How to ethically see orangutans in Indonesia

All photos courtesy of Sumatra Orangutan

With the number of flame-colored primates decreasing, here’s how to take a responsible jungle trek to see them.


was drenched in sweat. Hours of trekking under the cacophony of jungle insects, surrounded by the overwhelming humidity of Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia were starting to take their toll. My guide’s eyes never left the canopy as he skillfully chose the less muddy path up the hill. It seemed like every time I turned my face to the sky for a hint of orange hair among the dense green tapestry above me, I ended up tripping, or worse, with a thick black leech strapped to my hip. .

But suddenly, we stop. As they crouched on a steep embankment, desperately trying to discern even a hint of an orangutan, a mother and her three-year-old baby glide effortlessly through the treetops to see us from closer. Only 20 feet of air separates us, but the couple seemed indifferent, just as curious about us as they were.

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Locating a wild orangutan in a sea of ​​nearly 800,000 acres of rich tropical rainforest is a monumental task. Impossible without the help of the inhabitants, the guides of the national park, who know each primate by name and personality. The big cheekbone (dominant male) loves his space, while Meena, a charismatic monkey, is obsessed with the white skin of strangers. If our paths were to cross, we would be forced to escape before she tried to take her new porcelain friends to the trees with her.

It is one of two places on earth where orangutans can still be seen in the wild. This is the last stand for the Sumatran Orangutan. And ethical tourism can help protect the rainforest that these elusive mammals rely on for survival. Here’s what you need to know about Sumatra, and how to choose an organization that prioritizes orangutan conservation.

Sumatra, Indonesia: the homeland of the forest people

The island of Sumatra was once a bustling tourist destination, but it has since gone off the beaten track. Before Bali became a tourist hub with an international airport, backpackers had to cross Indonesia from island to island, passing through Sumatra and Java along the way. Money has flowed into the area through tourism and visitors to the Orangutan Rehabilitation Center located in the Bukit Lawang Orangutan Sanctuary. From the sprawling culinary melting pot of Medan to the midnight blue waters of Lake Toba, Sumatra had more than jungles to offer potential tourists. And it still is.

But today, visitors to the rainforest will find that the orangutan rehabilitation center is closed. Orangutans, literally translated into Indonesian as “forest people”, now survive without human intervention. Travelers to Bukit Lawang now choose between the many ecotourism agencies offering treks in the rainforest to see orangutans in their homeland. Supporting these eco-lodges, in turn, funds the conservation of the last 6,500 great apes that reside here and gives the Indonesian government a financial incentive to prevent the jungle from being sold piecemeal and deforested by palm plantations in oil.

How to find an ethical trekking company in Bukit Lawang

Not all trekking companies in Bukit Lawang are created equal. Some are guilty of greenwashing and masquerading as an ecotourism option, while others blatantly disregard ethical standards. These are the main “jungle guidelines” that an organization must follow to be considered an ethical and sustainable organization focused on the conservation of the jungle and the great apes within.

1. Small hiking groups. Usually no more than six people per visit. A way to limit the literal human footprint.
2. Don’t touch the wildlife.
3. Do not walk during your illness. Since we share 97% of our DNA with orangutans, they can catch all of our diseases.
4. Don’t feed the wildlife. This includes leaving lunch leftovers.
5. Leave no trace. Only walk with organizations that adhere to a strict no-trace policy.
6. Keep your distance from orangutans. The comfort of the orangutan must be the priority of the eco-lodge. Not your photoshoot.
7. Local ownership. Supporting local small businesses helps contribute money to the local economy.
8. Only hire local ITGA-HPI certified guides. These guides grew up in the area and know the landscape like the back of their hand. They have also been trained by experts to preserve and protect the jungle environment.

Sumatra Orangutan Explore, the eco-lodge I have chosen, comes highly recommended in the community. Not only do they follow the guidelines above, but they also donate 15% of proceeds to local charities, are 97% plastic-free, offer hikes suitable for travelers of all dietary restrictions and budgets, and feature of a magnificent lodge located next door. the river at Bukit Lawang.

“Since launching our ethical trekking business, we have been committed to preserving the rainforest and protecting its amazing wildlife while benefiting the local people. Thanks to these ethical rules of the jungle, we aim to promote animal ecotourism. We are committed to having a low impact on the rainforest and protecting wildlife, especially the endangered Sumatran Orangutans, who are so susceptible to human germs and human activities. “

– Sumatra Orangutan Explore, Iman and Marie

Their most immersive hikes are longer, three days or more, allowing visitors to delve deeper into the national park at a slower pace and see more orangutans and hopefully more. elusive wild animals, like Sumatran elephants or sun bears.

What to expect on a trek in Gunung Leuser National Park

After a heart-wrenching bus ride over rutted roads to the small river town of Bukit Lawang, you’ll live in relative luxury. The log lodges lean against the banks of the aquamarine river and overlook the impenetrable wall of the green jungle on the other side. Wi-Fi and sometimes even electricity in Bukit Lawang can be spotty, but surrounded by serene nature, this is the perfect destination to disconnect.

After a night or two of savoring the spicy local cuisine (rendang beef and fried potato cakes) at your lodge, you’ll be rested and ready to hike. Your local guides will lead you across the river to the suspension bridge and into the rainforest. From there you will hike up to 8 miles per day through hilly terrain in search of orangutans, sun bears, Sumatran elephants, or any of the seven other primates in this rainforest. . If you choose to spend the night in the jungle, or for the recommended three nights, you’ll camp in ready-made tents with treadmills near a river to soak your sore muscles. You’ll drink tea with cookies, play cards by candlelight with your fellow trekkers or guides, and be stuffed with local fare to fuel your trip.

The return trip to Bukit Lawang, however, will not be a strenuous jungle trek, but a relaxing river ride on an inner tube raft to the door of your jungle lodge. A welcome relief from the sweltering heat of the rainforest.

Although you are not guaranteed to see wild animals on your excursion (they are wild, after all) with well-trained and knowledgeable guides, the odds are in your favor. During my two-day hike in Gunung Leuser National Park, I saw five orangutans and five other species of primates. Not to mention the array of jungle insects and birds we came across.

It’s also not a bucket list trip that breaks the bank. Many eco-lodges in the region, such as Sumatra Orangutan Explore, organizes hikes from $ 50 / day and basic economy rooms from $ 7.50 / night.

If sighting wild orangutans is on your bucket list, be sure to choose responsible ways to see the last of the remains.

About Thomas Thorton

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