Bukit Lawang, Sumatra is one of the most famous places to see orangutans in the wild. Thousands of tourists flock to this small village on the border of the Gunung Leuser National Park every year, drawn by the no-fail guarantee of getting up close and personal with a Sumatran orangutan.
While the Bukit Lawang orangutans are now wild-living, many of them are ex-captive; their behaviour is hugely different from that of truly wild orangutans. This fact, combined with the hordes of tourists wanting their very own close encounter, is a recipe for disaster.
Many guides are risking the lives of these critically endangered orangutans — and the safety of their guests — by allowing tourists to feed and touch them.
If you want to see wild orangutans in Indonesia, it’s essential you use a responsible guide or organisation who strictly follow safe guidelines for wildlife ecotourism.
Unfortunately, when choosing to do Bukit Lawang trekking, there are many out there who claim to be ethical, sustainable, and responsible but are clearly not.
It can be challenging for travellers to Sumatra to find a responsible guide. Many see the word “eco” and assume the best; others get sucked in by tall stories and clever spin.
Okay, we know it sounds a bit grim, but we’re here to help! Luckily, there are responsible organisations working very hard to do the right thing in Bukit Lawang.
If you want to go Bukit Lawang trekking to get close to, touch, cuddle, or feed an orangutan PLEASE keep reading, then ask yourself this question:
Is your bucket list more important than their lives?
In this article, we give you our best quick tips for choosing a guide you can trust, then dive deeper to explain why it’s so important to follow the recommendations of experts when jungle trekking in Bukit Lawang.
Quick Tips for Choosing a Responsible Orangutan Trekking Jungle Guide in Bukit Lawang
While we’d love to give you a long list of approved organisations and guides to choose from, we don’t live in Bukit Lawang and can’t monitor the dozens and dozens of businesses or individuals in the area.
That’s why it’s up to YOU to make sure you do the right thing. Use the following information, get online, and do your research – their lives are in your hands.
If you’re after a quick overview, here are our top tips, compiled with the help of primate experts, personal experience, and some truly responsible businesses in Bukit Lawang (scroll to the bottom of the article for our recommendations).
For more detailed information and tips about responsible orangutan trekking in Bukit Lawang, read the sections further below.
(Many of these guidelines are taken directly from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Guidelines for Ape Tourism)
Here’s How to Spot a Responsible Guide
1) They NEVER feed orangutans – or other wild animals – under any circumstances. (No, they don’t have “special permission” from the rangers; no, they don’t HAVE to feed them to manage their aggression. Just no.)
2) They maintain a distance of at least 10 metres from orangutans at all times.
3) They keep group sizes to a maximum of 6-8 people (the fewer, the better).
4) They don’t allow people to eat food in areas where orangutans are known to hang out.
5) They ensure food and drink is hidden when entering orangutan areas (or avoid taking it into the area altogether).
6) They advise guests not to open backpacks or bags in the presence of orangutans (get your camera out BEFORE you head into the jungle).
7) They don’t beckon to or call the orangutans to come closer (either by calling their names or by mimicking orangutan vocalisations).
8) They observe the orangutans for no more than 30 minutes (less if the orangutan’s behaviour indicates they should leave).
9) They take all rubbish — including food scraps — back out of the forest and dispose of it responsibly.
10) They don’t smoke in the presence of animals.
11) They avoid run-ins with known “problem animals,” and are experienced enough to read and understand orangutan behaviour to prevent aggression or potential danger (more on this below).
12) They either don’t allow sick people to come trekking OR at the very least, ensure unwell guests wear masks when animals are nearby. (Sick guests should double their minimum distance to 20 metres).
13) They understand and respect the orangutans’ boundaries; knowing when animals are stressed or upset and walking away are signs of a top guide.
4 Steps to Choosing a Responsible Guide
The tricky part is finding out if your chosen organisation/guide does all the things listed above before you book a trek with them. Many talk the talk but fail to walk the walk.
To help you make an informed decision, you need to do a little research. Here’s how:
1) Check their credentials
In Bukit Lawang, professional guides should be registered with the Indonesia Tourist Guide Association (Himpunan Pramuwisata Indonesia – HPI). Registration involves completing official training and passing an exam every two years, as well as paying fees.
