Into the Wild
    Category: Forbes Life By : Alissa Gwynn Read : 2414 Date : Monday, November 04, 2013 - 08:23:25

    Courtesy of Wiwik Astutik

    “Be careful—if you see a baby orangutan and look into his eyes, you'll fall in love,” kids Jamartin Sihite, chief executive of the NGO Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF). He then leads the way into the nursery at BOSF's Samboja Lestari project in East Kalimantan. Inside, nearly a dozen baby orangutans one to two years old happily swing among branches and wrestle with each other in a natural playground near their cages.

    These infant orangutans are all orphans, and have been rescued from almost certain death in the jungle after their parents were killed, typically by poachers. They are learning the developmental skills in a “baby school,” the predecessor of three levels of a “Forest School” of the BOSF's orangutan reintroduction program in both Eastern and Central Kalimantan. This program is fighting an uphill battle against habitat destruction and poachers to rescue, rehabilitate and release the critically endangered great apes back into the wild.

    BOSF currently cares for 806 orangutans, making it the largest orangutan rehabilitation center in the world (versus maybe 50,000 left in the wild). About 75% of the orangutans are release candidates, meaning that they should eventually be able to go back into the wild, while the remaining 25% are long-term sanctuary orangutans that have lost their ability to survive on their own. 

    The organization has 43 orangutans now completing Forest School, in which the orangutans are taken out in to the forest and taught various survival skills, such as how to identify food, build nests and avoid threats like snakes. To “graduate,” the orangutan has to successfully pass through the three levels of self-sufficiency, which upon completion means the great ape should be able to survive in the jungle.

    This Forest School can take years to complete, based on each individual orangutan's progress through the program. “Some orangutans need more time because they spent a longer amount of time with humans and missed out on learning necessary survival skills,” says Wiwik Astutik, the animal care coordinator at BOSF's Samboja Lestari site. The government's Natural Resources Authority (BKSDA) provides orangutans to BOSF after they are displaced by habitat destruction or found near villages—21 orangutans were rescued this way last year.

    In 2012, 50 orangutans were released. This year, Jamartin says BOSF hopes to release 120 orangutans in Central Kalimantan and 20 in East Kalimantan. However, releasing orangutans is not as easy as it seems. BOSF monitors every newly released orangutan from “nest to nest”—orangutans typically build one nest a day high in the trees—for at least a year to ensure they can handle natural living. So far, every orangutan released by BOSF has survived, and the NGO has released over 100 orangutans between 1991 and 2003 (the BOSF was founded in 1991).