Stories from Sumatra: Trekking in search of orangutansIn 2016, Molly Whitehall ran the Oxford Half Marathon and Greater Manchester Marathon as part of Team SOS, raising funds for our work. Earlier this year, she fulfilled a lifelong dream and headed to Sumatra to see orangutans in the wild, and experience the incredible rainforests that her support has helped to protect. She shares her journey with us:
Orangutans are one of those animals that everyone wants to see, and it’s easy to see why. Not only are they bright orange and adorable, they are undeniably like us. Not surprising given that we share 94.6% of our DNA with them. In Bahasa Indonesian, ‘orangutan’ means ‘man of the forest’ and in appearance and behaviour they certainly live up to their name. So, I will unashamedly jump on the “I’ve always wanted to see an orangutan” bandwagon. Luckily, my wildlife-filmmaker boyfriend was all too happy to be dragged along on a trip to the Sumatran jungle of Gunung Leuser National Park to help make my wish come true.
I wanted to see orangutans, and Sumatran orangutans specifically, because the year before I ran the Greater Manchester Marathon to raise money for the Sumatran Orangutan Society. Before starting training for the marathon I had never been a runner. I was a keen rower at university but this particular form of endurance exercise was very new to me, and quite the challenge!
Nonetheless, I stuck to my training plan and finished the marathon in just under four hours. An achievement, but I was left feeling there was something missing. I wanted to see these animals that, for some reason, I was willing to put myself through intense pain for, without ever having met one. They had better be special, I thought.
We stayed in Gunung Leuser National Park for three days, as the first leg of a two week adventure in Sumatra. As our first stop after a 32-hour journey from London, first impressions of the jungle were mainly amazement at just how green and beautiful the rainforest is. Before and after the rainforest trek, we stayed at the lovely Green Hill hostel and met Andrea, who is a conservation research scientist, runs sustainable treks and organises education initiatives in the local village. She arranged for our guide Bob to take us for one day to the nearby jungle, Bukit Lawang, which is frequented by tourists, and for two days to the wild jungle of Bukit Kencur.
The day that we spent in Bukit Lawang was extraordinary; we saw eight orangutans in total! These orangutans are semi-wild, as they or their ancestors were rehabilitated from captivity in the pet trade. Bukit Lawang sees many tourists pass through and so the orangutans are unafraid of humans. Even though they were not truly wild, seeing an orangutan for the first time and spending time with them was an extremely special experience. Later in the day, we came across a mother and baby who passed right above our heads. Looking at their faces, I was struck by how human-like they are, and how “man of the forest” is certainly an apt name. I also wondered how we could help these beautiful creatures not only survive but thrive. We learnt about orangutan-human conflict from our guide, Bob, who told us that many local people hate orangutans because they damage farmers’ crops. But he also told us about all the fantastic work that SOS, and other charities, are doing in this part of North Sumatra.
After a day in Bukit Lawang, it was into the jungle proper – leeches and all! We camped in Bukit Kencur for two nights and it was definitely one of the best experiences of my life so far. Bob is the only guide who takes tourists to Bukit Kencur and his love for the forest has kept this special place protected and practically unspoilt while outside it the pressures of palm oil and logging continue to be felt. The orangutans that live here are completely wild, but there are very few of them now. Unfortunately, we didn’t get lucky enough to see a wild orangutan here, but the experience was nonetheless wonderful. Despite not catching a glimpse, I felt immensely privileged to visit their habitat and learn about these extraordinary creatures; we did see their nests and evidence of their feeding so it’s wonderful to know they’re still here.
As we left the jungle behind, I was left to dwell on what I had seen in the last few days. Seeing my first orangutans in the forest made me so happy but I also reflected with sadness on what humans have done to these gentle giants, and how few there are now left. I did however see great hope in the work of SOS, alongside people like Bob and Andrea, who are fighting so hard to protect these beautiful creatures. I felt proud to have helped, if only a little, by running the marathon, but I also saw how much work there is still to be done. The trip certainly re-energised my commitment to conservation, and did not disappoint; orangutans are as beautiful and special as I thought. I would recommend jumping on the bandwagon too, and Sumatra is definitely one for the bucket list, even if a marathon may be slightly less appealing!