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Monkey See. Monkey Do.

By: Peter Volny
Photos by: Linda Goddard

Traveling is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get! No apologies for the slight misquote, but it certainly applies to travel and never more so than on our recent visit to Camp Leakey in the Tanjung Putting National Park in Indonesian Borneo.

Camp Leakey was established in 1971 by Dr. Biruté Galdikas, inspired by legendary paleo-anthropologist Louis Leakey, and is the oldest orangutan research and conservation centre in the world. Visitors are welcomed with local guides. 

Ursula the orangutan using leaves like an umbrellaUrsula – smarter than you might think!

Okay, to be perfectly correct orangutans are apes and not monkeys, but Ursula may very well have been aping someone she saw with an umbrella. So what is the difference between an ape and a monkey? Actually there are a number of differences including that apes are larger and have a larger brain to body size ratio so higher intelligence, but the most visible difference is that apes do not have tails. There are only six types of apes – orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, gibbons, and siamangs. Actually there is a seventh. We humans are classified as great apes and share 96.4 per cent of our genetic makeup with orangutans.

Camp Leakey is only accessible by boat on the Big Sekonyer River, which narrows as you motor slowly upstream with dense jungle and mangrove and palm trees lining the banks.

From the dock at the camp there is a sturdy 656 foot long boardwalk above the swamp to the camp itself and a feeding platform for the orangutans. It was on this boardwalk where we encountered Ursula, a seven-year-old female orangutan who was lazing on the planks. We approached her cautiously, but she was not the least bit scared of us and allowed us to get right next to her – which was awesome – and the highlight of our entire six-week trip through Borneo, Java, and New Guinea.

I was very fortunate to get many amazing photos and seemingly she even posed for some. While my wife Linda was taking a shot of me next to her, Ursula reached over and grabbed my leg with a very strong grip and started pulling me towards her, and the edge of the boardwalk. For such a small animal, I'd say she only weighed about 50 pounds, she had an incredibly strong grip, but she did not hurt me. She is obviously quite habituated.

Ursula playing

After lunch, we walked back to watch the 2 p.m. orangutan feeding, but once again came upon Ursula who was at the same spot on the boardwalk but now had a branch of leaves with which she played and used as an umbrella against the strong afternoon sun. At one point, Ursula climbed down to the water’s edge and soaked the branch of leaves then climbed back up and cooled herself off with them. We stood totally captivated for quite some time and Ursula seemed to enjoy the company and demonstrated her skill and dexterity.

From here, it's just a small step to her using an iPhone and tweeting.

Peter Volny, originally from Australia, has lived in seven countries including many years in Canada. He now resides in Arizona.

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