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Students in a long tail boat in Indonesia. Photo by Aaron Slosberg, Indonesia Semester.

Jungle Person

We didn’t step into the jungle. We were devoured by it.

Gunung Leuser National Park in Northern Sumatra is a primary rainforest, so the trees stretch higher than most necks can even crane. Giant Jungle ants creep along graceful Lilliana vines that strangle the giant tree trunks. Birds and insects make constant music.

Our fearless local guides navigate through the tangle of roots and mud as if it’s their own home. An hour into entering the jungle, our guide, Romi, turns around, lights a cigarette, and points to the ground.

“Orangutan pee,” he whispers.

We walk as quietly as we can, only given away by our heaving breaths and stench that some animals can apparently smell from miles away. Our eyes search the thick branches as we try not to tumble along the path. Romi stops again and his eyes widen at an orangey lump perched on a branch. He puts a fist to his mouth and starts making long kissing noises. The orangutan twists its head around, recognizing the call of its own kind.

A small orangutan baby leaps from its mother’s back to dangle from a thin branch. It munches berries as it eyes our deet-slathered, leech-socked troop. The morning sun illuminates the baby from behind, so it looks like a furry little angel with gaping black eyes. With a giant leap, it hurtles itself to the branch above us to peer down and mimic our motions. It looks like a human.

In fact, Orang Hutan means “jungle person” in Indonesian language. The local guides treat these gentle creatures with respect, unlike the rest of the world.

Gunung Leuser is one of the last habitats on Earth for the orangutan. Mass deforestation and the palm oil industry have destroyed most primary rainforests like this one, and left the orangutan as an endangered species. These precious forests and all of their diverse, beautiful wildlife are burned, poached, and illegally logged. Chainsaws are cheaper than ever, and with little governmental protection, the rainforest is in critical condition, with a pack of local guides as its only advocate.

It’s easy to blame Indonesia, for “allowing” their natural treasures to be stripped away and destroyed, but as Romi’s father reminded us, America is one of the world’s largest consumers of palm oil.

I challenge you to go to your own local grocery store and take a peek at the shelves. How many of your favorite products contain palm oil? Look into your investments. Think about the industries you support, and the wonders you unknowingly destroy.

For three days, we lived in the jungle, camped among flying lemurs, hornets, flowers and vines. We trekked out bug bitten and awestruck, but sickened by our own world’s ignorance and selfishness. We all wonder, “what now?”