In the old Dutch colonial days in Indonesia, it seems that one had to have a pet orangutan to be considered a gentleman. Not only that, but having a pet orangutan about the house often filled the vacuum of the long evenings down on the plantation. After the Dutch left in the 1940s, Indonesian officials kept up the orangutan habit. As a result, many hundreds of the apes were tamed over the years.
This is where the orangutan rehabilitation center at Bukit Lawang in north Sumatra comes in. Under a program run by the World Wildlife Fund, the center gradually trains the tamed orangs to cope with jungle life.
Apparently an orangutan is all right as a pet for a few years. But it soon grows to unmanageable proportions, consuming alarming amounts of food, leaving rather unpleasant droppings about the house and in its playfulness, breaking up the furniture. Eventually the orangs have to be caged. The rehabilitation center weans the animals off their more exotic diets and onto milk and bananas, and slowly encourages them to adopt the jungle life.
Getting to Bukit Lawang is no easy business. A long jeep journey is followed by a hazardous crossing over rapids in a dug-out canoe. After a long uphill trek you reach a special viewing platform and wait for the arrival of the orangs as a thousand insects mount your trouser legs.
But when the orangs finally arrive, the sight is worth even the mosquito bites. They approach with an easy familiarity, nonchalantly lolloping from tree to tree, surprisingly graceful for such big creatures. Finally they slide, one by one, down the trunk of a 100-foot-high tree, like so many firemen down the greasy pole. They drink their milk and eat their bananas with grace. One almost expects serviettes to appear.
Holding hands with an orangutan for the first time can be an unnerving experience. They are affectionate creatures, almost too affectionate, gripping at your hand with solemn intensity.
A woman from Frankfurt becomes a little alarmed as a baby orang playfully pulls at her skirt. ``Goodbye Germany, hello jungle,'' is written on her face.
Another orang fiddles with a pair of binoculars. It is difficult to tell who is putting on a show, the orangs or the humans.
Wardens at the center say the orangs must not only get used to a new diet, but must also learn how to build their nests in treetops and how to camouflage themselves for protection. Most learn to cope surprisingly quickly, the wardens say, but some have to be caged again.
There are other hazards. Even in this remote region, the jungle is disappearing fast. Poachers sometimes steal the baby orangs -- it seems that some people still hanker after them as pets. The rehabilitation center itself is facing increasing financial difficulties.
As it grows dark even the woman from Frankfurt looks as if she does not want to leave. The orangs also look a little sad and an image comes to mind of the old-time planter sitting on his veranda on a tropical evening talking of the ways of the world with his faithful orangutan.