A Primate’s EducationIn The News, Research, Teaching Sunday, June 28th, 2015
Newly arrived infants and very young orangutans spend the day in a forested nursery where they are cared for 24/7 by their babysitters. Their health is carefully monitored as many of them have come to the center severely malnourished and they are extremely susceptible to illness due to having compromised immune systems. Many of them had been raised as pets after their mothers were slaughtered and precious few have been lucky enough to survive the ordeal of life without the one perosn they depend on most: their mothers.
In the wild, an orangutan would spend the first 6 or 7 years of his or her life with their mother. It is this loss which the rehabilitation process needs to make up for. In Baby School, the orangutans learn to climb and move around in trees. They begin to experiment more with new fruits and also begin to interact closely with one another. After a few years in Baby School, as they grow stronger and more independent, the orangutans move up to Forest School.
In Forest School, the orangutans begin to truly develop the skills they will need to survive as adults in the wild. Climbing and nest building as well as swinging and maneuvering amongst the trees are skills that they now practice every day. They continue to learn about new foods and also learn about things to avoid– such as snakes! They now come into contact with a lot more orangutans. They are in groups or ‘classes’ ranging from approximately 8 – 12 individuals with who they will essentially ‘grow up’. The brilliant series Orangutan Diaries, seen on PBS in the US and the BBC worldwide, depicts this stage of their lives in great detail.
Orangutans in Forest School spend the entire day in the nearby peat forest– only returning to the main center in the late afternoon to have a snack, drink some milk and get some sleep. This afternoon ritual takes place on the famous Nyaru Menteng main lawn, which can be seen in the photo at left as well as at the top of this page (The Standoff).
The Islands: Orangutan University
The islands are the penultimate step in the rehabilitation of orphaned orangutans. There are 5 river islands: Kaja, Palas 1 and 2, Hampapak Matei and Bangamat. They are all islands in the Rungan River, which runs behind the Nyaru Menteng veterinary clinic. From there, there is a mere 15 minute drive to the small village of Sei Gohong, which is the most important harbor in the area. There are only minimal feeding-platforms and jetties on the islands so as to keep the setting as natural as possible.
The series Orangutan Island on Animal Planet gave viewers a first-hand view of life on the islands, following the adventures of Forest School 103 as the orangutans grew more independent. The series features Kaja Island, the first island acquired by Nyaru Menteng and home to some of the top orangutan students. These guys have no interest in humans and are first on the list to be released to the wild. The series ended in 2010 but is still available on DVD in the Orangutan Outreach online shop.
Orangutans who have gone through the rehabilitation process are brought to the islands for at least 2 dry seasons and one wet season to make sure they can cope with the fluctuations in food availability. They are given supplemental food twice a day, but in the dry season the staff purposely does not increase the amount, so that the orangutans will learn that there are lean times in which they will have to depend more on leaves rather than fruit– just as they would in the wild.
The islands are large and hold as many as 50 or more individuals. In the wild they would of course be more spread out because of the dispersal of food resources. Some will become naturally more independent and solitary and others will remain in small groups, learning and exploring the forest together, but they will also eventually start to go their own way– which is a good sign that they are ready for life in the wild. They will be released in small groups as well, where they will have the choice to stay together or to venture out more on their own.
The orangutans on the islands must all be sighted at least once a day by staff. Otherwise they are considered missing and an immediate search party goes out until the orangutan is found. This allows the team to intervene if the orangutan is in trouble, injured or very ill. It can take days on the larger islands to locate a missing orangutan so the teams must act quickly. There is 24/7 security for the islands, but the posts are on the opposite banks to ensure minimal interaction with humans.
Since summer 2012 the team at BOS Nyaru Menteng have released dozens of orangutans into a safe, pristine forest called Batikap. As BOS successfully releases more orangutans into the wild, other younger orangutans are moved to the islands.