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From the lens of a veterinarian: return to Camp Leakey


A wildlife photographer shares more of his story about working with orangutans in Borneo.

I visited Camp Leakey, on the island of Borneo in Indonesia, in 2012—21 years after my first trip there. The camp is in the middle of Tanjung Puting National Park, one of the best places to see orangutans. It was established in 1971 by Birute Galdikas under the supervision of the famous anthropologist Dr Lewis Leakey. The research performed there over the decades has rewritten our understanding of primates.

Camp Leakey

Photos by Carl Palazzolo, DVM, MBA

There was still a welcoming committee upon arrival in our klotok.

When I returned in 2012, Camp Leakey was no longer the dynamic place where primatologists from all over the world came to do research. In the 21 years since my first visit, the rainforest had changed, and not for the better. Motoring down the Sekonyer River hid the depth of the changes a short distance inland from the river’s edge.

Camp Leakey

Our 1991 luxury accommodations were no longer in use.

The camp was no longer housing volunteers in the basic quarters we had stayed in during our first visit. Most people now stayed in klotoks at the entrance to Camp Leakey and took day trips to the feeding platforms.

Camp Leakey

On the platform into camp, you can learn some conversational Indonesian with a macaque as your teacher.

There is a nice museum on the property that illustrates the fascinating history of Camp Leakey. The pictures on the wall over the decades of camp activities are interesting to look at and make the camp come to life for the people that now visit.

Devious is the first description that comes to mind when these primates pretend they are not looking.

Devious is the first description that comes to mind when these primates pretend they are not looking.

One thing that has not changed is how stealthy the orangutans are. While my group was walking on the dock to go into the camp, I noticed a female primate across the river scoping out another klotok that was emptying its passengers. I decided to let the group go ahead and see what she was up to.

We learned on our first trip in 1991 that they are watching everything. When we left camp one day, and even though we thought everything in our quarters was locked securely, we came back to clothes strewn throughout our quarters that were covered in various liquids like Pepto Bismol from our toilet kits.

Camp Leakey

The thief enjoying the stolen pineapple.

Sure enough, she snuck onto the klotok, and within a few seconds she was running on the far bank with her pilfered pineapple. Watching the pineapple thief, it was good to see that some things never change.

The main attraction now at Camp Leakey is the feeding station. Visitors come to these stations to watch as the park rangers bring pineapples and bananas with milk to feed the orangutans (and sneaky gibbons). I will go over the action at the feeding platforms in a future article.

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