Without Further Ado, Orangutans!

I will keep this short because the odds are that you have already skipped ahead to the photo gallery (at the bottom of the text as usual). For those keen to know a little about these great apes I will do my best to fill you in. Orangutans, as you may know, are our third closest relatives in the animal kingdom. The orangutans at Danau Alo station are all the Sumatran subspecies, they are slightly smaller than their Bornean kin. They are critically endangered. Habitat loss and poaching has decimated their numbers and continues to threaten their ability to persist on this planet. They are highly intelligent and each has their own distinct personality. Observing orangutans goes both ways, you are always aware that they are drinking you in as well.
For instance, Veny, a 6 or 7 year old female is always curious to follow me around with her sad eyes. After a few days around her Veny decides we should hold hands. She gingerly stretches her long fingers out towards me, assured by her keeper that it’s okay, I place my hand on hers. We sit peacefully together for a while, her eyes sparkle a little more. Then Ongky, a younger male, Veny’s friend and roommate, swings his way over. Now I am told to move away, Ongky is sometimes a jealous trouble maker. He certainly isn’t dangerous, just mischievous. Julius, the youngest orangutan, is a little scruffy in appearance with an adorable pot belly. Some days he could not care less what I am doing, others the only thing he desires is to get his hands on my camera. Then there is Beckham, the largest and oldest male. He sits more than the others. He watches me with clear wise eyes. His movements are slow and deliberate. Sury, a young female, is more playful and loving. When her keeper enters her cage she just wants to be held, wrapping her legs around their waist and her arms around their neck, her own head resting on their shoulder, just like a human toddler. Lingdun is the most wild, both in appearance and personality. He avoids my camera with great suspicion, and hangs out in a metal nest at the top of his cage most of the time.
Mirriam presented my greatest challenge. She is part of an “adoption” program in which foreign sponsors give money to The Orangutan Project and in return receive updates on their adoptee. I was tasked with writing some anecdotes and providing pictures for this purpose. Mirriam is the most leary of new comers. She is known to become aggressive with them, especially if they are female. I spent one morning hiding from her in the bushes, not exactly the ideal way to get great pictures. Eventually I had to give up and bushwhack a broad circle around the site of her jungle school training to find the path back to camp. That day she was in such a bad mood that she bit both of her keepers, my friends and roommates Betty and Fatima. She did not break skin and indeed didn’t intend to really hurt them, just to let them know that she was displeased. She didn’t want to climb trees (as they were encouraging her to do) but instead wanted to go back to the comfort of her cage. They each came home to show me their bruises, while I showed them the holes I ripped in my pants fleeing from Miriam. We had a good laugh about it. It took several visits to her jungle school class before I eventually got the shots I needed, and a more flattering anecdote. She really is sweet at heart.
There are two orangutan houses on site at Danau Alo. Each is across the river from camp and set back in the forest. They are large cages with 4 rooms each, raised high off the ground. The rooms are spacious and the orangutans have metal frames to practice building nests in and rubber swings to goof around on. They also love dangling from the bars that cover the floor, walls and ceiling. Each day everyone is given a prescribed regiment of behavioural enrichment training. This includes feeding puzzles, clever traps that hold food and encourage determination and ingenuity in getting at the reward. They are given natural fruits, stems, leaves and termite nests to familiarize them with the foods they should look for in the forest. Each day two or three orangutans are taken outside for jungle school. This is a six hour play date in the forest. The goal is for them to move from their cages directly to the treetops without ever touching the forest floor. Predators lurk in the undergrowth, the orangutans must learn that the ground is not safe before they can be released to the wild. In the canopy they explore, look for food, practice moving from tree to tree, and the sharpest students build nests of leaves. Nest building is a sure sign that they are nearly ready for wild life. The keepers observe everything from below and write down the details of how each student spent their day.
All the inhabitants of Danau Alo station are learning the skills they will need to be free. Many were pets before they arrived here, they don’t know what it takes to live in the forest. Some still prefer their cages to jungle school and are difficult to coax up to the tree tops. Others, like Ken, a 4 or 5 year old female, are ahead of the curve. She is building nests and foraging like an old pro. She is still a couple of years too young for release but some of her keepers think that she is ready nonetheless. Indeed everyone living here today will one day be roaming the forests, free and wild. They will add to the growing numbers of reintroduced orangutans populating this part of Sumatra. They are members of a critically endangered species, but there is much hope that if we can secure the safety of their habitat, they will ensure the survival of their kind.

This entry was published on December 4, 2012 at 04:00. It’s filed under Working at field stations and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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