My Year with the Orangutans and Other Creatures in the Forest

By Dania Magaly Abizaid, GPOCP Research Assistant
Halo, kalau ada orang yang bisa dengar, ada OH di rintis SF10,” (Hello, if a person can hear, there is an orangutan on trail SF10), I call out through the radio for the 30th time. Any response is highly unlikely since I’m far from camp and the signal is poor. I look up into the tree in front of me to see a 90 kg orange ball of fur throwing kisses at me. And these are not love kisses, as they are being thrown along with tree branches! I sneak a peek and look up into those bright brown eyes which are fixed intently upon me. I can almost read what they’re trying to say, and it goes along the lines of “Why is this bald ape so obsessed with me?” But how can we not be? Orangutans are such interesting creatures. And though we have to travel through a forest infested with leeches, mosquitoes, poisonous plants and snakes for more than 12 hours each day to study them, we find them fascinating.
A young orangutan exploring the forest canopy not to far from his mother.
Even after 30 plus years of research in this station alone, we still know so little about them. It’s now been a year since I walked up to camp for the first time, shaking and trying not to look down over the hanging bridge which I now walk over with my eyes half closed with sleep. It’s been a year filled with more learning than leech and mosquito bites, which is quite considerable. Though I must admit I will not miss waking up at 3am and walking out into the cold rain, I feel privileged for what I’ve been able to experience in this forest. Falling into the cold river, tripping over buttress roots, finding leeches in inconvenient places and getting pooped on by an orangutan, all seem like nothing when compared to being looked at by a curious baby orangutan, the awe of seeing a fully flanged male long calling right in front of me, or that feeling of pure happiness when you hear the familiar cracking of branches of an orangutan making its nest after a long day in the peat swamp.
Dania playing with a large millipede found on the forest floor while searching for orangutans at Cabang Panti Research Station in Gunung Palung National Park.
Orangutans aren’t even the only creatures I got to know during my time here; I also had the honor of becoming part of the crazy family at Cabang Panti, all of whom taught me invaluable lessons, such as there is no such thing as too much rice and that the limit on generosity and patience does not exist. They did this by example, by not once complaining when I asked, 20 times in one day, which genus a leaf sample belonged to or by listening to my unintelligible Indonesian.
Dania and some of the team members at Cabang Panti Research Station enjoying a refreshing swim at the big waterfall.
Thank you falls short for everything I am so grateful for. Family, friends and exciting new opportunities await me back home in Mexico! I am happy to be going home, but a part of me will stay in this forest and I will cherish it forever for all the experiences it has given me.
Dania enjoying the view at the top of Mount Gunung Palung during her year as a Research Assistant for the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project. All Photos by Dania Magaly Abizaid.