When contacting potential guides, ask them to show you their HPI license either via screenshot or in person (it’s a small card that looks similar to a driver’s license.)
Please note that possession of this isn’t a guarantee that they will abide by the rules, but it’s a good first step.
2) Ask about their policies and guidelines
Responsible guiding companies will have a set of guidelines, which may be available on their website. If you don’t see one, ask about it. If they can’t provide you with even a basic list of guidelines around feeding or getting close to animals, cross them off your list. Guidelines should be similar to our 11 tips above.
3) Read reviews
If you’ve found a few potential guides, it’s time to get your detective hat on. Go beyond the reviews on their social media or website (which will obviously have a positive slant) and see if you can find more info on Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet, or other platforms.
4) Check social media
Get browsing on their social media accounts. Hit Instagram and look through old photos, stories, and videos to see if you can spot anything concerning. But don’t stop there; remember, some companies may only show you what you want to see. Often, if you hit up Instagram and search for people who have “checked in,” or tagged the company/guide, you will find a more honest representation of their behaviour from other guests.
Look at the way they interact with other animals, not just orangutans. If there are photos of them feeding or touching macaques or other wild animals, this is a red flag. Although these animals aren’t as famous as orangutans, they are still at risk of contracting diseases or being impacted by interaction with humans. If guides think it’s okay to feed a Thomas leaf monkey, they probably have the same attitude about orangutans.
What Should You Do if Your Guide Breaks the Rules?
While it can be awkward to call someone out — particularly someone who is meant to be an expert and who is watching out for you in the jungle — it’s important to step up and say something.
Ask them why they’re doing what they are doing. Chat about any of the things you’ve learned in this blog (or by reading other resources). Who knows, you might make your guide think twice and change their behaviour in future. At the very least, you’ll be one more voice sticking up for the orangutans.
If you feel they were uninterested or disrespectful, report them back to their manager or guiding association (if they have one.)
How are the Bukit Lawang Sanctuary Orangutans Different from Truly Wild Orangutans?
The History of Bukit Lawang Orangutan Sanctuary
From 1973 to 1995, Bukit Lawang was the site of the Bohorok Orangutan Center, where around 200 orangutans were rehabilitated back into the wild.
It was a soft release site, where staff helped ex-captive or orphan orangutans assimilate back into jungle life. For many years, visitors could go and view these orangutans at feeding platforms, where they were fed a supplementary diet.
Tourists came to see these orangutans, first in trickles, then in floods. And so was born the village of Bukit Lawang, and a move away from a conservation focus to a money focus.
Officials decided the Bukit Lawang site was no longer suitable for release in 1995, but the feeding platforms stayed put until 2016.
Nowadays, the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme continue to rescue and release dozens or orangutans every year. However, experts now recognise that tourism and rehabilitation are not a good mix; orangutans are released deep into the jungle away from people to maximise their chances of survival.
What Does Normal Orangutan Behaviour Look Like?
Not all orangutans in the Bukit Lawang area are ex-captive. The rehabilitated group now have several generations of offspring which are wild-born. Although their behaviour is more natural, they are still profoundly impacted by the altered habits of their mums.
There are wild orangutans in the area too, although most of them tend to spend time further away from the main trails. Some of these animals have become conditioned to the presence of humans – others haven’t.
As we’ve discussed in our blog, Top 6 Places to See Orangutans in Sumatra, Bukit Lawang is not your only option for observing orangutans in the wild.
However, it is the only place in Sumatra where orangutans willingly interact with humans.
Many people unfamiliar with orangutan behaviour don’t realise just how unnatural the situation is at Bukit Lawang. To give you an idea, here’s how normal, wild orangutans behave.
Wild Orangutans Stay in the Trees
Orangutans are the world’s largest arboreal mammal (that’s a fancy way of saying they live in the treetops). Their long arms, extended fingers and toes, and super flexible hips and shoulders are designed to move their large bodies effortlessly and silently through the canopy.
Wild orangutans seldom need to come to the ground. They eat, drink, and sleep up high. From time to time, they may choose a safe moment to come to the ground, but it won’t be for long, and they would never come to sit on the ground when a human was nearby.
