Donning rubber boots, a well equipped day pack and slathered with bug spray I find myself back at the rubber plantation. This time I am part of a large team that has come by truck to capture the wild orangutan. It is early morning and we are waiting below his night time nest. Incidentally, in the light of day we find a wide and easy path that leads to within 100 meters of the nest site. The same nest site that we left from the night before, when we spent an hour bushwhacking in the dark looking for the path and our rides. As the sun gets higher and the day heats up, there is still no movement from above. This is one lazy orangutan. Some of the trackers sit around smoking, others nap, a few of us huddle around the government sniper as he shows us his weaponry.
The arsenal includes a meter long traditional blow pipe, an air riffle and a full fledged, gun powder using, dart gun. Oddly, I am told that the blow gun only shoots darts too weak to work on an orangutan and the big riffle only shoots darts too big for an orangutan, it is more intended for elephants and tigers. So we will be using the air riffle, loaded with tranquilizer darts. Bawinny, the veterinarian, is leading the hunt and will supervise the animal while he is knocked out. The plan is straight forward. Follow him until he is in an open enough area. Shoot him with a tranquilizer. As he falls out of the tree maneuver a big tarp, held up by the team of men and catch him before he hits the ground. Bawinny will at that point check him over, and look to see if he is tattooed or micro-chipped. He will be carried out in a basket stretcher to the truck, who’s driver will be waiting to go. He will then be loaded into a big metal box and transported to Sungai Pengian station and re-released to the forest. It was a good plan.
By noon we start to realize that he isn’t in his nest. Upon inspection of the surrounding trees we find a second nest, also empty. Bawinny theorizes that during the heavy rains of the night before his first nest may have left him a bit too exposed, so he moved to a more sheltered tree and made a second nest. Then in the early morning while we watched the wrong spot he woke up and set off to forage. We split into five groups and search in every direction for hours to no avail. By late afternoon we all return to the last known nest site with the faint hope that he is quietly sleeping in as he had been the day before. By the time darkness falls we know that we have lost him. Defeated we return to the staff house.
At this point I must return to Jambi City to prepare for my next assignment. Bawinny remains in Tebol and keeps the search alive. They spend two more days patrolling the plantation with no sightings. During that time the government sniper returns to the city, leaving the air riffle and darts behind, many of the tracking team must also return to Sungai Pengian to track the released orangutans in the forest. Finally Bawinny and her small team locate the orangutan. With so few people around Bawinny even manages to lure the orangutan down from the tree tops. He is gentle and curious to interact with her. She feeds him some fruits while inspecting him for an identifying tattoo.
He is tattooed. Using his number Bawinny is able to get to know him. His name is Joko. He was originally released at Sungai Pengian in 2007. He was last sighted in 2011 near some cultivated lands on the outskirts of the forest. Then he disappeared. It is very exciting to find him healthy and alive after nearly two years alone and in dangerous human territory. It takes another two days to finally catch him. Bawinny first tries with a big team, but this spooks Joko high into the trees. He is too high to shoot, falling would surely injure him.
On the tenth day of this cat and mouse game Bawinny changes tact. She and three others arrive very early to his nest site. They build a hide and the shooter camouflages himself inside. The other two lay out the net that will catch him and cover it in leaves, then they too hide in the forest. Bawinny remains. When Joko wakes up she lures him down with some fruit. Once he is in position over the net the gunman takes his shot, but Joko is not knocked out right away. He climbs and quickly darts into a neighbouring tree, away from the net. As the team scrambles to move to catch him he falls, landing with a thud on the forest floor. Winny rushes to him, he is uninjured and sound asleep. They quickly pick him up and haul him out to the truck.
Joko is now at the Sungai Pengian reintroduction center. He will be implanted with a micro chip before being re-released. He seems happy and healthy and is surely enjoying the regular feedings at the center. With his micro chip in place he will not be able to stray so far without alerting the FZS trackers. Considering all the dangers that orangutans face when they encounter people and their crops Joko is very lucky. This is a happy story for FZS and the Sumatran orangutan population near Bukit Tigapuluh, they are regaining a young healthy male who is approaching breeding age. And this guy clearly has strong survival instincts.