but uneventful practice trek near the orangutan feeding platform in Bukit Lawang (where sadly, no orangutans showed up! Actually a good thing meaning they’re finding enough food on their own…) we were ready to set out on the real thing.

To get to our campsite, we trekked for three hours – through a rubber plantation, where we saw a bunch of Thomas leaf monkeys – silly-looking dudes with mohawks and mutton chops that jump crazy distances, belly first, seemingly throwing caution to the wind.

After the plantation, we trekked mainly “along the river.”

When we finally arrived, our guides Wanda and Pendi arranged tarps on an existing bamboo frame to create a three-sided tent shelter that was to be our home for the next five nights. Another shelter served as a kitchen, where they put together some of the best meals I’ve had so far in Indonesia.

Unfortunately, after that first (delicious!) dinner, Jo was up all night sick and it hit me the next morning as I was all ready to start trekking. Both of us missed the first day’s trek, when Anna, Stephen and Wanda were able to find SEVEN orangutans (three mothers with babies and a juvenile) and collect FOUR fecal samples! Amazing for the project, and for them – but I wish I could have been there.

Back at the campsite, a large family of white-handed gibbons came by at one point and Pendi, who has a sixth sense when it comes to spotting wildlife, made sure Jo and I got up to see them swing around.

In the afternoon, an orangutan mother and baby also showed up within view of our campsite! It was great to see them, but they were across the river and only visible for a minute – and in my state I couldn’t look up for very long anyway. We saw them there again briefly the next morning (they must have slept there) and another day, we saw two or three more. Never close enough for a photo, though!

I got even sicker the second night, and after having the experience of being up all night sick in the middle of the jungle with no “facilities” to speak of, I could probably survive it in any setting… needless to say, I was out of commission for another day.

Basically all I looked at for 48 hours.

I learned to make my own “nest” like an orangutan – by the end of five nights, I figured out that layering the sleeping bag where my hips go and putting the thin sleep sheet over it was the best option. We were all pretty sore by the end of the trip anyway.

There was lots of time for reading...

We also played cards and were entertained by Pendi’s hysterical laughter every time he won, which was always.

The fourth day, I was determined to join the others for the trek, even though I felt faint after two days of barely sitting up. With the help of a little miracle in a pill (Immodium) I recovered and was about as ready as I could be for the trekking that awaited us.

Nothing is easy in Sumatra. “Jungle trekking” (at least away from the well-trodden trails closer to Bukit) means clambering up and down through the mud, often on all fours like an orangutan, hoping that whatever tree or root or plant you grab will save you if (when) you lose your footing, and not be full of thorns or stinging bugs or anything else you wouldn’t want to be hanging onto as if your life depended on it (it does).

Compared to other trekking I’ve done, a lot of it was physically easier, in that I didn’t get as winded or need breaks to catch my breath (it helped that Wanda is an excellent guide and took it really slow for our sake). But factoring in the mental aspect, that some parts were so steep every step had to be carefully planned and finding something to hold onto was a requirement, this trekking was some of the most challenging overall.

The two treks I ended up doing before we headed back down the river were challenging, interesting and fun – just being in the jungle is definitely an adventure. But we didn’t find any more orangutans, only saw their nests. So now that I’m done with the program I’m staying in Bukit Lawang a few more days, and trekking one more time near the feeding platform in the hopes of seeing some (semi-wild) orangutans. As Jo put it, “I won’t leave here before I see some gingers!” 


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