Wild Orangutans are Introverts
Even expert orangutan researchers who track orangutans in the wild have a hard time finding and following them. Orangutans can move silently through the branches and are surprisingly difficult to see from the ground, even with that striking orange/red hair.
If an orangutan doesn’t want to be seen, you probably won’t see her/him. If they spot you first, they may just curl up in their little spot and wait for you to go away – even if it takes hours. Orangutan patience is bottomless.
Every individual is different; you may get some who are afraid and hide from humans, others who are angry, or the odd one who is curious and will try and get a closer look at you from up high. But a wild orangutan will not come close to a human in the way the Bukit Lawang individuals do.
Wild Orangutans Don’t Want to Touch or Cuddle You!
Not every orangutan will cower behind a leaf when humans are around. Some of them are downright feisty – and rightly so! You are trespassing in their home and interrupting their chill time!
Some wild orangutans will let you know they want you to go away. Males are generally a little more intolerant than females, especially if they’re in pursuit of a hot date and you’re cramping their style.
Signs that you should turn around and leave them to it include:
- Shaking branches
- Breaking off branches and throwing them (or other things) at you
- Aggressive swinging around and “displaying”
- Vocalisations such as “kissing” sounds, slurping, or squeaks (orangutans are usually quiet unless they’re pissed off or communicating with one another).
Why You Should Care About Responsible Jungle Trekking in Sumatra
Remember how your mum used to tell you not to do something and when you asked why, she’d just say, “Because I said so!”
Well, that’s not how we roll here at We are Sumatra.
We don’t want you just to do the right thing; we want you to understand WHY you should do the right thing. Then we can rest easy knowing that you’re less likely to be tempted just to feed the damn banana to the orangutan anyway.
Plus, if you see other tourists (or guides) doing the wrong thing, you have the knowledge to confidently explain why they should adapt their behaviour. That makes everyone’s job easier, and before you know it, nobody will be breaking the rules and this blog post will be unnecessary – win-win!
So, without further ado, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of why it’s important to follow the guidelines offered by the experts.
First things first: just in case you didn’t know, Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered.
There are less than 14,500 left in the wild – what’s left of it. They are slow breeders, they face massive habitat destruction, conflict with humans, and fragmentation. Basically, they are on the knife’s edge of extinction.
So bearing that in mind, let’s get our learn on.
Humans Can Make Orangutans Sick – or Even Kill Them
As our second-closest relative (after chimpanzees), we share roughly 97 percent of the same genetic makeup as orangutans. This means that we can pass diseases on to them as easily as we do to one another.
Bacteria, viruses, parasites — they can all be transferred to orangutans (and vice versa, but quite frankly, we’re more worried about the orangutans in this scenario!)
If you’re visiting Bukit Lawang, Sumatra, it’s likely that you’ve spent more than a few hours cooped up on a plane with the germ-filled air from a couple of hundred people circulating. You could be incubating a cold or flu as you walk into the jungle and happily breathe into the face of an innocent orangutan.
And how about the fact that you’re coming from a different country with new and exotic pathogens that these apes have never come across before. Their immune systems are not prepared for that. Keep your distance.
The IUCN guidelines used as a reference for this blog state that contaminated droplets from your nose and mouth can easily travel seven metres – even three times as far in the right wind conditions. That’s why they suggest a ten-metre minimum.
Illnesses can be passed by air, from your hands when passing food, or even by your urine or feces if you need to answer the call of nature in the jungle. (This can happen to the best of us; there’s no shame in a jungle-poop, just make sure to bury it at least 30 cm deep, and try to avoid doing it directly in areas where orangutans hang out!)
This is also why you must not leave food behind when you leave. The scraps may be contaminated. The IUCN guidelines say that food “should not be consumed within 500 metres of apes. This will minimise accidental contaminated waste and prevent apes from associating humans with food.”
What if you arrive in Bukit Lawang and suddenly find yourself with a sore throat and runny nose — or worse? The responsible thing to do would be to chalk it up to bad luck and stay out of the jungle.
We know you spent a lot of money and dream of seeing a wild orangutan, but do you really want to risk their lives just for a selfie?
