Volunteering on the Orangutan Project
Camp Leakey, Borneo – 1984
A baby orangutan lay curled in the fetal position on the grass by the banks of the Sekonyer Kanin River. She’d lived in a cage in someone’s back yard for two years. Her mother had been killed by poachers and eaten so she could be sold for as little as $20. It was likely the orphan had witnessed the traumatic event. Now she was sick and her human owners no longer wanted her. She’d lost two families in three short years. She had a fever and wasn’t responding when touched.
It was the summer of 1984 and David and I were members of a 10-person EarthWatch volunteer team. We’d arrived the night before in the town nearest the project, Pangkalan Bun. We were there to work on the Orangutan Project in the Tanjung Puting Reserve in Central Borneo. Two of our volunteers were zookeepers. One of them said, “When see orangutans this sick at the zoo; they rarely survived for more than a few days.”
“I need to ask one of you to volunteer to take care of this orphan,” said Dr. Biruté Galdikas, our project leader. “But think carefully before you decide. You won’t be able to follow wild orangutans in the rainforest with your teammates. You’ll have to stay in camp and care for this orphan 24/7.”
At dinner the night before we’d all talked excitedly about following wild orangutans. We all looked at our feet. After several awkward moments, David stepped forward, scooped up the pitiful looking orphan and said, “I’ll do it.”
“In that case,” Biruté announced, “we’ll name her Davida, after you Mr. David.”
We boarded the Camp Leakey klotok and put-putted our way up river. David held Davida in his lap. The Kumai soon spilled onto the Sekonyer Kanin River and we arrived at Camp Leakey five hours later.
Our accommodations were a blue and white wooden guesthouse on stilts with individual cots for sleeping. David and I were assigned to a private bedroom while the single members of our team shared a dormitory. The bathroom came as a surprise. It was a mosquito infested hole-in-the-ground down a jungle trail. Constant butt scratching became socially acceptable among our team members. We all laughed it off as part of the adventure.
Davida slept in a blue plastic tub in the living room of our guesthouse at night. Even though we locked the doors to our bedroom, she easily broke the lock and let herself in. Most mornings I’d wake up to find Davida asleep on David’s chest. The other volunteers began teasing by calling him, “Mr. Mom.” He hated the nickname but it didn’t stop him from doing his best for Davida.
David and Davida became inseparable. He bathed, brushed her hair, spoon-fed, dewormed and gave her vitamins. But mostly he showered Davida with hugs and kisses and that seemed to be what she needed most. She clung to him constantly and stared in his eyes. David had to shift Davida from one hip to another just to change his clothes. She let me hold her ever so briefly from time to time but she always rushed back into David’s arms.
While my husband cared for Davida near camp, I rose before dawn and went in search of wild orangutans by flashlight. Biruté asked me to take photos as well as gather data about mother and infant behavior. Each volunteer was assigned a local guide. Many of the guides were Dayaks whose grandfathers had been headhunters. Biruté assured us that the custom had been abolished 60 years earlier. There were some other unexpected surprises like BLOOD SUCKING LEECHES the guides burned off our bodies with cigarettes.
About a week later, Davida got into mischief by emptying another team member’s vitamin bottles, squeezing his toothpaste and chug-a-lugging his bottle of shampoo. Surprisingly the shampoo tasted like a plant in the forest called kaya batu and Biruté assured us the shampoo wouldn’t hurt her. We all agreed that if Davida felt well enough to get into mischief then it was time for her to begin her jungle survival training.
David would take Davida into the rain forest surrounding Camp Leakey every morning after spoon-feeding her a breakfast of fruit, rice, milk and vitamins. Orangutans spend 90% of their time in the trees. Any time spent on the ground meant she would be prey for poachers, boa constrictors and wild boars. Davida must have jumped out of a tree crying 99 of the first 100 times David put her there. She landed on his head a few times. She was terrified of trees but if she didn’t learn to climb, she wouldn’t survive.
Davida was allowed to meet the other orphans after a period of isolation. There were other orphans in camp Biruté had to protect from any disease Davida may have had. David and I took her to the feeding bridge one day for lunch. when she spotted her first orangutan she shrieked, ran to David, threw her arms around his knees and sat on his feet crying and quivering. Biruté said she’d lived with humans too long and didn’t recognize her own species.
David was always extremely patient with Davida but she wasn’t taking well to her new home. She detested trees, was terrified of the other orphans and only wanted David. He would often hold her close and stroke her head, “Davida, Don’t be afraid. You’re home where you belong. You’re free.” He worried about how she would survive without him because our three-week stay was coming to an end. We had jobs to go home to in California.
On our last day Biruté surprised us by not letting us say goodbye to Davida because she felt it would be too traumatic for her. We reluctantly pulled away from the Camp Leaky dock and strained to see if we might get one last glimpse of her. But it wasn’t to be. I had a lump in my throat and couldn’t have said what I was thinking even if I’d wanted to. I put my head on David’s shoulder and we held each other tight. Words weren’t necessary. We were both nervous about Davida’s future.
Would you like to see orangutans or volunteer?
Here’s Some Helpful Stuff
Orangutan Foundation International, orangutan.org
This is Dr. Biruté Galdikas’ foundation site. Great info, photos, stuff to buy and support opportunities.
This is how David and I got to Borneo. We were volunteers on the Orangutan Project. There are currently no orangutan expeditions but you may find another interesting project.
National Geographic Expeditions – Borneo, nationalgeographicexpeditions.com
They offer private expeditions to Borneo. It’s a fun read even if you don’t go.
Book: Reflections of Eden by Dr. Biruté Galdikas HERE
Book: Orangutan Odyssey by Dr. Biruté Galdikas HERE
Book: Among the Orangutans – The Biruté Galdikas Story by Evelyn Gallardo. This is a biography for 8-12 year olds and enjoyed by adults as well. HERE
Movie: Born to Be Wild features the work of Dr. Birute Galdikas. HERE
Health and Safety:
U.S. State Department for travel advisories: state.gov/travel
Center for Disease Control (CDC) for health advisories/inoculations: www.cdc.gov