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Meet my red-haired relatives! Take a trip to Borneo, and join other girls helping animals around the world and right here at home.

I couldn't stop grinning with excitement and anticipation when I saw the yellow and green boat crewed by our smiling guides pull up to the dock. I'd been dreaming for months about our trip up the Sekonyer River to see the wild orangutans of Borneo and Camp Leakey, which helps protect the orangutans.

Ever since I heard of the dangers that orangutans face, I've wanted to help. I've given up palm oil to save habitat, and I've adopted a young orangutan named Bayat to support Camp Leakey--they'll send me photos and updates about him. Now I'd see the orangutans and learn firsthand how we can all protect them. My awesome guide, Rini, was a Muslim university student. She was talkative and curious, asking about my travels and life back home, especially my pet komodo dragons.

The palm oil industry is huge in Indonesia, the world's largest producer. Check it out: Palm oil is probably on the ingredient list of cookies, crackers, soaps, and shampoos that most of us buy. Huge patches of the Borneo rainforest are cleared to plant the oil palms, which will only produce for 20 years. The trees will deplete the soil, and nothing will grow after the nonproductive trees are removed. The plantation owners see orangutans as pests, killing them or selling the babies. Any orangutans that escape being murdered or kidnapped face the loss of their habitat.

We board the boat we'll be living on and glide through the murky, tea-colored river toward our first stop, an orangutan feeding station. Rini led me through the dense warm forest, which seemed to embrace you with its ancient, protective arms. She points out healing plants and herbs. "That one there prevents malaria--the orangutans eat it too," Rini says. "And this one's for mosquito bites." This forest is a giant, natural, free pharmacy--for humans and its animal inhabitants. It's being destroyed by palm-oil plantation owners and illegal loggers. The government there promises to help, but we'll see if it happens.

I hear yodeling, which I learn is the guides calling for the orangutans. We walk to a clearing, and I'm dismayed to see rows of benches and a roped-off platform covered with bananas. "It's like feeding time at the zoo," I whispered to my mum. I soon felt better as our red-haired relatives swung down through the trees to grab bananas in their mouths and then scurry away. The thing that amazes me is their eyes. They have soft brown eyes that seemed ancient and sad and so human. They would stare at you, making eye contact for a brief moment that stretched out forever.

The next day, we visit another feeding station. Rini pointed out orangutans, telling us their names, ages, and a bit about them. Many were the children or grandchildren of the orphaned orangutans that Canadian scientist, conservationist, and educator Birute Galdikas had rehabilitated and introduced back into the wild.

The way the orangutans swung from tree to tree was incredible. They would climb to the top of a bendy tree and then fling their weight to one side, causing it to lean over and allowing them to grab the next tree. They looked like the world's hairiest acrobats. Some of the young ones were still gangly and awkward, but the older ones were skilled and graceful. They were perfect and beautiful, and I felt so lucky to be able to see them.

Next stop: Camp Leakey, where people from all over the world come to see the ginger apes. Things got interesting--our friend Sarah got peed on by a young and mischievous orangutan! A mother, Uning, came with her two babies. She was 19 years old, and her oldest baby would be ready to leave her in a year or two. Uning saw a wild pig, picked up a stick, and whacked it. Aggressive pigs come to the feeding platform, and have killed several baby orangutans by goring them.

Then we watched as Uning taught her five-month old baby (left) how to climb. She gently pried her baby off her back, and wrapped the infant's arms and legs around a low branch. Her baby reached out with both hands and feet, trying to find its mother again. The baby's face wrinkled in despair when it realized its mother was serious about the whole climbing thing. Uning pushed her child up through the trees, ignoring the baby's grasping hands.

Suddenly, a man pushed in front of everyone, pointing his ridiculously huge camera at Uning. (Seriously, the camera was just silly; it looked like a missile launcher). Everyone sucked in their breath as he began to take rapidfire flash pictures of the orangutans. His guide placed a hand on his arm and requested that he stop using the flash, as it disturbed the orangutans and was against the park rules. The man shook him off, shouting, "You're not a ranger--get out of my way!" He got much closer than you were supposed to and continued to take pictures. So I stepped up.

"One of the basic park rules is no flash photography of the orangutans. You're scaring Uning and her baby," I told him. He looked at me disdainfully, and said, "Show me the sign, little girl." Now I was angry. "You need to learn about respecting the beautiful creatures that we have all come to see, along with respecting the people that protect them," I said. "Stop frightening the orangutans." He blustered a bit, but stopped and stomped off. Our guide, Rini grabbed my hand tightly, possibly to prevent me following him and ranting at him a bit more.

Next I heard a commotion and murmurs that "Tom's coming!" Tom (right) is the alpha male of Camp Leaky, and he's huge and furry and extremely orange. He came striding down the trail, looking very rockstar-like with a shaggy haircut and giant cheek pads. He settled on the feeding platform, his back to the crowd, and ignored everyone.

We were one of the last groups to leave, and I was so happy that we had gotten to see both Tom and Uning. The orangutans were so amazing and seemed to show such strong emotions as they reacted to the world around them. Uning seemed proud and a little sad when her baby got the hang of climbing, and protected her group by whacking the wild pig. Every so often, the orangutans would stop and look at us. It was so easy to see just how similar to us they really are.

Maia, 13, British Columbia, is sailing around the world with her parents. She enjoys reading and scuba diving.

Visit to learn more. You could rent the video "Born to Be Wild 3D"--it's all about how Birute saves orangutans and how another shero, Dame Daphne Sheldrick (right), saves elephants in Africa. Invite animal-loving friends, serve tropical smoothies, and raise funds for animals!
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Author:Selkirk, Maia
Publication:New Moon Girls
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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