Merle’s Orangutan Experience at Samboja

Merle’s Orangutan Experience at Samboja

Posted by Beth Mills on 5th Nov 2022

The following blog was written by volunteer Merle who joined the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Project for 2 weeks in September 2022:

When one of my best friends moved to Singapore, I was determined to finally go on my first trip outside of Europe – and to not only go visit her but also travel around Southeast Asia for a while. Studying a map during my initial planning phase, I realised that Borneo wasn't too far. I have been donating to BOS Foundation for many, many years because I love orangutans so much – so I was super excited that Kalimantan was suddenly, coincidentally within my reach! Via BOS I read about the Samboja Lodge and debated going there as a regular guest. But while I was thinking about the timing of the trip, I realised that it would in fact be possible to go as a volunteer which I thought would be even better! So this was how it all came together!

Borneo scenery

To protect the orangutans from possible covid infection we might have picked up on our travels, we spent the first five days mostly working for the sun bears. These cuddly-looking creatures are the world's smallest bears and share the habitat of the orangutans in the rainforest. These sun bears can't be released into the forest but will continue living in the sanctuary's enclosures. We were able to make their lives more interesting by scattering their food in the enclosures, building enrichment toys with food in them or collecting dead wood with termites in the forest. It was always a treat for us to watch them look for the food or enrichment we had hidden for them. Even though none of us volunteers were there for the sun bears, we all fell in love with them.

Sun bear up tree

After getting PCR-tested we were allowed to work more closely with the orangutans – which meant those and only those that cannot be released into the wild again. This made a lot of sense to me since orangutans that can be released shouldn't get used to humans, especially not new humans all the time. In combination with the very strict no-contact policy, it was clear to see that BOS and The Great Projects really take volunteering at this project very seriously. Additionally, it was real and useful work and not a relaxing orangutan holiday – there was lots to do, in parts hard physical labour, too. I still enjoyed this part and at some point, I got used to getting dirty and sweaty every day – because everybody was dirty and sweaty!

Orangutan up close

Tasks we did were for example collecting leaves for the orangutans' sleeping nests, cleaning the cages of the individuals that are currently not able to live on islands, building different kinds of enrichments, and planting 100 banana trees. Another major task was building a platform on a new island for un-releasable orangutans. This was an extensive job which included multiple steps taking place over the whole period of two weeks. First, a group dug holes for the posts to fit in. After that, everyone's strength was required to drag old logs of “ironwood” (Ulin) out of the forest. This was one of the most exhausting and yet fun tasks to do! Experiencing what the force of a big group can do while drenched in sweat was very satisfying! Those logs were put up as poles for the platform and covered by ironwood boards to build the actual platform.

Building an orangutan platform

For me, this was an especially rewarding experience since I've been able to see with my own eyes how BOS works and to help them with my own hands as well. I will never forget seeing them on the islands from the boat during feeding time. I will never forget sitting in the back of the truck on the collected leaves while the rain is getting heavier and heavier. I will never forget the first close-up encounter with a caged orangutan, I was moved to tears when she looked into my eyes, and I wished so badly for her to make it to an island eventually.  My wish to help orangutans, financially or otherwise, has increased so much since being a volunteer at Samboja.


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Leslie Tonks commented 2 days ago
Are there any trips going in jan/Feb 2023

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