With their giant eyes and spiky red hair, baby orangutans are the epitome of cute and that's exactly why they are the most sought-after prey of poachers in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). Thousands have been hunted and captured over the years, prised from the hands of their slain mothers, to sell as pets. Those who are spared this fate are left to cope with a habitat that is shrinking daily, as agribusiness firms continue their relentless drive to turn Kalimantan's forests into palm-oil plantations. "I cannot convey the horror of it," says Canadian primatologist Birute Galdikas, a protégé of the late naturalist Louis Leakey and the world's leading authority on orangutans.
In 1971, Galdikas set up the Camp Leakey rehabilitation center in southern Borneo's Tanjung Putting National Park. To date, the camp has rehabilitated more than 350 orangutans, helping orphaned former pets successfully return to the wild. It also continues to care for another 300 juveniles. To help raise money for its work and for the charity over which Galdikas presides, Orangutan Foundation International, www.orangutan.org Camp Leakey is open to visitors, who are encouraged to "adopt" a young orangutan by contributing towards its keep. (See 10 things to do in Washington, D.C.: National Zoo)
Potential adoptees often greet visitors as they arrive, which is magical. This is no arm's-length orangutan encounter, with the shadows of great apes ambling through trees glimpsed through a long camera lens. At Camp Leakey, you can pat, hug and hold hands with the animals. Even getting to the camp is an enchantment: you putter up river for hours on a local kelotok boat, and weave through rain forest. "We need to have more tourists visit in order to provide a livelihood for people," says Ferry Candra, a national-park guide. "Without them, locals will just go back into the forests as rubber farmers or loggers and the forests will continue to disappear."
With, at most, 60,000 orangutans left in the wild, experts predict that the species could disappear in less than 20 years if more is not done to preserve their habitat. In the battle to save the orangutan, the camp is at once the front line and a sanctuary. And as a bright-eyed baby climbs into your lap, you cannot help but wonder, with some sadness, if Camp Leakey is also the orangutan's last stand.
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