Pongo Estonica

I took a friend’s suggestion very literally when she mentioned during a little gathering with friends last spring, how important it is to always watch your back when you’re spending time in the Estonian forests. She said that she had developed a move that allowed her to keep picking chanterelle while watching over her shoulder. I wondered, what could possibly happen to you in an Estonian forest that required to stretch your body into such an odd position. Well, she said, that she wouldn’t want to run into one of the 700 brown bears that wander through the 2 million hectares of abundant forests in Estonia. I laughingly added, that you naturally wouldn’t want to lose you dear hand-picked chanterelle when running away, which she in turn explained dutifully to be the exact wrong thing to do when encountering a bear. Make yourself bigger than you really are, she said, scare-the-bear so to say. I noted her advice and came up with another reason, why you’d want to watch your back in the forest – you wouldn’t want to lose track of where you are. I’ve been told the story of an old lady, that went into the forest to pick mushrooms, but didn’t return for a couple of days until she surprisingly popped up healthy but a little confused on the side of a road. While gently cutting chanterelle, she had taken the occasional sip from a bottle, that she was still carrying around when she was found again.

A few weeks after this conversation I followed my friend’s advice when I decided to go to the forest. I just wanted to breath fresh air and drove off from the city. It was still quite cold, but sunny. When I got out of my car, I took my stuff (no bottles with suspicious liquids), turned on my GPS-Tracker and marked where I had parked my car. Google had helped me to find this place, from above it seemed like a great spot. A tiny river, loads of trees, few meadows and even fewer signs of people. From time to time I crossed a few narrow roads, jumping over small, muddy ponds induced by 4×4 wheels until I passed an abandoned wooden house. It must have been a cozy home one day; in the months before I had seen dozens of these kinds of houses with roofs fallen in and grass peeking through the empty windows. The setting was really romantic, but another friend recently told me that we’re romanticizing way too much. Life’s not romantic at all, he said, it’s full of hard decisions to take, not to mention the horror that we hear about from less peaceful areas. I also noted that advice and decided to keep the romance at a minimum when describing my adventures in the Estonian forest. By the way, there was still old hay in the house’s little barn and boxes full of moldy apples.

I could go on and on about what I saw that very day. About the trees and their branches reaching out to each other like in a dance, or the moist soil and soft moss covering everything the sun doesn’t reach. But there was one thing that truly made this trip exceptional. I would have never even hoped for such a discovery. At some point, I sat down on a stone next to the river, I wanted to rest, eat a bit and just pull in the intense green around me. Still I was everything but light-headed. I made sure to look over my shoulder once every minute and attempted to find a way that didn’t seem too ridiculous (to myself). But nothing ever was behind or above me. My back was safe until I heard a noise, a splashing sound not too far from me. I didn’t dare to watch right away, as it could have been a bear. Very slowly I turned around, preparing to get up and scare the hell out of whatever there was behind me. When I had completed the 90° turn I couldn’t believe my eyes.

Eesti-pl CC BY 2.0 Orang.jpg Can you spot Pongo? 

I had hardly ever thought of this opportunity – across the river, about 70 metres away, one of the very rare and incredibly shy Pongo Estonica sat and watched me. For the first time, I had heard about the wild Estonian Swamp Orangutan in my Estonian class at university and I wouldn’t believe my teacher. She said that Pongo Estonica is a little smaller than his Southeast-Asian sisters and brothers. It also differs in the color of his fur, as its red-brown is much darker and a slight greenish touch. Also, they like to swim and eat plants from lakes and rivers, which explains why their fur is often very moist and  darker than it really is. Nobody knows how many of Pongo Estonica there are, because it’s so very rare to see them. 

And there one of them sat just as astonished as me. I couldn’t stop smiling but reminded myself that Pongo Estonica is just as wild as Ursus Arctos. Anyways I didn’t get up, as Pongo sat just as comfortably as me. I took a quick snap with my camera and continued watching him. He barely moved until he eventually had seen enough of me and got on his feet. He went away with dangling shoulders and soon became one with the greenery around him. Still, I could swear that he did glimpse at me once again over his shoulder.

P.S.: By the way, Pongo Estonica is more fortunate than his brothers and sisters in Southeast-Asia, they are endangered and need help. Read more about them here (National Geographic) or here (Orangutan).

Pic based on: Sheila Thomson & Eesti.pl, both CC BY 2.0