As a child I once fled in terror through the palmetto forest in my central Florida hometown as a crazed dog chased me. Now, 25 years later, perhaps I was the unstable one, chasing wild orangutans through the jungles of Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island.
Our first two encounters with the apes had been splendid, spectacular, photogenic. Then Edi Hidayat, our guide, stopped and threw up his hand. He craned his neck and, leaning forward, searched the jungle canopy. The May afternoon sun was nearly a phantom beyond the shroud of foliage, but it painted each of the thousands of leaves a different green. A film of sweat and mist encased our skin. Vines and trunks seemed to descend from the canopy to the ground. The distant grunt of a hornbill, like an angry boar, resonated beneath the canopy and into my thumping heart. Edi whipped around. “Go!” he snapped, frantically waving his arms at the hill behind us. “It’s Mina. Go back!”
I eased back two steps. “Go,” he said again, and his eyes, which before had been dark slits above wide cheekbones, now bulged white. We scrambled up the hill behind his son, Rendi. “Not stopping,” Edi yelled, “moving fast.” Rendi, a muscle-packed 20-year-old, pulled us over high roots and rocks. Our breathing and the thud of our boots stomped out the jungle’s noises. Once at the top, Rendi led us into an alcove among trees whose mossy root flares rose above our heads. His eyes popped; his bare stomach heaved. He told us to stay put before darting down the hill to help his father. With sweaty hands and jumpy eyes, we stood in attentive fear, searching the canopy.
We did not know Mina’s track record at the time. Even when our eco-lodge receptionist asked that morning if we were going to see Mina, an aggressive orangutan and “Queen of the Jungle,” we laughed. When we walked out the door to begin a three-day trek through Gunung Leuser National Park and he said, “Be careful,” we thought, Overprotective.
What brought me to Bukit Lawang, North Sumatra, was the chance to see wild orangutans in their habitat. They are some of humans’ closest relatives, sharing 96.4 percent of our DNA. The word orangutan is a compound word from the local language’s orang, meaning people, and hutan, meaning jungle, i.e., jungle people. Early Europeans arriving in these areas reported that the locals said orangutans could talk but refused to do so because they knew they would be put to work.
Somewhere in the blurry line separating humans from other animals may be the secrets of our origins, our cohabitation, and our survival. Yet the orangutan is one of the most endangered species on the planet. Each year, humans destroy thousands of acres of the orangutans’ homes for logging, mining, building roads, and, more than anything, growing oil palms. The previous day, as Edi was driving us the three hours from the airport toward Bukit Lawang, he pointed out the palm oil factory, a metal cube and smokestacks close to the village. “Good for business,” he said. “Really bad for the environment.” His neutral tone left one guessing whether he supported it, hated it, or accepted it like mud on the house.
After a half-hour among the root flares, our breathing and anxieties had calmed. Rendi returned and gave us the OK. His eyes had regained their natural shape beneath thick black eyebrows. We eased down the hill until we saw Edi. He leaned with one hand on his bent knee and the other hand holding a cigarette between silver-ringed fingers. He stood at the edge of the trail with his back to us, staring into the branches. One hundred fifty feet away and 60 feet up, an orangutan watched us. “That’s Mina,” he said, pointing with his cigarette. She sat too far away to discern, and we passed too quickly to try.
“But why,” I asked, when I felt we were beyond Mina’s reach, “were we running from Mina and not from the others?”
Edi laughed. “Because Mina’s not like other orangutans.” For the rest of the afternoon, as we hiked through the jungle, neither the long-tailed macaques, Thomas leaf monkeys, wild peacocks, trains of leaf-cutter ants, nor turtles in the transparent stream captivated us; only Edi’s stories of Mina did. He explained how someone had trapped her as an infant and kept her as a pet for three years, likely killing her mother. Then Mina was taken to the Bohorok Orangutan Centre at Bukit Lawang, which rehabilitated formerly captive orangutans to be released into the wild. While one of the Centre’s workers tended to Mina, the young orangutan tore off her tank top and tried to suckle the woman’s breast. When nothing came out, Mina bit the woman’s breast off.
Edi also told of a fellow guide who tried to impress female tourists by mocking Mina. She choked him nearly to death and bit his shoulder. Two weeks later, the man headed into the jungle with a machete, intent on killing her. For three nights the man hunted her, but she hid. She wasn’t only smart, Edi explained, tapping his head; she could sense what humans were thinking.
Meijaard and colleagues estimated that between 2,383 and 3,882 orangutans have been murdered by humans every year for the past 80 years.
Beyond Edi’s stories, multiple reports of Mina attacking guides and trekkers led the Gunung Leuser Ecotourism Development Programme to attempt to relocate Mina and two other aggressive orangutans to areas deep in the National Park, far from trekking routes, in 2011. Two blowgun tranquilizers pierced her skin, but Mina fled into the trees before the anesthesia could sedate her. The Programme aborted the mission, leaving Mina to terrorize tourists from the canopy.
With two other groups of trekkers, we camped that night by a stream. Edi assured us that Mina would not come down to the low-lying water because she had no advantage there. When he had retired, Rendi and two young guides produced Bintang beers that had been cooling in the stream. They invited us to drink, play card games, and sing songs around candles they placed inside empty plastic water bottles. After a few lukewarm Bintangs, the tent now filled with the scent of burning plastic, they led us in a song called ”Jungle Trekking in Bukit Lawang,” set to the tune of ”Jingle Bells.” The last line was “See the monkey, see the Mina; everybody run!”
