Kalimantan or ‘Indonesian Borneo’, occupies the giant’s share of central and southern Borneo, representing about three-quarters of the island. Formerly Dutch Borneo, colonial rule was established in 1863 and wound up in 1949 when Kalimantan became a part of the Republic of Indonesia.

A massive state, Kalimantan is split into five provinces: central, east, north, south and west. For the traveller it presents a challenge: it is huge with poor roads and undeveloped tourism infrastructure. These factors, along with continuing logging activity even in nature reserves, have kept orangutan tourism low in the region, despite the relatively high population of orangutans.

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Why choose Kalimantan to see orangutans?

The majority of Bornean orangutans today exist in Kalimantan, especially along the east coast. Yet tragically, most wild populations live outside of protected areas in forests that are exploited for timber production or are being revamped for agriculture.

Many of these areas are off-limits to tourists, along with a host of other sites, even extending to national parks, which apart from having no transport and other visitor facilities, have long been monopolised by forestry and logging companies.

The major focus, for tourists and conservation, thus falls on the one site in central Kalimantan that has been at the heart of orangutan conservation efforts since the 1970s: Tanjung Puting National Park.

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Where to see orangutans in Kalimantan

Tanjung Puting National Park

“One of the natural wonders of the world”, according to the UK’s Orangutan Foundation, Taman Nasional (National Park) Tanjung Puting is also one of the major hopes for the orangutan's survival.

It has been this way for some time. It was at Tanjung Puting in 1971 that leading orangutan authority Dr Biruté Galdikas established the Camp Leakey research station — an instrumental step in bringing the plight of the park’s most famous resident to worldwide attention.

Set amid the largest swathe of coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest, which used to cover much of southern Borneo, Tanjung Puting started out as a game reserve in 1935 before becoming a National Park in 1982.

The best way to experience the wonders of Tanjung Puting is on a traditional klotok (houseboat) puttering gently along Sungai Sekonyer as you search for pot-bellied macaques, hornbills and the odd crocodile. Starting from the Kumai river port in the central Kalimantan city of Pangkalan Bun, your guides will typically stop at three main feeding stations within the park, where you will get to experience semi-wild orangutans during feeding sessions. The best option for this is at Tanjung Harapan, but you’ll also stop at Pondok Tangui. Your final destination will be Camp Leakey, a 4-4 ½ hour journey upriver.

From the docking point, be prepared for a 45-minute walk to the first feeding platform at Camp Leakey, on a flat and well-maintained path. Here, as well as orangutans, you will see Bornean bearded pigs, gibbons and mangrove-loving proboscis. Camp Leakey is your best chance to see orangutans — most were released around here and stay close to the site. In general, orangutans around Camp Leakey are the most relaxed around humans. Look out for Tom, the camp’s alpha male (but if you do see him, be careful not to engage in a staring match).

Once feeding time is over, you can explore the camp’s excellent information centre. Tanjung Puting offers plenty of other activities including birding, hiking and wildlife tours — as well as cultural trips to remote villages.

Be aware that boat congestion on the river can be very high between July and September, which is one reason to consider visiting during low season months of November to April (it is also less expensive). This is the wet season, but heavier rains generally only fall in January and February. Tour guides recommend shoulder months for a mix of good weather and low crowds: October, December, March and June.

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Orangutan spotting in Kalimantan at a glance

Tanjung Puting Biodiversity Hotspot: The mangroves here teem with animal life, with sun bears, macaques, crocodiles and of course, orangutans.

Camp Leakey: Many tourists are seduced by the story of this groundbreaking orangutan research station, named after the legendary paleo-anthropologist, Louis Leakey. He was both a mentor and inspiration to Dr Biruté Galdikas as well as other famous orangutan primatologist-conservationists who worked here — Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey.

Klotok tours: Much of the charm of orangutan tours in Tanjung Puting tie in with the backwater river trips by klotok. The ramshackle multistorey vessels are used by locals to transport goods up and down the river.

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