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Orangutans: dangers of reintroduction

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It is anything but easy to release young orangutans who have spent most of their lives in the care of humans, into the wild. Each year we release an average of 15 animals in our two reintroduction centers. Read about what could go wrong and how we try to prevent this from happening.

Orangutans: dangers of reintroduction

-
It is anything but easy to release young orangutans who have spent most of their lives in the care of humans, into the wild. Each year we release an average of 15 animals in our two reintroduction centers. Read about what could go wrong and how we try to prevent this from happening.

Release station: back to start is rare

Megaloman came to the Rescue and Care Centre in 2014 as an orphaned one-month-old baby. Our local team, together with the police, had rescued him from illegal pet ownership. The little traumatised orangutan needed time to recover and afterwards had to learn how to survive in the rainforest. Seven years later, the time had finally come: In the rainforest school Megaloman had shown that he could climb safely and that he could build a nest in the top of a tree. He also understood that, as an orangutan, he should not be on the ground too often. Therefore, he was allowed to move to the reintroduction station a day’s journey away in Jantho. Here the orangutans can leave their enclosure and roam freely in a limited area of forest. During this phase of acclimatisation, we still closely monitor the animals. That is why the team was present when Megaloman fall from a considerable height. As a result of the bad fall he suffered a complicated fracture of his leg and had to be brought back to the sanctuary for surgery. Now he is well on his way to recovery and, hopefully, he will soon be able to move back to Jantho.

Orangutans sometimes do fall and injure themselves while climbing, but it’s rare for this to occur in the wild. For young orang-utans raised by us, however, the step into the rainforest is a big one and, despite all our preparations, not without danger. In the so-called “Advanced Forest School” at the reintroduction station, we try to minimise the risk of accidents that force the young animals to start all over again.

In the rainforest, young animals stay with their mothers until they can survive on their own. They learn everything from their mothers, and these make sure their offspring don’t get too cocky. “It is very rare for wild orangutans to fall like Megaloman, and break something. But every now and then we notice on x-ray images of wild orangutans healed bone fractures,” says Brigitte Spillmann, Programme Manager Indonesia at PanEco. The orangutans in the sanctuary are often brought to us at a very young age. And this means that they have to go through time-consuming and lengthy preparations before their reintroduction. A new science-based system will help us to make the decision of when an orangutan is ready for release.

All beginnings are difficult: The smallest ones make their first attempts on the climbing frame in front of the clinic – always close to their keepers.
When they are a little bit older, they go to the rainforest school. But even there, the motivating presence of the keepers is often required.

The most essential skills they must learn are to be able to climb and build a safe nest for the night, and to be able to distinguish edible from inedible fruits. The young orangutans are slowly taught to climb to avoid dangerous falls. First, they are given a small climbing frame made of twigs with tasty fruits hanging higher up. Afterwards, in the rainforest school, they practice climbing in small, protected enclosures and later in larger trees.
Although the urge to climb is instinctive to them, young orangutans need a few years before they can safely climb into the tallest trees and move from tree to tree high up in the treetops.

As the years go by, they also manage the more difficult manoeuvres in the treetops of the rainforest school.

For safety’s sake, the release at the reintroduction station in Jantho also takes place in several stages. Megaloman was still in the protected area where the animals return to their enclosures. The river acts as a natural barrier and prevents them from moving into the wild at a time when they are not yet ready for that. Time and again, this additional safety zone of the rainforest school for advanced pupils has proved its importance. “It can happen that the young animals are not so experienced in building nests or that they get sick when they eat wild fruits and leaves for the first time,” explains Brigitte Spillmann.

For about three months, the members of our team closely observe the orangutans in this zone. They evaluate how the animals behave and if they are able to climb safely. Only when they are sure, the orangutans are taken to the other side of the river, where the way into the rainforest is clear. Only once every few years does it happen that an orangutan from the reintroduction centre has to be brought back to the sanctuary for medical treatment.

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