• July 17, 2014

Postcards From Borneo: Chasing Orangutans

Jessica Laman
Photographs by
Tim Laman

My boot slips in the mud as I chase down the hill after the orangutan. I duck under thorny rattan vines as I scramble over roots and rocks that jut out of the earth in the most unexpected places. We are chasing after a young female orangutan named Walimah as she charges down the steep slope. We are in Borneo at my mom’s research site where she studies wild orangutans and my dad photographs them for National Geographic.

Picture of a young female orangutan, Walimah
The young female orangutan Walimah, who Jessica has seen every summer in Gunung Palung.

The field assistants who work for my mom following orangutans have to get up at three in the morning to get to the orangutans before they wake up. The orangutans sleep in nests that they build every night out of leaves and branches up in the trees. Even though I love to follow the orangutans, I’m glad that we don’t have to stay out from before dawn till after dusk when they go to sleep. They are really cool animals and it’s funny when you see them behave in a way that is so similar to humans, like when they make ‘umbrellas’ out of lumps of leaves even though they probably keep less than two percent of the rain off.

Picture of Jessica and her brother Russell crossing a suspension bridge at Cabang Panti Research Site in Gunung Palung
Jessica Laman and her brother Russell cross the suspension bridge at the Cabang Panti Research Site at Gunung Palung.

But now, I’m slipping and sliding over the slick wet leaves, I grab small trees around me to keep myself from falling forward on my face as I race after Walimah as she sprints through the canopy. Even though we don’t think of orangutans as particularly fast animals, when they want to they can be super speedy. Finally Walimah decides to give us a break and settles down in a big tree overlooking the river at the bottom of the slope. I swat away a group of bees hovering around my head and pull my binoculars out of my backpack. I peer through them at Walimah. She is grabbing food with one foot and using her hands to shove it into her mouth. Unlike most mammals who have four feet, orangutans practically have four arms. All their limbs are long and their feet look a lot like hands. With longer fingers than humans on both their feet and hands, orangutans are perfectly adapted for swinging through the trees. If they want, an orangutan can hang upside down from a branch using only their feet.

Jessica and her brother Russell climbing vines like orangutans
Jessica and Russell Laman try climbing vines like orangutans.

I feel something in my boot so I pull it off, I take off my sock and find a big fat leech, a worm-like creature that climbs on you and then suck’s your blood. As I tug it off, a small stream of blood gushes out. I put my boot back on just as I hear a crash and the cracking of branches. I know Walimah is getting up again. I slip down a rock and follow my dad and brother, Russell, as they head down a part of the hill so steep it is practically a cliff. The next time she stops, it’s right over our favorite swimming hole, Big Rock. Walimah starts eating so that the peels of her fruit fall into the water. Unable to avoid temptation, my brother and I jump in. The water is fresh and cool and clean. Actually up here at camp the water is so clean that we drink straight from the river. I dunk under and swim along the rocky bottom.


Watch Jessica Laman explain how leeches function

It’s great to be a kid at Gunung Palung. I’m only ten and going into fifth grade next year, and this is my fifth time coming to the research site. I love visiting camp. It’s so different than back home in Massachusetts. Here in Borneo unexpected things are always popping up, things you never could have predicted. For example, as I finish writing this a snake has just started slithering behind the computer. And now dad is telling Russell to steer it with a radio antenna so it will go into the right place for a picture.

Picture of a snake sitting on a computer keyboard
The snake that was crawling around the computer work table in the research camp at Gunung Palung while Jessica was finishing writing this blog post. You can see the draft of this blog on the screen.

Over the coming weeks, Proof will be following the adventures of Tim, Cheryl, Jessica, and Russell in the rainforests of Borneo. Tim’s story on orangutan behavior will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic. Cheryl is a 2004 Emerging Explorer and has received grants from the National Geographic Society for her work with orangutans.

Related story: A Family Adventure Begins Anew
Related story: The Boat Trip Up River
Related story: The World’s Stinkiest (but Best) Fruit
Related story: The Best Swimming Hole in Gunung Palung

There are 33 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Talia camacho
    May 10, 2016

    may 2, 2016

    Dear Jessica,

    My name is Talia Camacho. I am a 5th grader at the Sherwood Middle School in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. I read about you and your family in my reading class. We read the article titled, “Chasing Orangutans” I think its really cool how you in your family go to Asia to study orangutans. I would love to go to Borneo.

    Why I want to go, is so that I see the life of an orangutan and research on them. I want to help and I know that only 50,000 orangutans are left in the wild, like the article said. I want to see them swing from vines and eat fruits too.

    Another reason why I want to go is, so that I can help and see all the animals. You said that all the animals were really cool, so I was hoping that see them. I also want to hear the sounds of animals. I really want to see a snake slither across my keyboard!

    The final reason I want to go to Borneo is so I can have fun! I really want to swing on vines, go over bridges and swim in warm water. I want to hike too! I love swimming and I love climbing trees. I think it would be super fun to go to Borneo!

