Exploring Tanjung Puting National Park in Indonesian Borneo to meet some of the worlds rarest species on the brink of extinction.
Photo above: A large male orang-utan approaches me on the jungle path.
I'm walking through the dense jungle of Borneo. Around me the air is thick with moisture and the constant hum of busy insects fills my ears. Dragon flies, butterflies, wasps and small bees zoom about performing their important roles of pollination. The oxygen rich air of the jungle smells so fresh and the dense greenery bearing down above seems to never end. In the distance you can hear the crash of branches as proboscis monkeys jump from tree to tree creating a racket as they move. At my feet the damp and sandy forest floor crawls with activity of its own. Huge carpenter ants hurry along the path as well, building their homes out of trunks and fallen logs. I look up into the green ceiling above to see a young orang-utan napping amongst the leaves, he looks down with curious eyes. Looking back to the path as suddenly a full grown male orang-utan known as Jacob is approaching, walking slowly on all fours. I quickly drop to a squat getting low and lifting my camera up to snap some photos before moving off the path to allow him to pass by. It was my first time seeing a huge fully grown orang-utan up close so I will admit my hands were shaking with adrenaline as I tried to focus my lens. This was only day one of the trip and it is one of the most memorable moments of my photography career so far.
Tanjung Puting National Park
This national park covers 3,040 square kilometres and is the largest and most diverse protected area of coastal tropical heath and swamp forest which used to cover much of southern Borneo. The park contains a diverse range of ecosystems from mangroves, dense tropical jungle, swamps, black river systems and rainforest with some trees exceeding 50m in height. These environments support a variety of wildlife, the most well known being of course the orang-utans. The orang-utan population in Tanjung Puting is the worlds largest. The exact population is currently unknown but in 2008 it was estimated to be around 6,000 individuals. In 2015 there was a devastating wild fire in the park where 120,000hectares of forest was lost. Since this event the remaining orang-utan population is unknown. Due to climate change and shorter wet seasons fires are becoming a bigger risk. As much of the forest grows in a dense bed of peat moss it is extremely flammable in the dry season.
The name orang-utan translates from the Indonesian word 'orang' which means people and 'utan' which means forest. So the name literally translates to 'people of the forest'. A description that is very apt considering they share 97% of their DNA with us. They are incredibly intelligent and meeting them in the wild really is like walking amongst fellow people. They live a mostly solitary life but on occasion will form small family groups. They have socially learned traditions which are passed down generation to generation, just as we do. The spend much of their life in the tree tops as that is where they eat, sleep and travel. Each night they make them selves a new bed or 'nest' from fresh leaves and sticks amongst the high tree branches. These beautiful and gentle animals are native to the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Because of extreme habitat loss from palm oil plantations, illegal logging and climate change their species is on the brink of extinction. Tanjung Puting is one of the worlds largest national parks where orang-utans can live and thrive in the wild.
You can read more details about these amazing animals here : https://orangutan.org/orangutan-facts/
Photo above: A baby and adult orangutan feed in bananas during a supplementary feeding.
Located in the National Park, Camp Leakey was established in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas.
It was named after paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, who was both mentor and an inspiration to Dr. Galdikas as well as Drs. Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey. Originally consisting of only two wooden huts, it is now a research centre with permanent structures designed to provide a base for scientists, students, and park rangers. There are now several such camps within the park where rescued orang-utans can receive care and rehabilitation before release into the wild. These camps also provide daily supplementary food to wild and rehabilitated orang-utans in the area. Especially since much of the forest was damaged by fires, there may not always be enough fruit for the orang-utans to forage so when they need extra food they know to visit those areas.
Photos above: Proboscis monkeys feeding in the trees along the river banks.
The proboscis monkey certainly is eye catching with its bright orange fur and over sized nose. Also commonly known as a long nosed monkey they are endemic to the island of Borneo. Like many species in Borneo their population is in decline along with their habitat. These monkeys prefer to live near river banks and swampy areas where they feed on green leaves and fruits. Efforts to breed them in captivity around the world has been very unsuccessful. Their dietary needs are so specific that they cannot survive well outside their natural habitat. They are also one of the few species of monkey that is known to swim. On my trip to Borneo I was lucky enough to witness this myself. They will often swim across water to reach better food sources, even carrying their young on their back to do so.
Photo above: A female proboscis monkey swims across the river with her young.
Birds And Other Wildlife
The amazing wildlife encounters you can have during a visit to Tanjung Puting seem almost endless. I was fortunate to photograph species I never thought I would get a chance to see in the wild. If you're lucky you may come across many rare species of birds such as the rhinoceros hornbill and storm stork. Reptiles such as crocodiles, false gharials and monitor lizards also inhabit the area. Not to mention there are many other species of primates, amphibians, insects and even wild cats such a clouded leopards.
To reach Tanjung Puting National Park you can fly to the closest airport which is Pangkalan Bun. Flights depart daily from Jakarta as well as Surabaya. You will probably need to stay 1 night either side of your tour in Pangkalan Bun which is a small city in southern Borneo.
