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Signe Preuschoft: Director of FOUR PAWS orangutan academy

Primatologist and Director of the FOUR PAWS orangutan academy in Borneo

© FOUR PAWS | Dieter Nagl

Signe Preuschoft is an internationally-respected expert on apes. She has published numerous scientific research papers and articles on the subject of primates and their social and communicative behaviour. “I always wanted to understand how apes think and feel. It still intrigues me how similar they are to humans, yet still so different. Their ways of communicating can give us a very good insight into their thoughts and feelings. I’ve always been enormously interested in trying to see the world through their eyes.”

Preuschoft was born on 21 November 1960 in Frankfurt, Germany. At the age of two she moved with her family to Tübingen, and spent her childhood in the countryside. Her father was a college professor in anthropology, and was interested in anything and everything that moved on the ground or in the air. She inherited both her curiosity and her respect for all life from him. She was often allowed to accompany her father when he took his students on outings to the zoo. These memories would later lead her to realise that it is actually far more valuable to protect animals in their natural habitat than to keep them in zoos. Her father also awakened in her an early fascination with the origin of man and our primate relatives. The well-known animal welfarist Bernhard Grizmek was also a defining influence on Preuschoft; she never missed his television programme on wildlife and nature.

At the age of eleven the family moved again, to Bochum, which was a great culture shock for the young Preuschoft; catapulted from a small town in southern Germany to an industrial centre, she took a while to find her feet. However, after graduating in psychology from Ruhr University Bochum, she would soon learn a great deal more about the world. She earned her doctorate in biology (majoring in primates) with Jan van Hooff at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and subsequently carried out postdoctoral work at Yerkes Primate Centre in Atlanta, USA, under Frans de Waal.

© FOUR PAWS | Mihai Vasile

Preuschoft’s path to FOUR PAWS

In 2001, Preuschoft headed a social rehabilitation project for former laboratory apes in Austria – work for which she was ideally suited, given her background in both psychology and biology. Bringing together everything she had learned about apes up to that point, she made a decision which would be crucial to her future career. “After learning so much from and about apes, I wanted to use my experience and knowledge to give them something back. As they are threatened with extinction and are forced to suffer all over the world, it was time for me not only to study their behaviour, but also to help them.” In 2007, she finally joined FOUR PAWS to take a stand for the survival of the orangutans in a collaborative project with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation. This programme nurses rescued orangutan orphans back to health, rehabilitates them, and releases them back into the wild.

© FOUR PAWS | Mihai Vasile

Since 2009, Preuschoft has been giving almost all her time to the project in the Indonesian part of the island of Borneo. She juggles her life between her home in Germany, where her family lives, Indonesia and Austria, where she also works for FOUR PAWS. All three countries are important to her, but she cannot always easily get over the cultural differences. In Indonesia, conflict is often skirted around, which she often finds very challenging for her work. “Few people here will talk openly about why something doesn’t work. And hierarchies also play an important role.”

This means she has to spend a lot of time on issues of organisation and negotiation with the country’s authorities. On top of this, not only must the orangutans be rescued and re-released, but the rainforest must also be protected. “Orangutans live for 45 to 55 years. Even when we succeed in releasing them back into the wild, there’s no guarantee that the forest will even last that long. I think it’s great, and very important, that FOUR PAWS is tackling this problem with the orangutan project.”

Signe Preuschoft is naturally a great animal lover, and is forever taking in cats that find themselves stranded, homeless or otherwise in distress – both in Indonesia and in Europe. She likes to give human names to animals, to underline our similarities with them. However, her great love of cats takes second place to her great passion: the forest school where the rescued orangutan orphans are prepared for their life in the wild, and are then re-released. “When I see the progress they make, I know that all the hard work is worth it.”