Friday, June 1, 2012

Inside an orangutan sanctuary in Borneo: Nyaru Menteng and what makes it good

Sido and Happy enjoy each other's company at Nyaru Menteng, Kalimantan, Borneo
Maybe I'm too idealistic, but I like to look for sanctuaries in this troubled world, places that are safe and apart from the influence of the world and that let you heal and grow.

For the last seven days I have been in a place like that, at the Nyaru Menteng sanctuary for orphan orangutans near Palangkaraya, in Kalimantan, Borneo.

I am here as I start work on a new book about morality in apes and human beings, after leading a small eco-tour with my friend Gary Shapiro to see orangutans roaming freely at Camp Leakey, in Tanjung Puting national park in Kalimantan.

And I don't think I could be in a better place to observe morality in apes and humans than in a sanctuary like Nyaru Menteng, originally set up under the Borneo Orangutan Survival foundation by the visionary Danish angel Lone Droscher-Neilsen, whom I met here in 2004.

The current manager here, a 37-year-old Javanese man named Anton Nurcahyo, says that I am still in the honeymoon phase of being at Nyaru Menteng, but that is because he is too modest and practical (unlike me) about has accomplishments after two years here.

Having visited most of the orangutan centres, I can say that this one is well managed because of the joy I see in both the orangutans and the staff, which you don't see in the places where people and primates feel tension and pressure. The staff laugh and joke with each other and the orangutans approach them as companions would, unafraid.

Two-year-old Miko at Nyaru Menteng
Some mornings I go out in the jungle with Hani, the staff and a group of about 10 orangutans, for the orangutans to get some jungle time in the trees, which, for them, is the most interesting place to be. These orangutans are orphans who lost their mother because of human beings and need to learn how to function in the jungle. Nyaru Menteng has more than 600 orangutans, with a staff of 200, on 60 hectares of buildings, grounds and forest, plus some additional patches of land on a few islands and in other locations.

After the morning jungle romp, I return for the end-of-the-day meal and playtime from 3-5 p.m. Some of the orangutans still have some energy left from the trees and roll, stretch and play with their friends.

I spend the evening and sleep in a staff cabin where I have to dodge a vicious macaque on the narrow walkway over the swamp and watch for the renegade female orangutan who borrowed the cushions I put on the rattan couch on the deck. I am happy if I could make her life more comfortable.

I have to say that being here in Borneo with the orangutans I have forgotten about my other life -- except for my partner Wendy, of course, and my children, Pearce and Caitlin -- and it takes some effort to remind myself that I live in North American and have responsibilities there.

One day I was even drifting off in a hammock in the jungle with the orangutans, watching the sky and the trees for entertainment as they would, oblivious like the orangutans to the babble of Indonesian around me -- when the voice of Hani cut through asking, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING, MR?" "Thinking," I said, which seemed like what a writer and university professor should be doing. Since then, whenever anyone seems to be catnapping for a moment, it is called "thinking" in honour of me.

But that's the magic of a sanctuary too. It satisfies you and fulfills you and gives you the space to think unobstructed. Too many abstractions and theories can blind you. I think that being in places like Nyaru Menteng will help me understand in a practical way how we can establish a moral purpose that resists the destructiveness of the world and works to maintain a healthy community of people and apes.

There are so many different theories of what is good and moral, without agreement of what actually works, so Nyaru Menteng for me could be a living model of how these things can function.

I hope that Nyaru Menteng will last many years. I suspect it will seem much the same to me as today when the honeymoon is ended. At least, that's want we need to believe in a world like ours. We need to think that this place is possible, that, while it would be too idealistic to think that it is perfect, it still survives all the temptations of a difficult world with its basic integrity intact, that it deserves the name of "sanctuary."

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