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Orangutan orphans in the Forest School, Borneo

Orangutan Rehabilitation: A Programme to Return to Their Natural Habitat

The orphans go through levels of education at the ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL in Borneo 

5.1.2022

The ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL is for rescued orphan orangutans to rehabilitate them so they can return to their natural forest habitat, to live freely in a protected forest and away from humans. 

The rehabilitation is a long process that can take years depending on the individual needs of each orangutan. Orangutans have large brains and depend on learning the same as humans. Weaning in the wild for Bornean Orangutans happens when they are between 5-7 years old, but they remain close to their mothers for several years after the weaning, and during all that long period with the mother, they learn the vital skills needed to survive in the wild. Most confiscated orangutans are orphans that arrive under five years of age, therefore these infants are too young to survive by themselves, and they need a role model to learn all the vital skills in the absence of their mother.

Rehabilitation Programme

The orphan orangutans who arrive at our rehabilitation programme need to progressively hone their and develop towards independence. Depending on their age when they arrive, psychological condition and prior-knowledge, the orangutans start at different levels of the rehabilitation programme which take place at two different forest areas: The forest school, and the release site.

The Forest School

The Forest School is a protected forest of over 100 hectares provided by the Indonesian government. Protected by forest rangers, the area features only the most basic infrastructure, a security patrols and access control, a trail system through the forest itself, a caretaker post, food storage, water management including cleaning bio-filter, veterinarian treatment room, a baby house (Porta Camp) for youngest orangutans and night cages for older infants and juveniles. The stages of education the orangutans receive at the forest school are:

Forest School: Level 1 (Kindergarten)

The first level is for the babies and young infants under 2 years of age. They need the most interaction with the surrogate mothers as they need more care and emotional support. They spend the day in the forest with their surrogate mothers and sleep in the nursery of the so-called 'Porta Camp'. While they are in the forest, the surrogate mothers are the ones who lead the little orangutans around the forest looking for  forest food and modelling wild orangutan behaviours for the youngsters to learn.

Forest School: Level 2

The second level is for older infants and juveniles. Here, the orangutans start to become more independent, they spend the day in the forest sometimes guided by the caregivers to find food, and sometimes taking initiative themselves to explore the forest. When the youngster lead, the caregivers just follow . At level 2, the orphans should practice more and more their nest building skills, and have naps in the nest during midday. At sunset, they don’t return to the nursery any longer, but sleep in hammocks in night cages, exposed to the sounds of the forest at night.

Forest School: Level 3

The juveniles and adolescents on level 3, are the ones who decide where to go and what to explore in the Forest while the caregiver is only following and supporting if needed. Now, the forest school with its 100 ha becomes too small for them. At this age, they also already are able to construct a nest and spend the night sleeping in their own nest in the forest, or sometimes even they can share a nest with other orangutan from the same level.  If old nests exist in the area, the orangutans often re-use and refurbish them.

At the Release Site: Jungle Academy and Release

We are planning to start the Jungle School at the end of 2022. The oldest pupils, Amalia and Eska, will be re-homed to a huge area of primary lowland forest, which forms part of an extended swathe of Protected Forest in East Kalimantan. The area is virtually inaccessible for humans, it hosts many orangutan food trees and there are no resident population of orangutans that we would endanger by bringing competitors. They will be transferred together with their familiar caregivers and follow a routine similar to level 3 of Forest School, only in the new location. They will have to adjust to the new environment with all the other endemic wildlife and to find where the good food plants are. In this, they will be supported by their trusted caregivers. Once they know their way about the new area and feel confident to take the lead once more we consider them 'mature'. This is the moment of 'release' from that time on, however long it takes each orangutan to reach this point, they will only be monitored from afar. And we will make sure that no one intrudes and endangers their forest. This will be the best suitable permanent home for our rehabilitated orangutans, where they will be able to live freely and have the opportunity to reproduce and rear offspring safely.

Species conservation and orangutans as umbrella species

Successfully rehabilitated and re-introduced orangutans will contribute to the survival of one of the closest living relatives to humans in the wild. Protecting orangutans contributes more than just protection of individual animals. In their natural habitat, re-introduced orangutans can serve as umbrella species, providing, by their very presence, protection to other endangered species such as rhinoceros, clouded leopard, sun bears, hornbills, and many more.

Orangutan swinging from a branch in the forest

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