I had always dreamt of seeing this planet's rarest primates for myself, and this dream was becoming increasingly urgent with the knowledge that they may only have a few years left: with fewer than seven hundred mountain gorillas and only a few thousand orangutans left in the wild, time is running out for our close cousins. I decided to take a trip across two continents, top and tailed by big hairy monkeys.
The endangered orangutan lives only on two Southeast Asian islands, Sumatra and Borneo. Its population has decreased by eighty percent in the last twenty years alone. Incredibly vulnerable to habitat loss, the orangutan's future looks bleak as Indonesia's rapid development and accompanying deforestation continues apace.
Around half of the world's few remaining mountain gorillas inhabit the remote Virunga mountains. The Virungas are a strip of forest-clad volcanoes, spanning Uganda, Rwanda and Democratic Republic of Congo. These countries have hardly been famed for their stability in recent times, and in the ongoing battles the gorilla population is also suffering casualties, as guerrilla bands hideout in the national parks.
Visiting these two endangered species would be two very different experiences. Whilst trekking to the remote mountain gorilla is one of the world's ultimate eco-tourism experiences, semi-wild populations of orangutans are accessible only a few hours north of Sumatra's major city, Medan.
Costing $500, a gorilla trekking permit entitles you to one hour with the gorillas, assuming you find them at all. This will probably be the single most expensive activity that I will ever undertake. In contrast, entry to see the orangutans will set you back only £3. This relatively small entry fee is positive, as it permits access for local people and encourages their crucial participation in conservation projects. It is vital in helping to spread an understanding of the importance of protecting these majestic creatures, with whom we share 97% of our DNA. However, there seemed little to prevent tourists misbehaving, using flash photography, hand-feeding the animals, or trying to touch them.
A number of feeding platforms have been established in the rainforest near the village of Bukit Lewang, which are visited by wild and semi-wild rehabilitated orangutans. A small knot of local tourists had braved the monsoon rains with us, and waited behind a low wooden fence near the platform. Soon, a number of adults emerged from the forest all around, clambering through the treetops.
Some appeared more comfortable around people than others. The tamest sat comfortably on the platform, staring defiantly back at the tourists snapping photos of them. One in particular seemed adept at adopting the most photogenic poses, hanging King-Louis-like from creepers, before reaching a hand out toward the nearest person for a banana. Others were more suspicious and retreated well-away from us to enjoy their loot.