Deep Woods Discoveries

by Chris Hildreth with Dennis Meredith; photos by Chris Hildreth
A photographer learned a lesson on the dangers of scientific research as he slogged through a Sumatran swamp to capture images of primatologist Carel van Schaik studying orangutans.
The first time I met Arno, he tried to kill me--very cleverly. I was sweating my way through my last day in the muggy, insect- ridden Sumatran jungle, where I'd spent ten gruel- ing days with Duke primatologist Carel van Schaik, trying to photograph orangutans. At first, we'd seen few of the animals. But finally, we came across a mother orangutan, Abi, and her offspring Ati, and I was trying to position myself to get a shot of them. But then along came Arno, the 300-pound male who's known as the king of Suaq Balimbing, the name of the Sumatran forest.

Despite his huge size, Arno moved effortlessly through the trees following a female he was interested in, and chasing the other males out of his way. I hadn't seen this kind of activity before and, since they were probably only thirty feet off the ground twenty feet away, I decided to get close enough to shoot tight photographs of just their faces.

I waited for Arno to move into a sunlit area, and when he did, I braced myself on a small tree to steady my camera. Suddenly, two of the Indonesians with me began urgently whispering, "Chris, hati, hati!"--which is Sumatran for danger. But I was involved in the shoot and the framing and composition of my subject. I didn't realize I'd moved closer than I should have to the courting Arno. At that point, Arno climbed onto a large, rotten tree about forty feet tall. While holding onto another tree, he began rocking back and forth, issuing deep, angry grunts. And the more he rocked, the more that tree began to sway back and forth. I heard one of the Indonesians again shout, "Hati, hati!" At this point, they had scrambled away because they knew something was about to happen. But I remained, wrapped up in my shooting.

Then Arno kicked away from that tree, snapping off a fifteen- or twenty-foot section that fell right at me. I didn't know what was happening at first, only that he had suddenly moved out of my frame. It's a lot like shooting a football game and not seeing the looming football player until he fills the frame. By the time you look up, it's usually too late. So when I looked up, the tree was in midair coming at me.

It all seemed to happen in slow motion. I had a choice to go left or right, because I couldn't go backwards. I couldn't outrun it: I was weighed down by fifteen pounds of gear and, of course, I was standing in a swamp. The little sapling I had been leaning against blocked the way to my left. I looked up again and the tree was almost on top of me. So all I could do was dive to my right into this tall, razor-sharp saw grass, cradling the camera lens against my body, almost like a football player diving into the end zone.

Behind me, I heard the crash. I turned and looked, then looked down at my legs to see the huge stump lying across the top of my calves, but suspended only two or three inches above my legs by a couple of tree roots. My eyes were as big as saucers. I would have been in deep trouble if I'd had to be hauled to the nearest hospital, days away, with two broken legs.

At that point, Arno gave a "long call" at me--a deep, loud grunt that resounded within his large cheek pouches. He was warning me to get the hell out of his area. I wanted to stand up and do a defiant long call back at him, but I certainly wasn't in a position to do so.

I had come to the isolated jungle camp ten days earlier after five days of travel from Durham that included a twelve-hour bus ride over winding mountain roads. Van Schaik had invited Raleigh News & Observer science writer Carolyn Dopyera and me to cover his latest expedition studying the orangutans of Sumatra. Specifically, we were trying to document the animals using tools, an important discovery by van Schaik and his colleagues.

By the time we lugged our equipment and baggage the last two kilometers up the steep hill to camp, we'd not only negotiated treacherous mountain roads and jungle trails but also negotiated the formidable Sumatran bureaucracy, spending hours with the local police getting permission to enter the park. The process included considerable bargaining by van Schaik, who'd become an expert at knowing when "gifts" of money were needed to speed the paperwork.

We found that the research camp was a tin-roofed wooden cabin in a clearing in the thick jungle beside a foul, brown river. Once we arrived, we settled immediately into an arduous daily research routine that began with a predawn breakfast of rice, potatoes, and carrots. (This was also dinner!). Afterward, we would immediately set off into the jungle along a narrow boardwalk leading into the orang's habitat. I thought at first that the boardwalk would make traveling easy, until I realized it reached only a short way into the jungle. We spent most of our time wading through a swamp infested with leeches while being bombarded by clouds of bees, biting flies, and mosquitoes.

I was slow and clumsy, but van Schaik could move very quickly through the swamp, avoiding the treacherous tree roots, and many times leaving me trailing far behind. As he walked, he would stop, cock his ear to a noise, and watch the tops of the trees. Even if he couldn't see an orangutan, he could tell by the way the trees moved whether the animals passing through them were large or small primates. He was tuned into the orangutans' fairly slow and methodical movements through the trees. They didn't whip through the trees like the gibbons.

All the while van Schaik filled out data forms tracking the orangutans. He and his colleagues would spread out, recording the time and direction of the long calls. Later, they would coordinate their data to get an overview of the animals' activities.

We wouldn't quit until the orangs had nested for the night. By the time we got back to camp, we were so soaked from perspiration and the swamp that we couldn't wait to get down to that river, even though we knew the village upstream used it as a sewer. The baths were cooling, but they didn't help relieve the insect bites or the raging, itching, blister-studded rash I got from grabbing onto trees that had poisonous sap. I quickly learned the Indonesian word for itch was "gatal," and I quickly became known in the camp as Gatal, because I screamed the word quite often. At least, I didn't come down with the terrible foot rot all the natives had from standing in swamp water all day.

Van Schaik ignored all these hardships. He was so energized by being in the jungle with the orangs that he just didn't let himself get caught up in the problems. He was very thin, probably because of the rice-and-potato diet, but he had incredible stamina--always the first one up, the first one out in the swamp, and the last one to go to sleep. He had a passion for his work that I've never seen. For example, he cut his shin one day, but continued wading through the swamp, letting it bleed until he got back to camp eight hours later. During our expedition, he lost only one day to intestinal sickness, while other researchers came down with such medical problems as malaria, cholera, typhoid, and protein deficiencies.

I learned a lot about dedication and courage during my short time in the Sumatran jungle. But the one lesson I shall never forget was the one taught by Arno. I learned that these intelligent animals are indeed fully capable of using tools. Even murder weapons.

Hildreth is director of university photography.

Back to contents page

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor