Sunday, 26 June 2011
The Jungles of Borneo
In 1987 I teamed up with writer Terry Domico to collaborate on a book about the eight species of bears in the world. I had already accumulated a decade of photographs documenting the three North American species. Pursuing images of the remaining five species would prove more challenging and launched us on an odyssey that eventually had us roaming the jungles of Borneo in search of the elusive Malaysian Sun Bear.
Borneo, located north of Australia, is the third largest island in the world. It is made up of three countries--Brunei and Malaysia in the north, and Indonesia in the south. While still back in the US we read all we could about sun bears and knew they lived on the island. So we bought plane tickets and flew into the capital city of Brunei, located in the north central part of the huge island. It did not take us long after landing to realize we had chosen the wrong country to explore so we hopped on another plane and headed east into the Malaysian state of Sabah. In Sabah's poetic sounding capital of Kota Kinabalu we sought out park service personnel and were advised to visit Sepilok Orangutan Sanctuary. Sun Bears and orangutans share the same jungle habitat.
The sanctuary, encompassing old growth Dipterocarp forest, was established to protect a wild population of orangutans and to rehabilitate those that had been confiscated from poachers. Terry and I were given permission to camp on the edge of the sanctuary. After setting up my tent I took out a spray can of water repellent and sprayed the tent's rain fly. When I tossed the can on to the ground an orangutan appeared out of the forest and came over and picked it up. She proceeded to go through the motions of spraying the tent in obvious imitation of what I had just done. Then she easily crushed the metal can in her hand before slowly disappearing back into the darkness of the trees.
Early the next morning I headed into the jungle alone. After about thirty minutes of walking something silently grabbed my left hand. I turned and jumped at the same time. It was an adult orangutan. I yanked my arm to try to get free but this only caused her to tighten her grip. The harder I pulled the tighter her grip became. She seemed calm--certainly calmer than I was at that moment--and she was determined to lead me down a trail through the jungle. I had no choice but to go along. My heart was racing. After about fifty yards of strolling together I could feel her grip loosen and I yanked free. I ran back in the same direction we had just come from and stopped when I thought I was a safe distance. Orangutans move very slowly on the ground and I knew there was no chance of her overtaking me again. We stood and looked at each other for a few minutes before she continued on her way and out of sight. I made it back camp in a rather stunned state of mind.
Later that same afternoon I was able to photograph a Pied Hornbill, and a group of Pig-tailed Macaques finally presented me with the best photographic opportunity of the day, the image at the beginning of this blog.