When we finally arrive at Camp Leakey, it’s difficult to firmly clasp any sense of time. A small collection of wooden houses stands in a clearing. In front of one building, a wild boar is sleeping. Part of the rehabilitation process that survives is daily feedings to release orangutans at jungle platforms. That’s where visitors go to see orangutans. Feedings take place at three camps: Tanjung Harapan, Pondok Tangui and Camp Leakey. Times are generally fixed but check for schedule changes. Reaching camp feeding-stations requires a short walk through jungle from the dock. Trails can be slippery when wet. Wear boots or enclosed shoes, bring sun protection and vats of insect repellent.
Located in the Tanjung Puting Reserve, Camp Leakey was established in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas. It was named after the legendary anthropologist, Louis Leakey, who wasboth mentor and an inspiration to Dr. Galdikas as well as Drs. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, a zoologist who undertook an extensive study of gorilla. Originally consisting of just two huts, Camp Leakey is now an assemblage of permanent wooden structures designed to provide a base for scientists, staff, students, and PHPA guards. Dr. Galdikas is the President of Orangutan Foundation International (OFI), a foundation dedicated to Conservation, Research and Education. The OFI educational programme is not just about orangutans – it is about the rainforest and the entire ecosystem that the orangutans are part of. As Biruté Galdikas eloquently phrases it: “Concern for orangutans indicates concern for the planet.”
Over the years, Camp Leakey has supported the research efforts of dozens of scientists and students including graduate students from Indonesia and North America. Many have gone on to receive their Ph.D. Projects have ranged from orangutan, proboscis monkey, gibbon and leaf-eating monkey behavior and ecology, to studies of orangutan sign language abilities and cognition, to leech behavior, and riverine ecology.
A 200 meter boardwalk made of ironwood was constructed by the provincial government in the 1970’s to bypass the seasonal swamps that can isolate the high ground at Camp Leakey from the river. Used by orangutans as well as people, the boardwalk may be the first place you will meet one of Camp Leakey’s “bicultural” great ape residents. These orangutans are the last of the ex-captive orangutans released into the nearby forest during the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Now, orangutan rehabilitation is conducted in other areas in the Park, but the Camp Leakey residents, mostly females and their offspring, spend their time both in the forest and in Camp. They provide visitors a chance to view free-ranging orangutans close-up.
Rehabilitation is the process by which orphaned, confiscated or injured orangutans are returned to a life in the wild. Usually, it starts when Forestry Department officials seize an illegally held orphan (orangutans are protected under law in Indonesia and Malaysia) and transfer he or she to a rehabilitation centre. Depending on the orangutans’ health and age they may require months of hand rearing and nursing. This can often mean 24-hour care. The young orangutans are subsequently given the opportunity to learn how to live in the wild. They are taken out into forests to taste wild fruit and practice climbing and to encounter the sights, sounds and smells they will eventually meet in the wild.
Once they are considered strong, healthy, proficient climbers, can make their own nests and find their own food, they will be moved to protected release sites.
After release, rehabilitated orangutans are usually offered food every day at designated feeding sites. This serves two purposes: it allows researchers to monitor the orangutans’ wellbeing (sometimes the only time individuals are seen is at feeding); and it decreases the chance of competition between the rehabilitated orangutans and other wildlife when natural food is scarce. The amount given is only a supplement, however, and it ensures the orangutans stay healthy while still having to search in the forest for their own food.
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