Indonesia boasts some of the most unique wildlife in the world, the islands of Sumatra and Borneo indeed the only places where you can find the great apes. And even more limited are the places where the orangutans of Borneo are still wild in their natural habitat.
Borneo has one of the oldest rainforests in the world, and the Borneo jungle was long considered the ultimate adventure challenge. With this mystical aura and a unique species, it is no surprise we decided to head to Kalimantan which has four different national parks where to see orangutans.
The Wild Orangutans of Borneo: Kutai National Park
We chose Kutai National Park to see the great wild apes and spent three days and two nights there. About 600 wild orangutans (sometimes spelled orang-utans) live throughout Kutai National Park, with 30 within 5 square kilometers ( 2 sq. miles) of the lodge. Though the population of the park decreased sharply in the early 2000s, recent data shows the number has been growing to about 2,000. Indeed, new babies are born every year, each female bringing a new baby every seven years.
During our stay, we had the chance to see orangutans every time we went on a hike. We were thrilled to see our first orangutang, and could not believe our luck at each new encounter. They even came to the compound, where we saw one two mornings in a row.
We met two different families. One family of four had a mother, a male, a young of about 15 years, and a young baby orangutan of about 1.5 years. Babies usually stay very close for the first three years, then relatively close for another three. The adolescent was somewhat aggressive, shuffling branches around at our sight, and sending branches towards our direction. We tracked back to give it space and let him cool down.
Interesting facts about orangutans: the families change their location every day, as they like to stay in a clean nest every night. So every day, every hike, you need to search for the groups again.
The other family was quieter and did not mind our presence. Instead, we enjoyed a ballet performance from the young baby. That little one was a definite character, and we loved watching him interact with his mum.
Wild Orangutans: Borneo Jungle Habitat
The orangutans like to eat ripe fruits, figs, but also bark, leaves, and sometimes even termites. Some of the fruits had a shell, which the orangutans would crunch with their strong jaws. Our ranger Udin was listening to these sounds, that would indicate an animal was nearby. We quickly learned to identify that distinctive sound ourselves, and soon found wild orangutans in a tall sangkwang tree.
These are usually very tall and large trees and offer protection and habitats to the wild animals. We spent about two hours with this group of orangutans. They stayed close to that one tree, moving from branches to branches, nibbling on fruits. One younger separated from the group after a while, jumping from one tree to the other and hanging from the flexible branches.
The orangutans also like to chew on the branches of the young acacia trees to drink the milky sap.
The last morning, a young male moved through the nearby trees and settled in a neesia tree. Many of the fruits were ripe for the taking, and the orangutan feasted on these while seated on the top branch. We observed for about one hour, while it gently ate its way around.
He then left, crossing over the high walkway, hanging in the bamboo trees before disappearing into the jungle. Orangutans are such large animals, both fast and slow at the same time. Fast to move from tree to tree, but slow and deliberate in their constant movements.
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Getting Close, Too Close
These three days watching the wild orangutans gave us great insights into Orangutan habitat and habits. It was remarkable to observe them in relatively closed up conditions, where they stay, play, eat, sleep.
One of the key features of Kutai National Park is that the apes here are entirely wild animals, not reintroduced as it is the case in other national parks.
While it is disheartening to see how limited their space is due to deforestation, it was also impressive to see how close they let humans approach. Most of them show no fear of people, probably a sign how respectful the park treats them. However, it also shows how accustomed they became. Maybe not a good sign in case of poaching, an issue the parks also faces in some areas. A clear sign of human impacts on the natural habitats and animal behavior.
How to Plan a Borneo Jungle Tour
For details on how to organize a Borneo Jungle trek, or to visit Kutai National Park, click here to find our travel guide to Kutai National Park.
Interested in other wildlife encounters? Find out about meeting Moutain Gorillas in Rwanda, or whale-watching in Sri Lanka. Click here for more posts on adventure travel in Indonesia.
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October 1, 2017 at 1:16 pm
This is pretty much the number one reason why I want to go to Borneo – to see the orangutans! Some great photos here. Sounds like a very education trip too.
October 1, 2017 at 10:56 pm
We hesitated between Borneo and Sumatra – still would like to go to the latter to see how different the orangutans are. Next trip!
