In search of the lost girl

Twenty years ago, while filming in Sumatra, Chris Packham took a photograph of a young girl. She was a member of a tribe of hunter-gatherers called the Orang Rimba, who lived harmoniously with their jungle environment. For Chris it was an immensely significant encounter.

Now, he’s going back to see if he can find her again. Not driven by sentimentality or nostalgia, though there might be a bit of that, but because he sees the girl as a sort of barometer, a way of measuring the condition of the planet. Indonesia – Sumatra particularly – has seen some of the world’s most devastating deforestation, millions of hectares of rainforest destroyed to make way for productive crops, mainly oil palm. “If she’s still out there, living harmoniously in that environment, then there’s hope for us all,” he says. “But if we’ve robbed her of her habitat, then we really have got something to fear.”

Chris’s partner Charlotte offers a note of pragmatism before he goes, about the younger generation of people like the Orang Rimba maybe not wanting to stay in the forest. “Would they, if they had awareness of the outside world, would they want to gravitate towards that?” she asks.

I like Charlotte, who we also met in Chris’s Asperger’s documentary. That was also an intense, personal, moving, important film, as this one is. He’s making a habit of it. Incidentally, he now wears his autism spectrum disorder with pride. “Only a nitwit with Asperger’s could do that,” he says when he recognises the exact spot where his encounter happened, 20 years ago, from the curve in the road and the lie of the land.

The Orang Rimba have left the area, because their home has been cut down. More terrible news: there was a massacre. Several of the people Chris had met and photographed were killed, though probably not the girl. The trail goes cold: dead ends, more oil palm plantations, unanswered shout-outs on the radio ... then a breakthrough, someone recognises the people in the picture, and the girl is alive, yay!

Not really yay. He finds her – Bunga, mother of three girls herself – living not in one of the last remnants of forest but under a blue plastic shelter on the edge of a palm plantation. Hell, he calls it: “They’re living amongst the very thing that has destroyed them.”

Chris’s barometer shows little sign of hope, then. “If we don’t stop this nonsense, we’ve had it,” he says.

There was a sliver – of hope – along the way, when he spent time with one of the few remaining Orang Rimba families still living in an area of protected forest (though there do seem to be a lot of mopeds buzzing about). Among them is a young boy, Njarang, who his father hopes will stay in the forest. Chris hopes the same, and photographs Njarang, one of the last humans living at one with nature. Perhaps Chris will come back in 20 years’ time to find him. I hope so. Though I’m less hopeful that Njarang will still be in the forest.

It doesn’t matter if you think Chris is perhaps being over romantic. What does is that the issues here – the destruction of the planet, and of some of its inhabitants – are more than important: they are the stories. Always so hard to tell, though, in a way that’s human and engaging. And that’s what he’s done, got to the big picture via a small one, a photograph and a search.

So Chris Packham, I will – we all should – drink your wee. Not literally; it’s Orang Rimba for thank you.