Kidnapped by an Orangutan – Sumatra

One of the main reasons I chose to travel to Borneo and Sumatra was to see the orangutans – the only two places in the world where they live in the wild.  It has been predicted that if something is not done soon these wonderful creatures will no longer exist in 60 years time.  The sad fact is that mankind’s actions are pushing these animals towards extinction by the destruction of their habit or by poaching.  Every day an area of forest, equivalent to six football fields, disappears and is turned into human settlements or used for agriculture.   

In Sumatra we travelled to Bukit Lawang where we stayed for a few days.  At the time the locals were still recovering from a freak tidal wave that killed many people.  The residents thought it was a sign from god that they had become greedy and exploitive of both tourists and the orangutans.  We arrived at a time when they were still repenting but the hard sell was beginning to ramp up again so I guess by now  it will be business as usual.

 We signed up for a trip, got up early the next day and headed off with our group and guide.  First we visited the rehabilitation centre before heading into the jungle.  It was a tough gig, steaming heat, scrabbling up and down hills, climbing root systems and trekking with no apparent path.  A couple of hours into the walk we broke for a drink.  The guide talked about the rehabilitation programme and the animals that had been released.   Many of the baby orangutans had been rescued from poachers who had shot their mothers and sold them as pets.  Because these animals were so used to being with humans it was difficult to rehabilitate them completely.  Jackie was a case in instance.  We were warned that she had been known to come down from the trees when she heard human voices and attach herself to someone because she wanted a cuddle.

“ In the unlikely event that she’s in this area and she makes a move for you don’t runaway and don’t resist, she won’t hurt you but  orangutans have nasty bite if they get pissed off”  the guide said.

About an hour later we got lucky and saw two female juveniles checking us out from the trees above.  Wandering a short distance away from the rest of the crowd I looked up and saw a large orangutan laying along a tree branch looking down at me thoughtfully.  My friend came up to see what I was staring at and started to dig around in his backpack for a camera.   Without taking her eyes off us she quickly climbed down the tree.  I had bad feeling and in the tradition of all good cowards hid behind my strong, brave male friend who I could rely on to protect me (yeah right).   The guide spotting what was about to happen started to call out instructions as he ran through the trees towards us.  But Jackie beat him to it, grabbed my partner by the hand and started to pull him off into the undergrowth.   He was told to throw his bag to one of the guides who thought that this was what she was after.  It wasn’t and giving the guide a look of disgust she continued to walk away dragging her captive behind her.  

“Oh look you’ve lost your boyfriend to another women” the guide said as we pursued the couple through the dense jungle.  

“Must be the hairy arms that she’s attracted to” I called back trying to video record and run at the same time . 

Finally Jackie stopped and sat down on a fallen log then wrapped her arm around her new friend’s neck.  He tried to tentatively pulled away but to no avail – this babe was a strong and was not taking no for an answer. 

“Talk to her”  the guide encouraged  “don’t try to pull away it might upset her”.    

“You know I can’t climb the tree after you” said my friend as Jackie looked upwards.  With a chat up line like that I’d of taken off like a shot but she stayed put.   

Ten minutes later having tried all sorts of distractions, bar food, to encourage Jackie to let go we were all hot, sweaty, and bored, whilst my partner was looking a bit squashed.   Suddenly Jackie decided she’d had enough of us all gawking at her, needed some down time alone with her new playmate and walked off  with him in tow.    Once again we played follow my leader through the jungle until one idiot, oops sorry a fellow traveller, decided that he wanted to play and held out his hand for Jackie to take. She accepted letting go of my partner at the same time.

Hunkering down with her new man another ten minutes passed.  The guide, resigned to the fact tha the only way to get her to relinquish her hold was to bribe her with our lunch, started fishing around in his rucksack for banana.  At that point a male orangutan turned up to see what all the fuss was about.  Jackie took fright and headed up the nearest tree  – problem solved.  

Before we left for the trek we had been told not to touch the animals and rightly so because they are susceptible to human germs and have no resistance.  But let’s face it if you were confronted by a 6 foot high female orangutan, weighing more than 20 stone with the strength of an elephant who wanted a cuddle and was determined to get it, would you say no?


In Malaysian Borneo it is possible to see orangutans in Semeggoh rehabilitation centre.  This used to be a main tourist attraction and although the animals still come to feed the rehabilitation of the orangutans has now switched to Matang wild life centre in Kubah National Park.     We actually went to Semeggoh and saw a huge male and a couple of females but the best was when the tourist buses and cars departed and we walked through the conservation area to catch a bus back to Kuching.  As we passed some workmen having their lunch there was a rustling in the trees and a mother orangutan and her baby appeared.  She fancied a snack too and although the workmen retreated to a safe distance she hung around for ages and played with her baby – it was amazing.     A friend says the Sepilok rehabilitation centre is also excellent or taking a trip down the river and staying in the mangroves/jungle is another good way to spot wild orangutans.   In Sumatra, orangutans can be found in the North of the island, some in the wild and some in conservation areas such as Bukit Lawang and Gung Leuser National Park.   Without getting too officious it is important to remember that if you are going on a trip to look for orangutans make sure that you go with trained, approved guides – less scrupulous ones will encourage the animals down from the trees with food.  First this does nothing to help them become independent and second they become trusting and therefore easy prey for poachers.

7 thoughts on “Kidnapped by an Orangutan – Sumatra

  1. Great story. I saw them close in Sarawak (Sepilok if I remember right), but in Sabah, on a solo hike in Danum Valley, I had an encounter with a wild one just waking and beginning to feed. Needless to say the animal ignored me and went about its business, the way it should be. Very special.

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