September 28, 2017 at 4:37 pm
Love that you went out into the wild to observe the orangutans. We saw them in Borneo too and we just found it to be such a wonderful experience. Unfortunately, the group we were with were getting too close to them in my opinion and the orangutans seemed almost too accustomed to people. I’m sure that didn’t happen in your experience.
October 1, 2017 at 11:00 pm
That’s always the concern – close but not too close, not just for our own safety but for the animals’ as well. Which park did you go to see them?
September 28, 2017 at 12:49 pm
Never knew Borneo has one of the oldest rainforests! Your adventure looks amazing, almost surreal! You got so close to the animals, it is both scary and exciting! Most importantly, though, it is great that the park is treating the animals right.
October 10, 2017 at 1:31 am
They do seem to treat the animals right, and they are definitely mindful about how we approached them. A big must in our book too!
September 28, 2017 at 8:38 am
Had a sense of deja vu reading your post, Was reminded of my own encounter with the Mountain Gorillas of Rwanda, a couple of months back. We too spent an hour very, very close to a Gorilla family and it was one of the most defining moments of our lives. The orangutans of Kalimantan share similar characteristics to those Gorillas, hope to pay a visit to the Orangutans too, some day.
October 1, 2017 at 11:06 pm
We also saw the Silverback Gorillas in Rwanda! Talking about a unique experience, that one is high on our memorable trips as well. Lots of similarities between the two species for sure. And babies equally cute 🙂
September 28, 2017 at 4:50 am
It’s crazy how close you were able to get! Where you scared at all?
October 18, 2017 at 10:50 pm
When the teenage ape demonstrated a more aggressive behavior, we did retreat away to give him space and chose an alternate route to avoid stressing him further. This was rather impressive!
September 27, 2017 at 9:41 pm
Wow! There is so much of information packed in here about wild orangutans. Learning that they change their location every day, prefer clean nests every night was fascinating.
October 18, 2017 at 10:52 pm
Thanks, glad you liked it! Our guide was really good, one of the senior rangers in the park, and made such a difference in how we experienced our visit.
September 27, 2017 at 8:41 am
It is disheartening to see the deforestation and the loss of wildlife habitat, but fortunately there are some parks and they are trying to protect the animals. I would love to go orangutan trekking.
October 10, 2017 at 1:33 am
The deforestation in Borneo was indeed heart-breaking, especially after we wandered into other parts of Kalimantan. I hope these national parks keep protecting the remaining orangutan habitat.
September 25, 2017 at 7:26 pm
Definitely awesome! That baby is adorable, as well.
I hope that there are ways in which the Rangers make sure the animals don’t get too used to people. It can lead to bad things happening! However, some people just don’t understand that wild animals are just that and should remain wild.
October 10, 2017 at 1:34 am
Agree, and the worst is that usually animals end up paying the prices of human interaction. Keep them wild!
September 25, 2017 at 2:09 pm
We just saw wild kangaroos at the Grampians National Park in Australia. I would love to see these orangutans, too?
October 1, 2017 at 11:03 pm
We got lucky to see wild kangaroos through Kangaroo Island (properly named!) south of Adelaide. It was magical as well!
September 25, 2017 at 5:21 am
Gorgeous photos – you got some great close ups of the orang-utans. How lucky to be able to spot wild ones too! I have seen them at Sepilok in Malaysian Borneo but I think that your experience looks much more natural – I hope that the park stays that way.
October 18, 2017 at 10:56 pm
Thank you for the kind comments on our photos! Finding the orangutans in their natural wild habitat was important for us, but you never know until you are actually there. We were glad about our trip but would love to visit other parks to compare the experience, like the one you had in Sepilok. Regardless, the more parks, the better if it helps saving and securing space for the big apes!
September 17, 2017 at 10:36 am
Coucou les amis ! Fantastique ces récits de votre rencontre avec les orang-outangs ! Ca fait rêver ! Gros bisous et bonne suite d’aventure. Sophie & Pascal
September 24, 2017 at 3:45 am
Merci! Oui, ce fut de grands moments magiques! On ne s’en lasse pas!