Need more convincing? Research has shown that baby orangutan death rates in Bukit Lawang sit at 59 percent. This is 8.42 times higher and 3.47 times higher than in two other wild populations in Sumatra.
Just last year, two orangutan babies were found dead in Bukit Lawang. Suspected cause of death? Diseases passed on from tourists.
Orangutans Can be Dangerous
Orangutans seem chill, don’t they? They move lazily through the canopy, they never seem to be in a hurry, and they almost appear to move in slo-mo. They are wise and laidback and wouldn’t hurt a fly…. Right?
Wrong. Sure, chilling out in their giant nests in the treetops, they have nothing much to get dramatic about. But change their natural behaviour, mess with their heads by putting them in captivity when they’re young, bombard them with tourists all day, and tempt them with food, and you’re going to see a whole other side of orangutan behaviour.
I worked with orangutans in captivity for over a decade. While in general, they are pretty mellow, you let your guard down around them at your own risk. The most dangerous individuals I worked with were those that had had close human contact at a young age.
Orangutans are incredibly strong — about four times as strong as the average human. They are capable of great speed and agility, and behind that laidback demeanour is an incredibly sharp intellect.
They have powerful canine teeth designed to rip through a rock hard, spikey durian effortlessly. And yes, those giant hands could snap your limbs like twigs.
We’re not trying to give you nightmares here, but we are trying to get you to take your safety seriously. Getting too close to orangutans is a risk.
There is one female in particular with a less than rosy history in Bukit Lawang. Mina is infamous. She has seriously injured a good number of guides, as well as a fair amount of tourists. She is known for her aggressive, pushy behaviour, and it’s no joke.
We’ve heard stories from tourists who unfortunately didn’t know any better, believing their guides when they told them the only way to stop Mina from attacking was to feed her. This is not only incorrect, it directly reinforces her aggressive behaviour and makes it harder for all the guides trying NOT to feed her.
You only need to search “Bukit Lawang” on YouTube to see numerous videos showing tourists literally sprinting down trails to escape Mina — or worse — being grabbed by her.
This is dangerous and unnecessary.
Experienced guides know how to deal with Mina and orangutans like her. Generally, Mina won’t even attempt to bully these guides for food, as she knows it’s going to be a failed mission. Responsible guides will do their best to avoid her altogether, or read her behaviour so you can watch her and her baby from a safe difference, calmly moving on if she approaches.
Bigger males can be a tricky prospect, too, particularly if they are conditioned to humans. Truly wild males tend to stay up in the canopy and hurl sticks at you. However, running into one on the ground is a whole different kettle of fish.
Keeping a distance from orangutans in the wild is better for their health, and for your own safety.
Close Contact with Humans Changes Orangutan Behaviour
The ex-captive orangutans at Bukit Lawang already have different behaviour than wild-born orangutans thanks to their history. Sadly, this can’t be helped.
However, the unique “ecotourism” setup at Bukit Lawang has further impacted on their habits and behaviours, and will continue to do so as long as people head into the forest to see them.
There’s a good reason the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) don’t allow tourists to visit their quarantine centre or release sites. The orangutans they work so hard to get back into the wild need to develop a range of natural behaviours to survive in the wild. Any more human contact than necessary can spell disaster.
The natural ranges of the semi-wild orangutans are altered, as they stick around certain areas where they are fed. Their diet is also different; wild orangutans don’t actually eat many pineapples and bananas unless they are raiding someone’s gardens!
According to the IUCN guidelines, “Orangutans in Bukit Lawang spend less time foraging, travelling, and socialising in the presence of tourists (Dellatore 2007), although these changes could be caused by guides attracting orangutans with food – a practice judged inappropriate in these best practice guidelines.”
Over-habituation to humans can also increase baseline stress levels and cause aggression between individuals (and orangutans/humans).
Another huge concern is the impact on the next generation of orangutans. If they’re wild-born, they should learn more natural behaviours, right? Not necessarily. Check this quote from the fantastic article The Ethics of Orangutan Tourism.
“They are often lured down from the trees to the trek in promise for food (which our guides did not do). A study once recorded a total of 2237 calls from the trails with a mean of 72 ± 79 SD (standard deviation) calls per day and a one-day maximum of 324 [DD14]. I hope these numbers shock you –because they really should.
