Australian animal welfare organisation, Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Australia, has played an instrumental role in the world-first release of two endangered orangutans, rehabilitated by humans, into a protected Indonesian reserve. These two pioneer orangutans are the first to graduate from an innovative ‘Orangutan Forest School’ where orphaned, rescued orangutans are lovingly reared by humans and systematically taught the life skills necessary to be self-sufficient in the wild.
BOS Australia worked closely with sister organisations and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry to lovingly rear the orphaned, rescued orangutans before releasing them into Borneo’s protected Kehje Sewen Forest, where their progress will be closely monitored. The release was made possible thanks to the purchase of a 100,000 hectare piece of land, donated by Australian John Cochrane, which will eventually become home to another 200 orangutans, currently working their way through the various stages of ‘forest school’.
As young orangutans traditionally spend an average of eight years with their mothers learning the life skills necessary to be self-sufficient, this world-first release proved to be an emotional event for the animal-welfare workers who have supported each student through four to six years of ‘orangutan school’, says BOS president Tony Gilding.
‘Orangutan babies experience trauma in much the same way as a human child would, so by pairing babies with a surrogate human mother, we are able to give young orangutans the love and care they need to soften the very real psychological trauma they have experienced at capture, often having witnessed their mothers being killed,’ says Gilding, who travelled to the remote release location to witness the heart-warming event.
Sharing 98 per cent of human DNA, orangutans are highly intelligent animals with the ability to think and reason. But according to the UN’s Environmental Program (UNEP), wild orangutans are at threat of extinction within this decade if the trend in deforestation for logging, mining, settlements, palm oil plantations and cash crops continues.
Most of Borneo’s lowland rainforest, the world’s last remaining orangutan habitat, is gone already. Tragically, adult orangutans are also shot or clubbed to death by poachers trading in baby orangutans for the illicit pet trade or the entertainment industry.
BOS Australia helps to operate rehabilitation centres and sanctuaries for orangutans across Indonesian Borneo. The sanctuary in Samboja, in East Kalimantan, receives rescued orangutans who have been injured, abused or tortured and provides medical treatment, attentive care and meticulous training to prepare them for a life of freedom.
Having been painstakingly taught skills including climbing, nest-building, sourcing food and identifying threats, the two new orangutan graduates are now being monitored discreetly by specially trained ‘guardians’ to ensure they remember their schooling, and help prove the success of the training process to encourage the release of more trained orangutans in coming years.
‘As this is the first systematic attempt at rehabilitating Borneo’s orangutans, we are really putting to the test the idea that humans can enable orangutans to learn to survive in the wild,’ says Louise Grossfeldt, BOS Australia vice-president and senior supervisor of the Primate Unit at Sydney’s Taronga Zoo. ‘We can’t wait to see how they use the learning they’ve acquired from their surrogate mothers and human teachers,’ she says.
Indonesia’s minister of economic affairs, Hatta Rajasa, adds: ‘I’m very proud and very happy to see our iconic orangutans will finally be returned to the forest where they belong’.
At present, there are around 100 orangutans in the sanctuary of Samboja that trainers believe are ready to be released, while the Kehje Sewen Forest has the capacity to support about 200. BOS Australia hopes further fundraising efforts will enable us to release more orangutans back into their forest homes.
‘As the threat to the orangutans continues, we need NGOs, government institutions and the private sector to act together to find and allocate other suitable and secure release areas for orangutans and, of course, ensure a sustainable future for their habitat,’ Gilding says.
The journey for each orangutan back into the wild – including airlifting each primate to the release site in an effort to minimise the trauma of their relocation – encompasses a ‘ticket price’ of $9,450. As a result, BOS Australia is determined to raise $94,500 to secure the freedom of a further ten lucky ‘orangutan school’ graduates this year. To make a donation, adopt an orangutan or find out other ways to help, visit the BOS Australia website at www.orangutans.com.au.