Rustle of orangutans

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ONE summer I traveled halfway around the world to help Birute Galdikas in her study of orangutans. I was a member of an Earthwatch expedition, a group of volunteers sharing our time and cost to assist field research scientists in their studies. Dr. Galdikas was sponsored by Dr. Leaky, the mentor of Jane Goodall and the late Dian Fossey, for a PhD study of wild orangutan behavior. Fifteen years later, she is still studying the orangutan, with the help of her Indonesian husband and local Dyaks, a tribe indigenous to central Borneo.

I woke up to the rustle of other Earthwatch volunteers preparing themselves for the early morning activities. We did not get to bed before 11 the night before because of the lecture by Galdikas and our last-minute packing. Earlier that day and while we listened to her lecture, a six-foot pole went walking by our window. The pole was vertical and moving in a jerking fashion. ``Oh, that's Siswe,'' said Galdikas; ``she must have taken down the pole being repaired earlier this morning.''

There are 30 ex-captive orangutans at Camp Leaky. One of the conditions the Indonesian government places on Galdikas for allowing her to continue to study in Borneo is that she accepts any orangutan they bring to her. Orangutans are easygoing creatures, but they love to examine things belonging to human beings. Thereby, the entire camp is under lock and key. If you leave anything out, there is no guarantee it will be there within the next five minutes.

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All was silent outside the cabin. Nearby, I heard the faint rustle of someone walking and saw a slender flashlight beam. The Dyaks always insisted upon leaving early so that we would reach the orangutan nest before dawn.

No birds or forest sounds were heard. Two reflecting eyes showed up in the flashlight beams and scurried away. We walked rapidly through the ladong, an old abandoned rice field. Secondary forestation has entered into the area, slowly shifting the land back to the rain forest. But it is being devastated by the ex-captive orangutans from the camp.

In a short time we came to the swamp where almost no water was in sight. It was the dry season. Mr. Okai, a young Dyak from the local village, moved swiftly over the tangled roots while I tripped over every single one.

``Ma'af Pak,'' I cried, ``saya jalan belum cepat-cepat.'' (Before I left, I made sure I knew how to say ``slow down'' in Indonesian.) We had heard stories on how amusing the Dyaks find watching Westerners trip through the swamp trying to keep up with them. Somewhere in the middle of the tall trees we stopped. In the distance, the predawn orchestra began. In a low undertone, a high-pitched buzzing preceded a long ``oohh'' that rose up two octaves. The female gibbon monkeys were warming up for the dawn performance. They started out in the distance and were quickly joined by female gibbons nearby. Within a few moments, a clamorous chorus was heard all around our hammocks. Soon, a sharp loud buzz met every crescendo. The buzzing sounded like the ringing of a motor lingering long after it has gone by. I came to find out it is a type of bird that Galdikas calls the ``Dyak alarm clock.'' The first rays of light drew the male gibbons into the chorus as the females wound down their song. Male gibbon calls are lower, sounding more like a ``whoop, whoop.'' Abruptly, the sound stopped as the sky became brighter. By this time, I could see gray light through the crowded canopy above. I also heard the rustling of leaves. An orangutan had awakened. Quickly we packed up our gear and followed her. She is an unknown female new to the study area. According to Dr. Galdikas, she was due to give birth at any time. Galdikas hoped someone would be able to record the birth on film. No one has ever witnessed a birth of a wild orangutan. A juvenile orangutan stayed close to the pregnant female, obviously his mother. Orangutans are solitary or semi-solitary creatures.

All day I tripped through the forest, setting up my camera for a shot, only to find the orangutan climbing higher into the tree. It frustrated me. To the Dyaks, losing your temper is extremely bad manners. Only young children and foreigners lose their tempers.

The pregnant female constantly moved, but not at a rapid pace. Sub-adult male orangutans are known to travel eight or nine miles a day, but this lady was close to giving birth. She frequently climbed to the top of the forest canopy to munch on flowers blooming 200 feet above the forest floor.

Most orangutans start nest-building at about 5 or 6 in the evening; this one, however, started building her nest near 3 in the afternoon. One time, Galdikas told me how she would see the orangutan's eyes roll up to the sky when the ``Dyak alarm clock'' began their evening call. It was the orangutan's signal to stop feeding and start bedding down for the night. Camp Leaky is so close to the equator that it receives exactly 12 hours of sunlight.

Back at the camp the other volunteers and I talked and didn't pay any attention to the young ex-captive orangutan following us on the dock. As I lowered myself in the river to bathe, Apollo Bob, one of the orangutans, grabbed my soap. He stuck it into his mouth while dipping his leg in the river. Holding his leg up against the step, he lathered his hairy leg much like a woman lathers her leg for shaving. He looked at me with his big, brown, questioning eyes, then proceeded to eat the lather. So ended my day at Camp Leaky.

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