For more than a year, the international animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS, together with its local partner Jejak Pulang, and the Indonesian government, has been setting up a new rehabilitation project for orangutans in Borneo. Now the time has finally come: Today, the new FOUR PAWS ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL in East Kalimantan opened, and the first school year can begin. Eight orangutan orphans between the ages of eleven months and nine years will be the first students to attend the 100-hectare FOREST SCHOOL run by the FOUR PAWS’ experienced primatologist Dr. Signe Preuschoft. Dr. Preuschoft works with an Indonesian team of 15 animal caretakers, a biologist and two veterinarians who will intensively care for the orangutans and prepare them for release back into the rainforest.
Up to now, FOUR PAWS has taken in eight orangutan orphans, all of whom watched as their mothers were cruelly killed – mostly victims of the palm oil, tropical timber and coal industries. “The goal of the project is to train these orangutans so that in a few years, when they reach the appropriate age, they will be able to return to a natural forest and live there completely freely and independently,” explains Dr. Signe Preuschoft.
First day at FOREST SCHOOL
Setting up the project in the middle of Borneo’s rainforest is a major logistical challenge, and the infrastructure of the FOREST SCHOOL is still in the making. However, the orangutan orphans need to spend as much time in their natural environment as possible. As a result, from now on a first group of five orangutans travel daily from their current sleeping quarters to the FOREST SCHOOL in the “school bus”. There they learn with their human surrogate mothers the skills that their birth mothers would normally teach them. For example, the curriculum includes climbing, foraging, and building a sleeping nest. Next month, they will be able to move into their new sleeping quarters, just across the river bordering the Forest School.
The eight forest students
A special aspect of this project is that every animal is supported depending on their individual development level and pace by Dr. Preuschoft and her team. Therefore, not all orangutans are in the same “class”. Baby Gonda, aged about eight months at his arrival, had to build muscle to cling and hold fast on his own and to learn how orangutans move around in the forest. “In the meantime, Gonda has already learned to climb in trees,” says Dr. Preuschoft.
“By now, he can hang upside down and hold onto a branch with only his legs. His friend Tegar, who is four months older, is already more agile. He bends small branches together, grabs the next branch, shifts his centre of gravity there and then slides over like real orangutans do. Gonda still has a lot of practice to do until he can manage that.” Three and a half-year-old Cantik and five-year-old Eska, meanwhile, are already practicing chasing and wrestling in the treetops – a learned skill because while doing that, an orangutan must also consider how the weight of his or her partner affects the swishing of the branches. The two latest arrivals, eleven-months-old Gerhana and 18 months-old Kartini are still cared for by their human surrogate mothers and at the same time they socialize with the other babies in the Kindergarten. Seven-year-old Amalia and nine-year-old Robin are still living in enclosures. Dr. Preuschoft and her team will closely monitor their behaviour and abilities over the next few months to decide if and when they can attend the FOREST SCHOOL.
Forest School graduation – what comes next?
Rehabiliation in the FOREST SCHOOL curriculum matches the natural child development (see chart). As babies, they first live in the loving care of their human surrogate mothers in the baby house and visit the kindergarten. From the age of two, the toddlers attend the Forest School. As their competence increases, the orangutans become more adventurous and independent. When they reach puberty it is time for them to graduate to the so-called Forest Academy. The FOUR PAWS team decides for each orangutan individually on each individual case when an orangutan can be released into the great outdoors on his or her own. “Generally speaking, orangutans reach a phase in which they want to increasingly go their own way at around the age of nine years,” explains Dr. Preuschoft. “Then we bring them to the reintroduction region, the Forest Academy. While they are always under our supervision and protection, they are already in an environment where they can give free rein to their own need for exploration and independence. If everything goes smoothly there, then they can enjoy a life of freedom afterwards.”
FOUR PAWS and the orangutan project in Borneo
FOUR PAWS has been working to rehabilitate traumatised orangutan orphans in Borneo for over a decade. Following a re-organisation of local activities, the new FOUR PAWS-funded FOREST SCHOOL is a cooperation project between FOUR PAWS, its local partner Jejak Pulang, and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry. In addition to the completion of the infrastructure in the forest, a quarantine station and a tree house for very small orangutan orphans are planned.
Orangutans in Borneo
Rainforest has been destroyed on a massive scale in Borneo over the last four decades. Thousands of orangutans have become victims of the palm oil, tropical timber and coal industries. Every year, between two and three thousand orangutans are killed, because they are considered harvest thieves in oil palm plantations, but also for their meat. Helpless orphans whose mothers were deliberately killed end up as pets. The Bornean orangutans are among the critically endangered species.