The Tour With 'Orangutan Journey'
We had been debating where to go and see orang-utans for a while and had considered both Sumatra, Indonesian Borneo and Malaysian Borneo. After researching I found there really wasn't a lot of information online about the tours. A friend then recommended us to go with Mickey Juanda who owns Orangutan Journey in the Indonesian part of Borneo. So taking their advice we went with that. We did our tour in January which wet season for the region. The fact that the tour was run from a boat instead of hiking and camping through the jungle seemed like a big plus. I knew how hot and humid wet season can be during those months and doing it by boat was a great option. So we chose to book a 4day/3night tour with Mickey. I really had no idea what to expect as again the information online was quite limited. I was very much blown away by the tour and the experience as it exceeded by expectations.
The large the wooden boat that would be our home for the trip was very comfortable. We were accompanied by six crew (2 chefs, 3 boat crew, captain and guide) so we were very well looked after. The boat was a traditional wooden river boat with 3 levels. There were 2 bathrooms with showers, kitchen, crew area, main deck with tables for sitting, bean bags and storage area. Upper deck was high and a great spot for photographing animals that were up in the trees. Each evening the crew would set up our beds on the deck which were very comfortable with mosquito nets, linen, blankets and pillows provided. All refreshments (water, tea, coffee, juice) and meals were included. Cooked fresh in the Indonesian style by the onboard chefs. They also catered for vegetarians and each meal was delicious with a diversity of flavours. Between meals we were provided with refreshing drinks, fruits and home made snacks. We certainly did not go hungry!
On day one of the tour we were picked up from our hotel by a taxi arranged by Mickey who brought us to the harbour where we would depart (approx. 45mins drive). Then we began our journey up the river and into the national park. Each day we would do a relaxed cruise up the river stopping along the way when we spotted wildlife from the boat. Then we would visit the camps where supplementary food was provided to wild and rehabilitated orang-utans. To reach these areas it involved a short walk up a jungle track which was very easy and low grade. Here is where you have the chance to meet them close up although there is not a guarantee for seeing them. They only come to the area if they need additional food. We also did encounter wild orang-utans outside the feeding areas and along the river as well, sightings was not limited to the camps alone. In the afternoons we would cruise further along the river looking out for birds, primates, crocodiles and other wildlife. The whole experience was very relaxing and involved very little effort on our part.
Photo above: Our guide Mickey Juanda poses next to the sign in the national park.
Mickey our guide has been working in the park for 11 years and had a wealth of knowledge of the area. His expertise on each animal seemed endless and he was constantly telling us all sorts of facts about everything we saw. He also knew exactly where many species lived and how to spot them or identify their calls. We were so happy to have a guide with not only expertise on the animals but also a passion for conservation.
Book your tour with Orangutan Journey here:
Price: Per person was between 6,000,000IDR and 11,700,000IDR
Price depends on number of people booking the tour. The boat capacity is 1-8 people.
What To Bring
Depending on what time of year you go you can expect to experience varying levels of heat and humidity. Sun and mosquito protection are worth considering as well.
Below are the list of items we brought with us.
Loose long pants and shirt (for mosquitos)
Non toxic suncream
Environmentally friendly shampoo or soap
Other personal items as you require
Basic first aid kit
Charger + spare batteries
Zoom Lens (at least 100-500mm)
Reusable 2L water bottle
Alcohol (sale of alcohol in Pangkalan Bun is prohibited but you can bring your own)
Photo above: My partner Ollie Clarke photographing in the jungle.
Tips for photographing
This trip was my first experience photographing wildlife in dense jungle which proved to be quite challenging. On the forest floor the ambient light is very limited so it does push your camera skills to the limit. If you're not sure on what lens to take with you, aim to have something with a decent amount of zoom and a wide aperture for low light situations. I was shooting with my Canon eOS R6, Canon RF f/4.5-7.1 100-500mm as well as a Canon Macro RF f/2.8 100mm. In some moments I had to drop my shutter to as low as 1/50sec and my ISO as high as 800 to deal with the low light. Luckily orang-utans move quite slowly so as long as I could hold still enough getting a sharp image was possible. I did at times lean on a tree trunk to help with holding it still when using the zoom. I got asked a lot how close you can get to the orang-utans for photos. Generally the rule was to give them at least 2-3m of space and quite often they moved closer to you and you had to move back. So getting close ups was not difficult.
I don’t think I’ve left a place before feeling both so full and so empty at the same time. Full from an exceptionally moving experience that has been one the biggest highlights in my photography career so far. But leaving with an emptiness knowing that many of the species I have now photographed are some of the last of their kind.
Upon arriving in Borneo and seeing the small slice of jungle at sites between endless fields of palm oil, this perspective is where it’s hits you. The pure scale of deforestation is unimaginable. And not only deforestation from industry, but also annual increases in forest fires due to climate change.
I have no words to describe both the beauty of the jungle in Borneo and the adjacent devastation. I hope these images can some how sum up how incredible this place is on their own without the need for too many words.
How you can help? Take action here: https://orangutan.org/take-action/
Thanks so much for reading about our experience in Borneo. It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. I cannot recommend it enough as a true once in a life time opportunity.