Sandwiched between the raging Bohorok River and the deep, silent, steaming jungle, the Bukit Lawang Orang-utan Sanctuary, on the vast Indonesian island of Sumatra, offers the unique opportunity of witnessing one of our closest and most charming relatives in their own backyard.
Having crossed the Bohorok on a precarious, makeshift canoe, your first sight of these kings of the jungle is at the enclosures housing recent arrivals, many of whom have been rescued from the thriving trade in exotic pets, particularly in nearby Singapore. It’s here that the long process of rehabilitation begins, a process that may include learning from their human guardians such basic simian skills as tree-climbing and fruit-peeling.
Most of these activities are done away from the prying cameras of tourists, but twice a day park officers lead visitors up to a feeding platform to wait, and to watch. The sound of rustling foliage and creaking branches betrays the presence of a rangy, shaggy silhouette making its languid yet majestic way through the treetops.
Orang-utans literally force the trees to bend to their will as they swing back and forth on one sapling until the next can be reached. Swooping just above the awestruck audience, they arrive at the platform to feast on bananas and milk, the diet kept deliberately monotonous to encourage the orang-utans – all of whom have been recently released from the sanctuary – to look for more diverse flavours in the forest.
Once the ape has proved that it’s capable of surviving unaided, it will be left to fend for itself in the vast, dark forests of North Sumatra. Its rehabilitation will be considered complete. Sadly, at Bukit Lawang there never seems to be a shortage of rescued apes to take its place.
Bukit Lawang is a 3hr bus ride from Medan. The sanctuary is only open to visitors during the twice-daily feeding sessions at 8am and 3pm.