After breakfast we put on our clothes, still damp from the day before—hanging on ropes all night had not dried them—and followed Edi out of the campsite. A few minutes into the hike, Edi said he thought we would see Mina today, which produced in me a nervous laugh.
Two hours later we stopped on a hill to rest, drink water, and eat passion fruit, bananas, and oranges. The slide-whistle calls of gibbons and the laughing caws of distant birds rose with the morning steam from the canopy below us. Edi stood at the edge of the hill with cool patience, looking down into the trees for her.
Orangutans rarely exhibit aggression. A 2014 study by Dr. Katja Liebal and colleagues showed that out of chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans, only the orangutans exhibited altruism, readily offering a tool that could help another member of their species get at food that was otherwise out of reach. Altruism has also been scientifically observed in 12-month-old humans and has been documented to increase throughout early childhood. Yet we frequently observe altruism’s absence on the streets of our towns, the instinct subjugated to ego and greed, achievement and pride. What could cause a human to subdue his innate altruism? Could the same have happened to orangutans like Mina?
Certainly the capture and confusion that surrounded Mina’s youth could have fueled her aggression. Yet her legends, the fear she inspired in villagers, gave her a larger aura, as though her aggression was not rooted in her personality but her species’ struggles. A 2010 study of historical documents estimated that orangutan sightings declined from one every two days in 1850 to one every 13 days in 2005. The study, by Dr. Erik Meijaard and colleagues, named hunting as an important cause of species decline. In addition to habitat loss, which discourages breeding and regeneration, hunting continues to lead the causes of orangutan death. According to one survey, led by Dr. Jacqueline Davis, 44,165 orangutans have been killed by humans in Kalimantan (Borneo) in the past 80 years, a staggering number considering that today the there are only about 40,000 living on that island today. Another study by Meijaard and colleagues estimated between 2,383 and 3,882 orangutans have been murdered by humans every year for the past 80 years.
I stepped closer and snapped pictures. Mina dropped a knuckle to the ground and squared her shoulders to me.
The main reason respondents in the Meijaard study cited killing orangutans for was food. Yet human-orangutan encounters in conversion areas, land that has been or is being converted from jungle to plantation, correlated highly with killing. Logging, paper, and oil palm plantations are squeezing the habitats of orangutans and pushing humans into their space. Orangutans descend to the crops for food. Humans kill them.
Killing of orangutans in the Meijaard study was found to be lower among those with knowledge of Indonesian laws protecting the animals, but the study found no difference between those who reported killing and those who did not in knowledge of local customary laws that prohibit orangutan killing. In these remote areas where enforcement is difficult and costly, customs often trump the government.
Knowing this history, it’s a wonder that orangutans resist attacking humans every time they encounter them. Mina’s struggle was individual, but it was also for her species. She was a true queen, one that was fighting for her kind.
In the trees down the hillside before me, the leaves began to shake. A burnt sienna mass appeared between the green splotches. “Here,” I said. “Orangutan.”
Edi rushed over. He squinted, craned his neck, and said, “That’s the baby.” A few seconds later, he said, ”Mina’s there,” pointing to his right.
Across the hilltop, 15 feet away, perched the muscular mass of fiery hair, long, powerful arms, black knuckles folded on the ground: Queen Mina.
We stepped back, but Edi told us not to worry, that she would not attack here because there were too many escape options for us. Mina’s eyes were small, and the lower eyelids sagged in the center. Deep creases crossed her brow. Her heavy lower lip jutted above her drooping orange beard. Her expression told me that she knew fear and suffering, love and loss.
Suddenly she lifted an arm and unrolled her thick black fingers toward Edi. He ripped his backpack off and dug inside it, producing a stick of sugarcane and offering it to her. In 25 seconds, she had chomped, swallowed, and demanded more. Edi obliged with a quarter of a watermelon, then another, then more sugarcane.
I stepped closer and snapped pictures. Mina dropped a knuckle to the ground and squared her shoulders to me. Her eyes caught mine. The heavy weight of her chest pushed forward. I gulped, lowered the camera. Edi slapped two sticks of sugarcane together and laid them before her.
She flicked her eyes at Edi, then the cane, then me. “Go,” Edi said. “Slowly.” Mina snatched the sugarcane and sat.
As we backed away, Edi laid the last of the cane and watermelon on the ground before Queen Mina. He opened the backpack and shook it upside down before her. We eased toward the trail, keeping our eyes on Mina as she kept hers on us.
Mina showed neither anger nor pleasure at our being there; this was her life, and she had adapted to it by demanding food from the humans who walked through her home every day. The trekkers had sought the jungle to bring peace and nature to their world of office cubicles and concrete; guides had learned English songs and card games to encourage more foreign trekkers; and peasants had planted palm oil for income and hunted the animals for inexpensive sources of necessary food. Perhaps this is one of the great connections we have with each other: a need and ability to ease the life we inherit.
When we were down the hill, Edi caught up and told me, the trekker at the rear, to look behind now and then in case Mina should follow us. Though I wanted to see more of the queen, Mina never appeared again. We had given her what she wanted. She had no use for us now.