01.08.2012 Our Earth

Back to the Wild

World first release of two endangered orangutans in Borneo raises hopes of survival

The release was the result of a coordinated effort involving Australian animal welfare organisation, Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Australia, sister organisations and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry. These two pioneer orphans, Berlian and Hamzah, are the first to graduate from an innovative Orangutan Forest School where rescued orangutans are lovingly reared by humans and systematically taught the life skills necessary to be self sufficient in the wild. After being released into Borneo's protected Kehje Sewen forest, their progress will be closely monitored. The release was made possible thanks to the purchase of a 100,000 hectare piece of land, donated by Australian John Cochrane, which will eventually become home to another 200 orangutans, currently working their way through the various stages of Forest School.

As young orangutans traditionally spend an average of eight years with their mothers learning the life skills necessary to be self sufficient, the release proved to be an emotional event for the animal welfare workers who have supported each student through four to six years of 'schooling'. Having been painstakingly taught skills including climbing, nest building, sourcing food and identifying threats, the two new orangutan graduates are now being monitored discretely by specially trained 'guardians' to ensure they remember their schooling, and help prove the success of the training process to encourage the release of more trained orangutans in coming years.

Father and son, Naren and Toby King from Byron Bay's well known Crystal Castle, were part of the release group. Here Naren tells of their life changing experience.

For myself and my 13 year old son Toby, being a part of the release of the two endangered orangutans was a truly extraordinary, life changing experience. With a shared passion for nature, Toby and I were so keen to be part of this once in a lifetime opportunity and were thrilled, at the end of a pretty long and arduous journey, to be there to witness the two orangutans experience their first taste of freedom.

Before heading on this journey, we were both aware of the extreme threat that orangutans are facing. With fewer than 7,000 Sumatran Orangutans and 50,000 Bornean Orangutans estimated to be living in the wild today, the Sumatran Orangutan is listed as critically endangered and the Bornean Orangutan as endangered. According to some experts, about 6,000 orangutans are disappearing every year and it is predicted that wild orangutans are at threat of extinction within this decade if the current trend of deforestation continues. With this knowledge, Toby and I knew that the release we would be witnessing was just the start of what needed to be done to ensure the safety of these creatures.

Travelling to the rescue site was pretty extreme to say the least; we tackled treacherous roads, landslides, mudslides and collapsing bridges as well as the most dangerous mud tracks we'd ever seen. Our 4WD vehicle often became bogged and we'd have to pull it out by hand with a rope. One of the most extreme moments was crossing a raging river via a sling on a wire, which Toby of course loved. While I was sometimes a little nervous, he was thrilled with the adventure of it all.

Of course, we've seen some of the documentaries on the destruction of forests, the effects of logging and the palm oil plantations, but driving for hour after hour through landscapes that were once original forests but are now completely decimated, really drove home the seriousness of the situation. It is so sad to think that because of this destruction, wild orangutans are at threat of extinction within this decade.

My mood was lightened as we reached the edge of the forest, near the site of the release, and some Dayak tribespeople performed a ceremony for us, agreeing to help protect this forest for the orangutans and for the planet. After the ceremony, we continued on and arrived at Kehje Sewen forest, an 86,000 hectare area which became home for some of the released orangutans. Being in the protected forest was incredible; we drank from rivers which are home to some of the purest water on earth and we revelled in the surrounding environment that is so rich in wildlife.

While we roughed it by road, the orangutans endured a much shorter, less extreme journey to the rescue site and were flown in by an Indonesian military helicopter. To see the release of the orangutans, Berlian and Hamzah, was truly unforgettable; we were all hushed in awe as we witnessed the orangutans reach their freedom after many years of captivity. Toby and I shared a magical, heart-opening experience with the orangutans.

We were not originally scheduled to be at the release site in the forest, but in the end we were allowed to be there. Toby, who was capturing the release on video, was even treated as a fully fledged member of the media team. There was not a dry eye among us, particularly for the carers, who knew the orangutans like family. To ensure the orangutans' transition is as safe and as smooth as possible, a team will be living deep in the forest for at least the next six months to monitor the animals and ensure they are adapting well to their new surrounds. In addition to tracking them daily, the orangutans' food, behaviour and ability to make nests will be recorded, to ensure they are surviving in the wild.

As the trip came to an end, we spent the last two days in Samboja Lestari, which is home to the Borneo Orangutan Survival rehabilitation centre. I had mixed emotions during this time, as while many of the orangutans are out and about on small human-made islands, many have to stay in cages because there's nowhere for them to go. It is sad to see orangutans like Emerson (an older male orangutan) who has been in a cage for over five years because there is nowhere safe in the forest to put him yet.

On a more positive note, it was truly fascinating to see humans teach orangutans how to be orangutans, and to see them on their journey to freedom, as many of them have been raised as pets and kept in small cages.

Witnessing the release was truly a highlight of both our lives and while it was such a joyous experience, it is still important for us to realise that this is just the beginning. With orangutans under such extreme threat of extinction, we need to continue supporting this cause to ensure they escape the very possible fate of extinction.

The journey for each orangutan back into the wild, including airlifting each primate to the release site in an effort to minimise the trauma of their relocation, encompasses a "ticket price" of AUS$9,450. As a result, BOS Australia is determined to raise $94,500 to secure the freedom of a further ten lucky Orangutan School graduates this year. To make a donation, adopt an orangutan or find out other ways to help, visit the BOS Australia website at www.orangutans.com.au