In camp at Malua Research Station in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, where the tropical forest presses in on all sides, a river rushes past, the lifeblood of the station. Stalks of native ginger sway in a light breeze, and stingless bees swarm around the kitchen table, going about their daily chores.
Udin called up to me at my kitchen in the researchers quarters of the station, shouting from the riverside, and roused me from my study.
He pointed with much enthusiasm – over to the far side of the river, just across the water from where I took my daily baths.
Udin had sprung a large male orangutan in the midst of fishing.
The hulk of the creature was astounding. Slouched over itself in the manner of a monstrously-oversized child, it’s broad torso and lanky arms forested with a thick matt of long burnt-orange hair, it moved it’s bulk with the awkward grace of a toddler.
Hand stretched down into the river rapids, clutching for fish, the orangutan (from ‘orang hutan’ in Bahasa Melayu, meaning ‘forest man’) spied our research assistant back.
This hulkish visitor, rudely interrupted from his cause, abruptly withdrew his hand from the water and started boldly toward us, trundling through the trickling rapids and crossing to ‘our’ side.
Udin called up to me again, gesturing for me to join him on the bank.
I left up and raced barefoot along the cobbled dirt track leading from my kitchen to the riverside, emerging from the vegetation to find myself a little closer than expected to our surprise guest. Not five metres away now, Udin stood between the company and me. This was the orangutan viewing of a lifetime.
Udin sought to entice the orangutan to stay. It’s not every day an orangutan visits in camp.
Seemingly from nowhere, Udin produced a plastic bag full of papayas. Reaching elbow-deep into the bag, he retrieved a particularly smelly, overripe fruit and held it out in one hand.
But the orangutan seemed more concerned with avoiding our advances than being gifted a papaya. Noting the hesitation, Udin gently his encouragement. He stepped closer to our visitor, arm outstretched, papaya for the taking.
The orangutan tried to skirt Udin, his escape path between the river and the outstretched papaya quickly narrowing before his eyes. Then, to my horror, he quickly judged this all too close for comfort, and lunged for Udin – teeth borne – in a shocking display of physical dominance.
Having been summoned to the beach, which felt now like a battleground, I sought to keep my distance behind Udin. But instead of retreating and apparently unphased, Udin doubled down to face the orangutan, squatting like a sumo wrestler, a move he accompanied with a guttural call back at his opponent –
‘Oooooooo!’ Udin meant it. Whatever it was.
The orangutan immediately backed down – a miracle to my naive eyes – and moved off, clambering along the beach just as I did each day to navigate the rocky shoreline. To my complete surprise, and in flagrant opposition to any sensible course, Udin began to follow him. He threw papayas in the direction of the male. One offering after another, bombing inconsiderately on the rocks and bursting into slop.
As the orangutan continued down river, rejecting this sustained advance, Udin scrunched at the plastic bag, juicy with remains of the papayas, and accompanying this with a squelching noise from his mouth (a noise he later told me the orangutans use to say they’re hungry).
Our visitor was not courted by this display, appetising or otherwise.
He veered off the beach to trace back into jungle, but when Udin stepped up to follow him, he quickly turned and lurched downslope toward the intruder, this time growling a warning as he bore his teeth even more severely.
Could this be it, I thought? Did this well intentioned man know what he was in for?
I backed way off, not wanting to encourage either of them. And eventually, Udin retreated too, leaving our visitor to take off on his way, lumbering back into the forest.
Later, on recounting this scene to my colleague, he let out a long, bewildered sigh, shook his head as if shaking off a veil of water, and said, “Yeh… Udin’s been in the jungle for a long time.”
If you love orangutans, you can find more information about the threats to their habitat in Borneo here, and look at spreading the conservation message (or make a donation to orangutan conservation) via WWF and The Orangutan Project.