Waiting, Stalking, and Running From an Orangutan on a Borneo Photography Tour
Probably the best place in Malaysian Borneo to see wild Orangutans is the Danum Valley Conservation Area. This beautiful location is resplendent with lush vales and rolling mountains, all of it covered in dense primary rainforest. Trees as large as rocket ships reach for the sky. There are giant ferns, hanging orchids, mosses, and flowering bromeliads wherever one looks.
And of course, with all of this diversity of plant life comes the inevitable smorgasbord of wild animals. One can expect to see and hear Gibbons (a long-armed primate which can swing through the trees like a trapeze artist). Their songs are quite mesmerizing; a melody of crescendos echoing through the deep and cavernous forest.
There are also Red Leaf Monkeys living here, as well as stranger things such as the boggle-eyed Tarsier, the dazed-looking Loris, and the bizarre gliding Colugo (It resembles a flannel with a Deer’s head attached).
But of course, at the top of any visitor’s list to the Danum Valley is the apish, shaggy-haired Bornean Orangutan.
Despite the threats these primates face throughout their range in Southeast Asia, here in the Danum at least, they are doing well and are commonly encountered. To get a good photo of one, however, can prove difficult…
Orangutans typically like to stay high up in the trees where they can be obscured by layer after layer of foliage. The contrasts between the dark vegetation and the bright sky above can also present quite the photographic challenge.
But the harder one tries, the luckier one is likely to get, and after many hours of trekking on circular trails, our Borneo tour small group of four persons finally found a big beautiful male Orangutan.
He was at the very top of a massive tree though…
And so, we waited.
And then we waited some more.
And all the while ‘Son’ (for that was his name) stayed up there on high, dropping the occasional leafy branch and chewed up piece of fruit down to where we sat on the forest floor.
Tick-Tock. Tick-Tock. So went the passage of time.
But the thing with big male Orangutans is that they often have to come down to the ground in order to get to where they need to go. They are just too heavy to swing from branch to branch like the youngsters and females do.
So, we knew, unless he planned to spend the night in this particular tree (a possibility), Son was very likely to descend.
And eventually he did.
Once on the ground, Son noisily pushed through the dense vegetation and vanished from sight, but our local guide informed us it was fine to follow at a respectable distance.
“Son is quite used to seeing tourists” he told me. “He won’t be bothered by our presence so long as we are quiet.” At that, we followed slowly behind, snapping photos of him as he snapped stems from the forest floor to eat. Occasionally he glanced at us. But by and large, he ignored us and gave us the opportunity to get some wonderful photos.
And then, on a whim I suppose, he decided to change direction and instead of moving away, he came directly towards us!
“Go, go, go!” shouted our local guide. “Run, run, run!”
Being a small fellow, accustomed to the forest, the Borneo tour guide was able to scoot to safety like a ferret. We heard his voice from afar.
“Please keep running!”
Being older and somewhat more corpulent than he, we slipped on the muddy forest floor, got tangled in vines, head-butted a small wasp nest and fell around like a group of slippery goons.
I began to wonder what would happen should Son catch up to us. Maybe it’s a legend, but I have heard of male orangutans becoming amorous with humans.
Fortunately, it turned out that none of us were his type, and he just moseyed on by and commenced to chewing on the vines that had so recently ensnared us. And that’s when I’m sure I caught a mischievous glint in his eye and a wry, cheeky smirk upon his face.
Whoever it was that said a sense of humour is something exclusive to the human species, had obviously never met an Orangutan before.
Travel with ORYX and Dale Morris to the Borneo
As ORYX Photo Tours’ Borneo photography tour specialist, Dale Morris has led many photo tours to this amazing place.