    I hope that you have enjoyed my letter. And i really wish i could go there someday!
    Talia Camacho

  2. Sarah Wallace
    May 9, 2016

    Dear Jessica
    My name is Sarah, I am a 5th grader at Sherwood middle school Shrewsbury Massachusetts which is in New England I read all about you during reading class. We read the article entitled Chasing Orangutans.

    A few reasons why I want to visit Asia is because you seem like a very nice and good kid because you are respectful to the animals and I would love to meet you in person!

    It would be really nice to travel to all the way down to Borneo, Asia! It seems like a great place because of all the trees and because there are so many rainforests! I have never travled across the country before and it would be awesome to because Asia is across the country from where I live.

    Also I would love to see the orangutans and watch them jump tree to tree. I think orangutans are so cool and fasinating. Do you think they would like me because I really like them!

    I hope that you have enjoyed my letter.I wish for this to come true in the future!

    Sarah Wallace

  3. Maria Deoliveira
    May 9, 2016

    May 2,2016

    Dear Jessica,

    My name is Maria,I am a 5th grader at Sherwood Middle School in Shrewsbury,Massachusetts. I read about you and your family in reading class. We read the article entitled “Chasing Orangutans.” I liked reading about you and the animals. I would enjoy going to Borneo and observing with you and your family.

    One reason I want to go is that I love animals. I learned in the article that animals behave in ways that are so similar to humans. The Chimpanzees use sticks to “fish” the termites out of holes in the ground. Chimpanzees make there tools and use them there selfs.

    The other reason why i want to go to Asia is that I have never slept in a tent so I would enjoy sleeping in a tent. I read that you and you family slept in tents to keep the mosquitoes and other biting bugs away.

    The final reason that I want to go is that I would like to swing on vines and I would also like to jump in to the river with the water so clean. In the article it says “she loves hiking through tree’s swinging on vines,and diving into a river with water so clean she can gulp it down as she swims”.

    I hope that you have enjoyed my letter. I wish that some day these would really come true. Also I would love to meet your family some day.

    Maria Deoliveira

  4. Hannah Williamson
    May 9, 2016

    Dear Jessica,
    My name is Hannah, I am a fifth grader in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. I read about you in my reading class, we read the article entitled “chasing Orangutans.” I think it’s cool how you study orangutans and travel there every summer. Maybe I could come along and join in on the fun.

    One reason I would like to come along is because it would probably take a long ride on a plane to get there and I love going on planes, I also like traveling to long distance places. In the article it says, In 1992, Jessica’s mom set up an Orangutan research project in Gunung Palung. She has been traveling back and forth between Boston & Borneo ever since.

    The second reason when I’m there we might get entertained. In the article it says, She has seen how they move from tree to tree, like “olympic gymnasts” she says. They lean back on a flexible branch and-boing-slingshot themselves through the air. I love playing outside, and that would be a new experience for me, I have never done this before.

    Another reason i would love to go with you is, when I’m there we”ll probably study Orangutans. In the article it says, Jessica’s mother and her team are studying the diet of Orangutans and how it effects their behavior and ability to have baby’s. I like to study animals because I love them, and that would be a once in a lifetime experience for me.

    I hope that you have enjoyed my letter. I wish this will come true and I hope I could read more about you and you’r family. The article was relaxing and enjoyable to read.

    Hannah Williamson

  5. Tula Thuot
    May 9, 2016

    may 2, 2016

    Dear Jessica,

    My name is Tula Thuot. I am in 5th grade at Sherwood middle school in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. I read about you and your family in my reading class. we read the article titled “chasing orangutans”. I really enjoy what you and your family do. I would love to go there.

    One reason I would like to join you is you do field research. I love to observe animals and see there ways to live, especially animals you don’t see every day. Its really special that you get to do that.I think its also cool you get to take pictures of the animals and you get to keep them.

    The second reason I would like to come is that you do lots of activates. In the article I learned that you hike through the tees, swinging on vines, and being able to dive into a river with water so clean you can gulp it down as you swim. I think thats very amazing.

    Finally the last reason i would like to come to Asia is that you in your family sleep inside a tent. I think hearing the insects and or to the call of a gibbon or orangoutangs. this might wake me up but it also seem like it would help you sleep cause it seems southing.

    I hope you have enjoyed my letter. I would love to visit.
    Tula Thuot

  6. martha
    March 14, 2016

    awesome really cool information

  7. Paddy Flynn
    February 12, 2015

    When I was your age, I was unable to write as well as you do (actually, also in high school either), but as an adult I became a certified resume writer, an I discovered that there are a lot of adults who are unable to write as well as you do. Enjoy your time there and keep up the good work.

  8. france
    September 10, 2014

    Nice Blosg, Nice Research of Jessica..:). Thanks to show us.

  9. Caroline Onorato
    September 5, 2014

    Wow Jessica you did an outstanding job on your article I really enjoyed reading it with my family :]!

  10. Chuck Cannon
    August 1, 2014

    Hi Jessica. Great article. I’m on old friend of your parents and spent several years, long ago, at Gunung Palung. You made me miss those days. Fantastic that your parents are giving you such great opportunities!! Glad to see you’re making the most of it. All the best to your family, Chuck

  11. Joyce Knott
    July 30, 2014

    Wonderful story, Jessica. I love reading about your adventures. You write beautifully! I’m impressed that you so calmly watch the leach on your arm and the snake by the computer!

