Photo credit: ©Theo Allofs
Yes, a real princess. She is the gorgeous red head in between my forest guide Kasri and me. She came out of the forest and grabbed our hands while we were walking. It’s hard to see, but she has a young infant on her chest. Princess is not ONLY a real princess, but she is a celebrity. National Geographic, BBC, CBS and others have come to Borneo to meet her. When I met her in 2009, she was already 34 – 35 years old. Like many other orangutans, Princess has a sad story. Princess’ mother was killed by poachers when she was an infant in order to sell her into the illegal pet trade that is still active today. She was later rescued by Dr. Birute Galdikas’ team. Dr. Galdikas is one of the three Trimates who trained under Dr. Louis Leakey and she still today dedicates her entire life to orangutans.
Dr. Leakey trained and mentored these three great women who studied the planet’s three great apes: the late Dian Fossey (mountain gorillas), Jane Goodall (chimpanzees) and Birute Galdikas (orangutans). Today, Birute Galdikas’ work continues to save these endangered apes.
Princess is one of her success stories. After Princess was rescued and rehabilitated, she flourished. Princess was a happy and amiable orangutan and like other orangutans, was highly intelligent. So much so that a study was conducted by Dr. Gary L. Shapiro to teach Princess American sign language. Her linguistic and learning capabilities were remarkable. She learned nearly 40 signs while living freely in her natural environment. According to recent research by the psychologist Robert Deaner and his colleagues, orangutans are the world’s most intelligent animal other than humans, with higher learning and problem solving ability than chimpanzees, which were previously considered to have greater abilities.
Here are a few stories about Miss Princess: when one research scientist arrived in the rain forest to study the orangutans, he was struggling to open the door to his hut with his key. Then came a loud crashing sound behind him out of the forest. A large female orangutan came walking directly toward him. When the orangutan approached the front of his hut, she took the key out of the researcher’s hand. She quickly and easily put the key in the lock, fumbled for a few seconds and opened the door. She walked inside the hut in front of the researcher, slammed the door in his face and locked it behind her. He was stupefied. What to do next! After trying to listen as to what was happening inside of his “hopefully” new accommodations during his research time, the door abruptly opened and the orangutan made way past him and went back into the forest. He then entered his hut to discover that the orangutan raided the fruit bowl that was left for him (as a welcome) on the table. Empty banana peels, as well as other peels were left there to greet him instead. This was his first meeting with Princess.
When Theo and I arrived in Camp Leakey several years ago, we lived aboard a Klotok – a motored river boat that gets its name because when it is moving it makes a sound like “klok tok tok tok” on the river. We lived on that boat and we would anchor it across from orangutan habitats – to avoid being boarded!!! Each day we would motor over to the dock where we would enter the forest to photograph. When we first arrived, I noticed that there was a sunken dugout canoe on the bottom of the river at the dock where we would unload. I asked my forest guide Kasri about this canoe. What was it doing there at the bottom of the river? He said, “Oh that is because of Princess. We guides use this canoe to paddle down to our villages. Princess starting stealing the canoe when we were not there. With her baby, she would take the canoe, and using the paddles she would paddle up and down the river. She would sit in the canoe and eat from the sides of the river so that she didn’t have to go through the forest. When she had enough to eat, she would throw the paddles over board and jump out of the canoe letting it drift a long way down the river. We got tired of looking for it so we decided to sink it to keep Princess from stealing it!!
I hope she is still there. I would love to see her again…..