Wrestling With Orangutans: The Genesis Of The Rimba-Raya REDD Project

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By Steve Zwick

In 2007, businessman Todd Lemons had a hunch that anthropologist Birute Galdikas could help him rewrite the rules of conservation finance and save the Seruyan Forest. He followed that hunch to Borneo, where the two embarked on a five-year ordeal that would take them from the swamps of Kalimantan to the pinnacles of Indonesian society.

This story was originally published on Ecosystem Marketplace.

24 July 2014 | Todd Lemons hadn't wrestled since his days on the collegiate team at Sewanee: The University of the South, but he knew the playful look of an athlete ready to roll, and these adolescent orangutans had it in spades. They beckoned; he crouched. One of them lunged; he intercepted. The orangutan slipped deftly out of his grip and took Lemons's back, but then let go of him as Lemons gently rolled to the side. Soon another orangutan loped into the scrum, and Lemons found himself, at the age of 40, engulfed in a gaggle of rowdy adolescent red apes, all rolling and wrestling and  – yes – laughing.

“It was at once the most amazing experience of my life and one of the most heart-wrenching,” he says. “Amazing because they’re better than us in many ways: They’re generous and intelligent, but they're also naïve, and they have an amazing sense of humor.” Heart-wrenching, he adds, because they don’t belong in a care center.

Yet that's where they were: the care center at Orangutan Foundation International's (OFI) headquarters in Pangkalan Bun, on the island of Borneo. All of them were orphans who'd witnessed the murder of one or both of their parents, and all of them owed their lives to the woman he'd come here to meet: OFI founder Birute Galdikas.



 Todd Lemons and an orphaned infant

Todd Lemons and an orphaned infant.

Emotional Engagement

Lemons had shown up on Galdikas's doorstep unannounced just hours earlier, after flying in from Hong Kong on a hunch. That first spontaneous encounter with the orangutans provided what Lemons calls “an early point-of-no-return” – his first emotional engagement with the orangs of thehutan – the “people of the forest” in the languages of both Indonesia and Malaysia. It also provided Galdikas with an opportunity to learn a bit about this hyperactive businessman from Hong Kong who'd called her with a crazy plan to save the forest.

“I realized then that Todd loves the orangutans,” says Galdikas. “He still gets down and wrestles with them and rolls around like they do – it’s the most wonderful thing.”

Lemons would return to the care center scores of times in the coming years – sometimes alone, and sometimes with his Indonesian partner, Rusmin Widjajam, or with his American partner, Jim Procanik. Often they’d come for business, but as their effort to save the forest grew into an epic David and Goliath struggle that cost Lemons his savings, they’d come more and more to remind themselves what was at stake.

“In my darkest hours throughout our epic five-year battle, I went back to the care center many times to strengthen my resolve,” says Lemons.

Muddling Through It

Impressed by the way Lemons connected with the orangutans, Galdikas asked him to accompany her on a boat ride to Camp Leakey, the rescue facility she built in the early 1970s with the support of her mentor, primatologist Louis Leakey. Lemons soon found himself teetering along underwater balance beams that served as a sort of jungle boardwalk in the dry season – which this wasn’t.

“I was surprised at the grace with which Birute navigated the slippery, unseen boards knee-deep,” he says. “I kept slipping off and spent half my time up to my chest in swamp water.” It was, he says, a visceral re-connection with the elements he’d always sought as a child but only found intermittently as an adult.

“I got my start in the Amazon, but I’d spent the past five years of my life manufacturing widgets in China,” he says. “Now I was back in the forest with a meaningful purpose, with wild-born orangutans, and with a world-renowned scientist who had made the cover of National Geographictwice.”

It was, he thought, a life his grandfather would approve of.

 

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