Hanging with Orangutans in Bukit Lawang, Sumatra

For over a month I looked forward to our visit in Bukit Lawang with the Orangutans. It was one of those dreams that is so far back in your head because you don’t know that you will ever be able to do it. Now here we were trekking through the rain forest of Sumatra on our way to see Orangutans.

We hired two guides through our hotel, Hotel Orangutan, to lead our hike. Their jovial spirits, love of community, respect for the animals and nature, as well as their incredible kindness would prove to be one of the best things we have experienced on our travels so far.

They led us through the rain forest explaining how the orangutan population in Sumatra is in severe danger from the palm oil plantations who are coming in and mowing down tons of rain forest and planting palm oil trees which offer no ability to live for orangutans, tigers, elephants and hippos who traditionally inhabit the area. This of course fueled my fire against palm oil. Evidently the area we are visiting was visited by Leonardo di Caprio for his amazing documentary Before the Flood.

Throughout our trek our guides sang American Christmas carols which they adapted to trekking songs by substituting the lyrics with ones about orangutans, jungles and bananas. It was hilarious and made the trek even more enjoyable Despite their orange colored fur they can hide very well in the trees making it hard for us to find them. . We walked for about half an hour before we came upon our first mommy orangutan and baby high up in the trees. She noticed us immediately and watched with caution as we observed her and her baby in complete wonder and joy. The mother always stays with her children while the man leaves after they consummate. While protective of her baby she did let him swing through the trees and after a while come down close enough to try to grab the hat from J.’s head.

babysumatranorangutan

swingingorangutan

Once they tired of us they moved on and we circled back to look for more orangutans. We were so thrilled with the mom and baby we had seen we felt a little greedy hoping for more, and yet we got them! Within a few minutes sitting on a log was another mom and her baby. They stayed for at least 10 minutes while we stood only 10 feet away from them!

femalesumatranorangutan

Our guides would not let us touch the orangutan and while we wanted to (and saw people do it) they informed us that we can easily give orangutans diseases and illnesses they are not equipped to handle. Also by frequent human interaction we can put them at risk for interacting with humans who may not be as friendly. I was sad to see and hear of guides who do not respect this.

babyorangutanmommyorangutan

We went on to see about 6 more mommies with their babies. While taking a rest in the forest eating the most amazing pineapple slices with passion fruit squeezed on top (try this seriously it is so delicious!) J. mentioned that he would love to see a male orangutan. Off one of our guides went to look for one. We were told that if we found one and the guides said to move we needed to move immediately. Do not ask why, do not stop for pics, just move. We agreed thinking they were being a little dramatic. Which of course was because we were not currently being chased by a male orangutan. Fifteen minutes later when we were and they said move, we couldn’t run fast enough! As the male ran behind us we saw that he was over 6’ tall and very wide. This will make you run and climb faster than you thought you could believe me. While we weren’t afraid he would maul us or anything we certainly didn’t want to get close enough to see what he would do. After running several times our guide found out why the male was chasing us. A group had waved bananas in the males face and then ran off without giving them to him (they never ever should have teased him with bananas!) so our guide pulled out a banana, gave it to him and the orangutan stopped chasing us, and sat on a log for at least 15 minutes while we took pictures and watched him. It was hard to make the decision to leave but we knew it was what was fair for the orangatun.

maleorangutansumatraorangutan

We trekked back taking in the beautiful waterfalls and rain forest in complete amazement over what we had just experienced. We have seen a lot of animals on this trip but seeing these amazing creatures in their natural habitat was one of the most incredible experiences we have ever had. They are graceful, completely silent as they move through the trees, and just as funny as you would imagine. They swing upside down, play with leaves and branches and were just as curious to watch us as we were to watch them.

maleorangutanintreemaleorangutanfoot

There is a sadness here with the locals because they know the population is dwindling and that as they lose more and more of their land they also lose these gorgeous creatures who have always been a part of their culture and their community.

If you are interested in seeing them you can read my post about traveling to Bukit Lawang. Definitely hire a guide who respects the culture and is knowledgeable about the animals and the community. It is worth every penny and will give you the experience of a lifetime! Then you can join us in the outrage over palm oil….

(Credit for some of these pictures goes to one of our guides who took my camera a couple of times to get a few shots.)

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