As tourists keep coming (and calling) relentlessly throughout the day, and as she keeps waiting to be provisioned, then her baby is not learning much other than waiting to be provisioned as well. In other words, he is not educated by his mother: an education that usually lasts around eight years for him or her to be fit and survives on his/her own in the forest…”
Responsible Guide Recommendations in Bukit Lawang
Our aim is to make life easy for tourists by compiling a list of trusted guides, but it will take time, and no list is 100% guaranteed.
To date, we only have a handful of companies that we are willing to recommend, although we would love to hear your trekking stories and reviews so we can add to our list!
We know the individuals and guides listed below personally, have talked in length about their policies, studied their social media accounts, and are as confident as we can be that they are ethical, responsible, and sustainable.
A huge thanks to these three companies who also helped us write this responsible guide to Bukit Lawang Jungle Trekking. We are so pleased to support you!
This well-established business has been operating since 2006. Local guide Mbra has been guiding for more than 20 years, and his wife Andrea has a master’s degree in Primate Conservation.
Naturally, this business walks, talks and breathes conservation, sustainability, and eco-tourism.
Along with their gorgeous Greenhill Guesthouse in Bukit Lawang Village, they have a fantastic “Jungalow” (The Kuta Langis Ecolodge) on the borders of the national park.
On top of all that, Greenhill run educational programs to promote sustainable trekking behaviours. They support a vast range of community projects — from improving village infrastructure to educational programmes for the local children and more…. We’ll be highlighting more of their amazing work in an upcoming blog.
If you’re looking for a trekking experience that you know will be handled responsibly and are keen to get off the well-beaten Bukit Lawang jungle trails, these are the guys to ask.
“Being green, eco-friendly, sustainable, ethical etc. is not just a fad or a cynical marketing ploy… it is who we are from our core.”
Whatsapp: +6282304187433 or +33672988991
Although this is a relatively new business, 25-year-old Imam Muchtar has a good deal of guiding experience. He trained as an assistant guide for five years and then worked with a variety of different guesthouses and trekking agencies before setting up his own business in 2018 with the support of his French girlfriend, Marie.
All the guides working with Sumatra Orangutan Explore (including Imam) are certified by Indonesian Guiding Association (HPI) and were trained by the esteemed team at Greenhill above, so responsible trekking practices are well ingrained.
As well as a strict no-feeding, no-touching policy for all wildlife, they are working hard to reduce waste and find ways to be more eco-friendly.
They also care enough to donate a percentage from each trek to various charities, and excitingly, are just about to launch their very own guesthouse!
“Trekking with us is more than just an amazing trek through the jungle, it’s a way to help us in our mission to shape a better future for the rainforest, the wildlife and the local community of Bukit Lawang with direct donations to causes that matter! Choosing us is a meaningful action in favour of the Sumatran rainforest and its inhabitants.”
Whatsapp: +62 823-6331-6800 or +62 852-7002-3271
Riski is the founder, manager and head guide of Sumatra Vibes. He has worked as a guide in the Gunung Leuser National Park for four years. Before that, he trained as a porter, a cook, and an assistant guide for many years.
After many years operating trekking tours for other companies, Riski wanted to fulfil his dream of running his own treks in his own style. With the support of his German partner Peggy, Sumatra Vibes was created.
They are dedicated to hosting tourists on truly eco-conscious tours, where sustainability and ethical guidelines are the number one priority.
“We absolutely love our jungle, and we want to protect all its animals and plants. Protect it from wrong behaviour of visitors, from becoming palm oil plantations and from the overwhelming plastic pollution.”
The Final Word
We chose to tackle this immense subject because we care deeply about protecting the orangutans of Sumatra (along with all the incredible species that call this island home!)
We are tired of seeing tourists endangering the lives of these stunning red apes, mostly because they just don’t know any better. It is our hope that this blog empowers even one tourist to change the way they think about seeing Sumatran orangutans in Bukit Lawang (or wildlife anywhere in the world).
If you have any questions, comments, recommendations, please reach out. We are always open to hearing your thoughts.