This week a remarkable news item on Dutch television and in the news paper: “Dutch girl falls 20 meters down after attacked by orangutan”. A dutch girl visited Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, with 3 friend and they went on a 2-day jungle trek. The first day they were walking a very small and steep path and when they were almost up, the guide start screaming “Back, go back!!”, but the path was to steep to turn around and than Mina appeared. Everyone who has been to Bukit Lawang knows about Mina, the famous orangutan. Some call her naughty, some call her dangerous, but in the end you can’t blame her for her behavior. Why did Mina attacked these people? Food! Mina knows when there’s a group of people in the jungle, they carry food with them. Fruit, nasi goreng, Mina likes it all! In this case Mina came towards the group, the guide start struggling with her, another guide threw some bananas to distract her, she took the bananas and went up in a tree. Unlucky for the girl, a big branch broke and fell down, the girl lost her balance and she fell 20 meters down. In the end the girl didn’t blame the guides for this accident, in fact they saved her life, she said. She was only dissapointed by the fact they not give enough instructions before the jungle trek and she never realized a trek could be so dangerous.
I’ve been to Bukit Lawang several times and i do love this place. It’s one of the entrances to the amazing Gunung Leuser National Park, where you can spot orangutans and other wildlife in the wild, but not all orangutans are wild, some where raised by humans long time ago when there was still a rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang. Mina is one of them. Mina came to Bukit Lawang in 1979 when she was 3 or 4 years old, still too young to be separate from her mom. Probably her mom was shot and Mina sold as a pet when she was a baby. Not sure about that! In 1996 the rehabilitation centre closed, but the feeding platform, where the orangutans were fed twice a day stayed open. Even these days the feeding platform is open. Every day at 8.30 am and 3 pm tourist can visit the platform and have the chance to see orangutans. It’s the only place where it’s allowed to feed the orangutans and only by the keepers, no one else!!
If you ask me the biggest problem and the reason of Mina’s behavior is that a lot of guides (not all!!) do not respect the rules of the National Park. Especially the rules “Do not feed the animals” and “Keep distance from the animals”. They’re not only feeding the orangutans, they also feed the Siamangs, Thomas Leaf monkeys and other animals. Total irresponsible behavior. Why they do it? I think it’s all about money! The animals are trusting the guides, so they come close to get some food. Unkown tourist like it when orangutans come close. They like to make a selfie with them, touch them and even feed them and at the end of the day they give a good tip to their guide, because they had an amazing time. They don’t realise the small baby orangutan of the mother they just fed can die because of contact with humans. Once i did a jungletrek myself and we met a beautiful mother with a small baby, only a few weeks old. She came really close to all the people who were watching them. Not really natural behavior, because normally they stay high up in the trees. When most people left i heard a guide saying to his guest “Do you want to see them more close? If we wait we can feed them” I was furious!! And ofcourse i start arguing ;-) In the end the guide wasn’t even an official guide with a licence. How was that possible?
Mina is extremely smart and knows exactly how it works. When there’s a group of people on a jungle trek and Mina appears, a lot of guides are panicking. At the moment Mina “attacks” they’ve 2 options: 1. Leave the food behind for Mina and run for their life 2. Stay calm, try to keep distance and hope that she’s in a good mood and not too hungry ;-). She knows exactly which guide will leave food for her. I’m definately not saying all guides are irresponsible! But i’m saying there is a problem. Like I said you can’t blame Mina and it’s hard to change her behavior after all those years, but it’s important not to encourage this behavior to the other orangutans. The biggest dissapointment for me is that many local people, including people of the guide association, deny there’s a problem. I think Bukit Lawang can be very happy that the girl from the news survived this accident, but someone has to take responsibility that this won’t happen again.
I know i’m not the person who brings the change, but i do try my best to bring some awereness to the people who are planning to go to Bukit Lawang. The place is truely amazing and i will encourage everyone to go there, but if you want to go on a jungle trek, think about this story before you book that trekking. First talk to guides and you’ll find out what is the most important to them. There’re more than 100 of them and everyone is willing to take you on a trip with them. If you don’t have much time and you want some advice about responsible trekking or guides in Bukit Lawang don’t hesitate to contact me!
Realize that if you want to see orangutans really close you have to go to the zoo, this is the real jungle. No one can guarantee you to see wildlife, but a good and reponsible guide can really make the difference. Just enjoy your time in this amazing place, but never feed or touch animals and keep enough distance from them.