Photographing wildlife & orangutans in Borneo

Photographing primates from dawn until dusk

When you look into an orangutan’s eyes, you can see why their name translates from both the Malay and Indonesian as ‘person of the forest’. It is hard to know if you are looking into their souls or if they are looking into yours. One thing you won’t be doing, however, is stealing their souls by taking their photographs. You will actually be contributing massively to protecting their indigenous landscapes, in this case the rainforests of Borneo, because this island and Sumatra are the only two places in the world where they exist. And with profits from our unique orangutan photography holiday going straight to the Orangutan Foundation, it is likely that their unique longcalls would be resonating out merrily across the rainforest canopy in celebration of every tree that is planted or dollar donated to research, in exchange for a photograph or two of their exquisite primate presence.

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Orangutan photography in Borneo

Orangutan photography in Borneo

Develop your photography skills in Borneo

From £2275 to £2465 10 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2019: 22 Oct, 7 Nov
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Why are orangutans special?

The chances are, if you find yourself reading this, you are a wildlife lover already, so you won’t need a reminder that orangutans are a critically endangered species. There are fewer than 80,000 left in the wild, which is about half of the amount from 100 years ago. The biggest risk to their survival is habitat loss, with rainforest still being dramatically decimated for palm oil plantations and illegal logging. There are three species of orangutans: the Bornean (the most prolific and the one which you will see on this holiday), the Sumatran and the Tapanuli. But at the current rate of habitat loss, it is thought that they could be extinct in the wild within 50 years.

Endangered but not elusive

The good news story is that in Tanjung Puting National Park, the rainforest location for photographing orangutans, it is almost hard to imagine that these exquisite creatures are so critically endangered. Being guided by professional photographer Ian Wood, who has been leading wildlife photography tours here for over 15 years, alongside Ashley Leiman (OBE), director of the Orangutan Foundation, you will have a couple of the world’s experts at your fingertips. As well as two people who just love and are wholly committed to what they do.

Ian Wood, photography guide and founder of our supplier, A Good Place:
“We are doing a massive planting scheme and every guest personally plants one tree while they are there. I also have a close link with one village in the national park, which has about 350 people. I find out if they have any specific needs in terms of donations, from technical gear to clothes, books or games – they are really into badminton so they love to get shuttlecocks. And then in the pre-trip information I give a list of current requests. They told me that they would love a laptop for the village, and one of our guests arrived with a two-year-old MacBook Pro!“

During a 10-day trip, with seven days exploring the rainforest around your lodge by boat and on foot, you will see not only get a chance to see orangutans but also several of the seven primate species living in these forests. Because you are being guided by orangutan conservation experts, you gain access to areas that are often off limits to other tourists. And of course, you are also giving back, with all profits from the holiday going towards conservation but also by supporting community members who work in the lodge or as guides and conservationists.

Tanjung Puting National Park

Ian Wood: "There is a lot of fantastic wildlife in Borneo and Tanjung Puting National Park, but everyone loves the orangutans, so we can use them as a keystone species to raise awareness about all the wildlife there and the importance of protecting the biodiversity, for other primates, mammals, birds and insects."
In southeast Borneo, this national park is not only home to 4,000 orangutans, but also proboscis monkeys, gibbons, 260 species of birds and 17 reptile species. Stay in a rainforest lodge, get to know the Sekonyer village community, explore the rainforest from sunrise until sunset on a traditional wooden klotok boat, or trek through the road free, wildlife rich paradise.

Geographers define Tanjung Puting as a vast but vulnerable coastal tropical heath and peat swamp forest. We describe it as a world of crimson sunsets, where primates greet you on the river front and where the unpolluted sky explodes with stars as you gather with your group after a fine Indonesian supper. Quietly musing muse over shots you took, or intimate wildlife sightings that simply shook you.

The sights that shake you

With seven days to explore the park, the chances are you will have many, many intimate wildlife sightings, with plenty of orangutans coming to say hello. Seeing orangutans in their natural habitat feels like a very personal experience. They often just stare back at you, or run up trees and give wonderful dancing displays as they swing from branch to branch in search of fruit. The purely wild orangutans can be a little more shy, naturally, but there are plenty of orangutans in this national park which have been cared for by the famous Camp Leakey Research Center, which you will also visit. After being released into the wild, they need to be given some supplemental food as their hunting skills may not yet be up to scratch. Consequently, there are a few feeding stations in the park, and these are great spots to see gatherings of the great forest men, and women, and babies.

Orangutan photography vs. gorilla photography

Ian Wood: “There are two very important tips when teaching photography: get to know your subjects really well, and photograph them again and again so that you can improve on your work. With so much time spent among the orangutans, you can achieve both those things on this trip.“
Just because they are both primate photography holidays doesn’t mean that photographing mountain gorillas and photographing orangutans are the same in any way. The main difference, apart from the species of course, is time spent among the animals. In Uganda and Rwanda, the time spent with gorillas is strictly limited to one hour. Permits are very expensive and so most people only take one trek to see them. In Borneo, our orangtuan photography holiday allows you to have total immersion in the rainforest for seven days, and there is no limit on the time spent amongst the orangutans when you see them. Naturally, responsible wildlife watching practices are always respected on this holiday.

Rainforest lodge

It is a pretty long journey to get to Tanjung Puting National Park, taking two flights, a car journey and then a boat trip. But when you arrive at Rimba Lodge, you will find a restorative place like no other. It may not have the frills of a luxurious African safari lodge, but you have a traditional wooden lodge, adjoining pavilions with en suite double rooms, air conditioning and verandas. There are 35 rooms in total, a restaurant with wonderful Indonesian food and of course the lodge is eco, with everything solar powered. Rimba is on the banks of the Sekonyer River, right on the edge of Tanjung Puting National Park, so you can just fall out of bed into your boat to go wildlife watching at dawn. Or just lie in bed and listen to an array of birdlife, the cries of gibbons or the screech of macaque monkeys. In other words, it’s peaceful in a wild sort of way.

Photographic experience

Ian Wood: “I like the saying ‘unencumbered by experience’ – so, when someone is at the beginning stage of learning something, absolutely anything is possible. That makes it a very creative time, so I believe that complete beginners in photography can contribute to the group as much as someone who is experienced.“
You don’t have to be a professional photographer donning loads of lenses to go on this holiday. In fact some people just come with their phones and snap on those when they get a chance. Some guests are simply wildlife lovers who want to explore these unique rainforests and all the wildlife wonders that they are home to, with expert conservationists. Travelling in a small group of up to seven people, some will be semi or professional photographers, others might be beginners. Everyone is welcome. You don’t need super, top of the range cameras for this trip either, although enthusiasts will be able to make the most of working with their various lenses and techniques. However, because you get so close to wildlife, a standard Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera enables you to get perfect shots.
“The main thing that you need to enjoy this trip is a love of wildlife and a sense of humour! If you’ve got those, then you will be spending time with likeminded people, having unbelievable wildlife experiences. You are also contributing to the protection of the area, which is invaluable.“
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Victor Ulijn] [Photographing primates from dawn until dusk: Jorge Franganillo] [Tanjung Puting National Park: Fabrizio Frigeni] [Orangutan photography vs. gorilla photography: A Good Place] [Photographic experience: Ilya Yakubovich]
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