Bukit Lawang Orangutans: Sumatra & its famed Primates

by Kshaunish Jaini

Like much of Sumatra, an island shaped by volcanoes and earthquakes, Bukit Lawang has its own story of rebirth. In 2003, the entire town was nearly wiped out by a disastrous flood that changed everything. Almost every person alive here today, has lost a family member to that fateful day. The rainforests of the Gunung Leuser National Park sprawl along the riverside tourist-town of Bukit Lawang, which was almost entirely built from scratch in the aftermath of the floods. The pace of the river represents the steady, but bustling life in the town where locals and a transient population of wildlife enthusiasts bond with each other over their shared connection to the celebrated residents of the forest – the Orangutans.

Bohrook river and rainforest in Bukit Lawang

Pic Credits

The Streets of Bukit Lawang

Bukit Lawang is a backpacker’s dream, with budget hotels with views that even the most luxurious resorts can’t guarantee. Restaurants zigzag on either side of the singular street that runs through the heart of Bukit Lawang. Hammocks swing in balconies and porches, to the tune of the jungle music that hums through the gush of River Bahorok. Among the locals are the chaperones and guardians of the rainforest, who make their living by sharing a part of their world with others. Some of these rangers and trekking guides have grown up surrounded by the wildlife of one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems. It was here that we met Wisnu, a young ranger who’s dedicated his life to protect the endangered inhabitants of the rainforest.

How to (not) feed an Orangutan

The raging river stood between us and the entrance to the National Park. Twice a day, for an hour each, the park opens up to unescorted visitors. Any other time, you need to be accompanied by a certified guide. A tiny boat was parked up on the other side of the river, which was ferried back and forth, till everyone made it across. This is when Wisnu first walked up to us and guided us into the trails that he walks every day to feed Orangutans from a purpose-built platform.
Bukit Lawang, orangutans at the feeding platform

Bukit Lawang, orangutans from the feeding platform (Pic Credits )

More than two hundred ex-captive Orangutans live in the semi-wild section of the national park, which offers a unique opportunity for visitors to observe Orangutans up close. Wisnu and other rangers have been monitoring the health and well-being of these Orangutans ever since they’ve been released into the wild. Every day, they try to lure them onto the feeding platform with tasty treats, where we can see our fellow primates interact with their human friends. They don’t show up every day and Wisnu hopes that one day they will venture deep enough into the bountiful jungle and never return again. Undiscerning tourists have been known to expect a circus experience with Orangutans involving cuddles, baby-bottles and food-baiting and some trekking-guides feel pressured to comply. But to be clear, feeding Orangutans or any other animal in any rainforest is strictly prohibited.

Orangutans and Palm Trees

Orangutans are particularly vulnerable to the dangers of deforestation. They are arboreal creatures, meaning they spent most of their lives on trees and branches, hardly ever stepping down to the ground. This means that despite being extremely strong and dexterous, their legs are not designed to walk on the ground for very long. They move through the forest’s canopy, holding on to supple branches which bends under their weight and lowers them safely onto the branches of an adjacent tree. So what happens when the flexible branches of an Orangutan’s natural habitat is replaced by the inflexible trunks of palm trees?
Orangutan hanging in the forest of Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

Pic Credits

Sumatra’s palm plantations spell double trouble for Orangutans. They are forced to flee when rainforests are burnt down, and when palm trees spring up they cannot return to inhabit the unbending, branchless trees that don’t support their movement. Nearly a million hectares of rainforests are cleared each year to make space for Indonesia’s booming agribusiness which provides for more than two-thirds of the world’s insatiable demand for palm oil, used widely in processed foods, toothpaste, and a cosmetics and hygiene products. The government’s willingness to sacrifice its rainforests for international trade is extremely lucrative, especially for overseas importers and multinational companies like Domino’s and Avon. The Gunung Leuser National Park is legally protected from habitat destruction, but the forest loses over 21,000 hectares every year. Wisnu and other rangers often risk their lives patrolling the forest at night for illegal loggers and poachers. Even the flood in 2003, was a direct result of rampant, uncontrolled deforestation, which is largely attributed to Indonesia’s palm industry.

A night in the jungle

We instantly took to Wisnu’s gentle demeanour and his deep commitment to the forest, especially after seeing him interact with an Orangutan on the feeding platform. The following day we followed our newly appointed guide into the depths of the Sumatran rainforest. Wisnu’s chemistry with the animals and his profound appreciation of their territorial behaviourism was remarkable. He led us up and down the mountains of the national park, tracking semi-wild orangutans as well as macaques, gibbons and range of indigenous wildlife.
The highlight of the trek was when we bumped into a baby Orangutan, who was in the middle of a coaching session with his mum. The two-year-old was learning to climb and navigate the forest on his own, while his mother’s watchful eye kept him safe, yet challenged. It was a joy to watch him whine for help, while his mother responded with classic indifference, a trick known to mothers around the world, until she was sure that the little one was not skiving off his lesson.
No trip to a rainforest is complete without a thunderstorm. And sure enough, as the sunset crept up, the sky started growling with the clouds of an impending downpour. Despite trying our best to climb up and down the steep forest trails to reach our campsite before the storm, we were soaked to our bones by nightfall. After drying off, we gathered around the cooking fire, under a tent by the river, in the middle of one of the largest rainforests in the whole world.

The return journey

River Bahorok runs through the heart of the forest, connecting several villages and towns, including Bukit Lawang. Tubing on the river is not only a popular sport, but also a mode of transportation. We decided to hop on a tube-raft (a boat made of inner tubes, tied together by a rope), on the way back. Wisnu and his friend were the captains of our little ship, which took us on a scary, unbelievably exciting trip down the river, all the way to the doorstep of our guesthouse.
Tubing in Bukit Lawang river

Tubing in Bahorok (Pic Credits )

The morning after, I woke up to the soothing tune of a gibbon’s song. Wisnu had explained to us the territorial implications of the piercing sound of a gibbon’s call. But as I lay swinging on the hammock outside my doorstep, in the shadow of the forest across the river, I felt that the song was the sound of love; a love for her home and for the forest. I felt at home as well, and the music hasn’t left me since. Header picture by Lip Kee What's your take on Sumatra? Reply in the comments below!

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