  12. wangdsv
    July 30, 2014

    wooow,love it.

  13. Noorah
    July 26, 2014

    I wish if I was there with you. Great post, I really liked it. I would love to such an adventures, But I won’t be calm about the leech as you were, you’re a brave kid

  14. Antonia Nelson
    July 25, 2014

    Jessica! Great post! You are so articulate, I felt like I was in the jingle experiencing everything you were. I also loved how calm you were while explaining the leach! Can’t wait to read more of your posts!

  15. Gordon Laman
    July 25, 2014

    Jessica, Great blog. 26 years since I visited Gunung Palung, and you made me feel like I was there again.

  16. Sophia C
    July 24, 2014

    hi jessica, i love your blog. hope your having a good summer!

  17. regina celly de noronha
    July 23, 2014

    adorei a minhoca! vou mostrar aos meus sobrinhos.

  18. wangxuri
    July 21, 2014

    I love this site; I love your story.

  19. Samuel
    July 21, 2014

    This girl is so lucky! I would have loved to live in the rainforest when I was 10! I still would!

  20. Michael
    July 21, 2014

    Great Article. What kind of snake is that?

  21. Greg Laden
    July 21, 2014

    Great article! Sheryl and Tim were in graduate school with me, and I and everyone else always looked forward to their return from various long term field trips to see what amazing new things they have discovered. Their work has added many things we did not know about primates and other things.

    The family that hangs out together … in this case HANGS out together!

  22. MengKuo
    July 21, 2014

    Awesome. please let me introduce myself . I’m from China . What I want to say it’s the differences of education that come from parents.When I was young , my parents prohibited me swimming in a wild river and let me not go somewhere wild danger ,but I always went some moutain and catched some insect and ate something wild with my younger guys. I miss my young time .But nowdays the children refuse to go out to see what is wild ,even they don’t know what the vegetables and the fruit look like and grow where(in the tree or underground).Insteadly, they play the computer and smart phone in the room . Second ,they live in the city , they don’t go to the countryside somewhere wild .And they can only see the pictures of the insect or some plant from books or computers.Sorry I’m not good at English ,I really want to express the development of technology and the civilization expending nagitively inflence our children in some aspects.
    Your amazing experience make me miss my childhood .I admire your ecourage .

  23. Joyce Yapp
    July 21, 2014

    Jessica, thank you for your wonderful post. I live in Sabah the northern part of Borneo. I went to see orangutans in wildlife sanctuary from a safe distance of course. And the snakes and leeches, they were always in my nightmares when i was young. You are braver than the most of us local people. Have a good time during your holiday. Best wishes to you and your family.

  24. Cheryl Knott
    July 21, 2014

    Dear Alez, We support many Indonesian students at our research site, and work with local communities to teach about orangutans and conservation. Please contact us at Yayasan Palung and we’ll try to help your visit the rainforest!

  25. Margie Singer
    July 20, 2014

    Jessica, I couldn’t be prouder of you. As your fourth grade teacher, I gave you many writing assignments that I hoped would be interesting and fun, but none can come close to the chance to share this amazing experience with the world. And how well you’re doing it! I can’t wait to read more.

  26. JR Cline
    July 20, 2014

    Amazing adventures. You are lucky.

  27. Mara Pina
    July 20, 2014

    Great article! The snake picture was very cool.

  28. Alez Hong
    July 20, 2014

    I feel sad that foreigners can visit research sites in Borneo more than locals can here. As a local, I have always wanted to visit research sites around Borneo to study the wildlife here but I do not have money and qualifications. Foreigners can easily make more money than us and study courses related to wildlife. On the other hand, Bornean locals earn too little and do not have opportunity to study wildlife-related courses. This is very unfair. We are blessed with such wonderful wildlife yet we have no choice but to depend on foreigners to study them.

  29. Gunung Palung Orangutan Project
    July 19, 2014

    For those who are interested in learning more about Cheryl Knott’s project and what kinds of research the family will be working on at Cabang Panti, visit our website! http://www.saveGPorangutans.org

  30. Phyllis & Ron Johnson
    July 18, 2014

    Jessica, You have the adventure spirit in you just like the rest of your family. Please keep sharing your amazing stories, we love to hear it.

  31. Robert Wydra
    July 18, 2014

    Thanks for all your commitment and the things you bring to my life. I so appreciate the images and the stories.

  32. Cynthia Knott
    July 17, 2014

    Outstanding article by Jessica Laman! The photos are amazing. Thank you for sharing your blog with the world!

  33. Rose and Wayne Tyson
    July 17, 2014

    Jessica, the fifth grade is the best grade of all; at your age people are at their smartest, your brains still able to absorb more, faster and more thoroughly than they ever will again–well, I can’t prove this, but after the 6th grade people change, so you have maybe another year or two to take advantage of this best (in a lot of ways) time of life. It is obvious from your writing that you are making the most of it.

    Rose and Wayne

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