Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Close Encounters of the Ape Kind

It's 4:30am. Under a moonless sky, the forest sleeps silently, and the serene silence and vaccuum of darkness is broken only by the sounds of leaves crackling beneath our boots and the spots of light on the forest floor illuminated by our headlamps. 

Jenn, Caitlin, and I were on the search for a group of night nests, made the night before by a group of the orangutans: Bibi, her young daughter Barani, and big flanged male Codet. By the time we made it to the location of the nests, it was still as dark as dungeon...the only things visible were the sillhoutes of the leaves and branches above, and the ground beneath us gowing with the red lights from our headlamps. Red light bothers the orangutans less than the normal white light, and the last thing we wanted was to wake them up before they wished (because we all know how that feels). We sat down quietly beneath the tree, and turned off our lights. It was so dark that if I held my hand up in front of my face, I would 't be able to see them. Now were just waiting for their awakening.

We didn't have to wait long. Suddenly, I hear the crackling of branches breaking loudly above, and feel a great mass moving in the tree. Codet, the big male, had awoken. Within seconds, he lets out a reverberating series of grunts, finally climaxing into a sequence of long, deep notes of bellowing hoos. 

I had never seen nor heard an orangutan before, not even at a zoo. And now there I was, standing less than 15 feet under this huge beast in the dark, in the middle of the rainforest. And I felt his power. My first thought, more excited than scared, was "holy shit." 

I can't remember which author, but I heard someone once say that the scariest thing in the world that you can write about is not ghosts, monsters, murderers, giant spiders, or anything like that. It's a locked door. Because what's behind that locked door can be anything. It's not knowing what's behind that brings the suspense. 

I'm not saying that Orangutans are scary. But I think the sentiment I felt when standing under that tree was the same as that door analogy. It was dark, I couldn't see anything, but in my mind I knew there was this huge beast standing above me. The suspense as I started hearing those branches begin to break was insane, as this unknown beast of an animal, which I had no idea what it was like, was beggining to materialize into my existence, and become real. Those evolved behavioral responses for self-preservation, the physical responses to what we call fear, start kicking in, and your heart starts pumping, you begin to feel extremely alert, and the hair on your arms begin to stand up. It's just a powerful instinct that we can't avoid. And when those other-worldly sounds of his long call reached my ears, I felt him so huge and so close that I couldn't help but feel powerless in its presence. 

That was my first encounter with an Orangutan. In fact, that was my first time seeing an ape in the wild (besides the boring old ones like the ones reading this blog). Since the, I've seen many more orangutans, but that moment I will remember forever. 

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