Despite successfully arguing that they are our nearest living relatives, Charles Darwin never encountered any of the great apes in the wild. Most of his five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle was spent in and around South America, and, although Beagle did eventually complete a circumnavigation of the globe, none of her ports of call were anywhere near the chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas of central Africa, or the orang-utans of Sumatra and Borneo.
Darwin's first encounter with an ape occurred on 28th March, 1838—a year and a half after Beagle returned to Falmouth. The ape in question was a baby female orang-utan, her name was Jenny, and she was the latest star attraction at London Zoo. Darwin, who had recently begun research on the transmutation of species was fascinated. In a letter to his sister Susan, he wrote:
Two days since, when it was very warm, I rode to the Zoological Society […] I saw also the Ourang-outang in great perfection: the keeper showed her an apple, but would not give it her, whereupon she threw herself on her back, kicked & cried, precisely like a naughty child.— She then looked very sulky & after two or three fits of pashion [sic], the keeper said, "Jenny if you will stop bawling & be a good girl, I will give you the apple.— She certainly understood every word of this, &, though like a child, she had great work to stop whining, she at last succeeded, & then got the apple, with which she jumped into an arm chair & began eating it, with the most contented countenance imaginable.—
Seventeen years later, in 1855, Darwin's future co-discoverer of evolution by means of Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace, was to encounter orang-utans in their natural habitat, in the forests of Borneo. He described the encounter in chapter 4 of The Malay Archipelago:
Just a week after my arrival at the mines, I first saw a Mias [orang-utan]. I was out collecting insects, not more than a quarter of a mile from the house, when I heard a rustling in a tree near, and, looking up, saw a large red-haired animal moving slowly along, hanging from the branches by its arms. It passed on from tree to tree until it was lost in the jungle, which was so swampy that I could not follow it. This mode of progression was, however, very unusual, and is more characteristic of the Hylobates [one of the four genera of gibbons] than of the Orang. I suppose there was some individual peculiarity in this animal, or the nature of the trees just in this place rendered it the most easy mode of progression.
The next orang-utan to cross Wallace's path wasn't so fortunate:
About a fortnight afterwards I heard that one was feeding in a tree in the swamp just below the house, and, taking my gun, was fortunate enough to find it in the same place. As soon as I approached, it tried to conceal itself among the foliage; but, I got a shot at it, and the second barrel caused it to fall down almost dead, the two balls having entered the body.
Skip forward another 151 years to 2006, and I am pleased to report that intrepid, young explorers are still encountering orang-utans in their natural habitat. Earlier this month, my partner Jen and I received a hand-written letter (remember those?) from Jen's nephew, Liam, who is currently working his way around the world after graduating from university:
After a night in Medan [North Sumatra] we headed to Bukit Lawang on a bus complete with live chickens and people sitting on the roof. Bukit Lawang is an Orang-utan sanctuary so the next day, with the help of a local guide, we were out on a treck [sic]. Not long into the treck we saw our first Orang-utan. With the fear of not seeing another the cameras were out. After 5 mins we walked away, safe in the knowledge the treck wasn't a waste of money, leaving a startled Orang-utan behind.
A bit further into the treck our guide suddenly stopped and asked if we could hear something. We gathered round and stood listening. We could hear a slight buzzing sound and then all of a sudden the guide ran off, a little confused we continued to stand listening and looking. As we looked at the floor we saw we were stood where some very large bees were making a nest. We were soon running through the jungle being chased by these very angry bees. At 1 point I did manage to glance over my shoulder only to see the bees had formed a cartoon style arrow pointing in our direction! Once we had reached safety we assessed the damage and everyone had received at least one sting to the leg, apart from the guide! Thankfully the guide gave us all a bit of banana to rub on the sting. My leg was still sore a week later so I don't know why the guide thought a bit of fruit would help. A few hrs later we were at the Orang-utan feeding station when all of a sudden the guide started running again. Where did we get this guy from? With the banana still sticky on our bee stings we didn't hesitate this time and started running straight away. Apparently we were being approached by the park's most violent Orang-utan.
I have seen the Great Barrier Reef, licked ants in the Australian rain forest, and stood on the Great Wall of China, but I got there the easy way: tourist class. I can't help wishing I'd been a bit more adventurous in my youth. But, if I had, I suppose, I wouldn't have been me.
Let's hope young explorers like Liam are still able to watch orang-utans in their natural environment in another 150 years' time. Somehow, sadly, I doubt it.