When law enforcement authorities rescue orangutans from being kept illegally as pets, the animals can’t simply be returned to the jungle. “They’d probably been captured as infants and have no skills to survive in the wild,” said Jan Vertefeuille, Head of Campaigns for the World Wildlife Fund.
But a special school in Bukit Tigapuluh, Indonesia teaches Sumatran orangutans the skills they need to thrive in the rainforest. This reintroduction program was started in 2003, and has introduced over 160 orangutans to the wild.
The population of Sumatran orangutans in the wild has declined by an estimated 80 percent in last 75 years, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Critically endangered, Sumatran orangutans spend nearly their entire lives in trees–the main threat facing these primates in habitat loss. Indonesia has cut down trees at one of the highest rates of any nation over the course of the past decade, dramatically shrinking the forests many species call home. However, poaching for the pet trade is also a serious problem for orangutans.
The jungle school is run by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, The Orangutan Project of Australia, and the ministry of forestry in Indonesia. Dagmar Andres-Brümmer at the Frankfurt Zoological Society said all of the confiscated orangutans have been orphaned by poaching. “Most of them were part of the pet trade, however many of them were traded locally and not by the highly organized pet mafia,” said Andres-Brümmer. “Several orangutans were rescued in Malaysia (these were all Sumatra orangutans) but the majority come from Indonesia.”
In order to capture a baby orangutan, the mother is typically shot and many babies die due to poor handling by middlemen. It’s estimated that five animals die for each one sold on the black market.
At the school, however, these orphans get another chance to learn the skills their mothers would have taught them. There are two settings for the orangutans to learn in: enclosures with toys and other enrichment items, and open forest areas for “freestyle” learning. The orangutans learn to stay high in trees, where they’re generally safer, and to forage for fruit, edible flowers and insects.
When the pupils have completed their education, they are then returned to the wild—but caretakers continue to monitor them using radio tracking and visual check-ups. Last year, seven graduates were successfully released. For two years following each release, the team of caretakers will ensure the animals are getting enough food and haven’t fallen ill.
Last week brought some more good news for the estimated 300 Sumatran organutans living in the Bukit Tigapuluh area. WWF and its partners announced that a new concession granted by the Indonesian government will be dedicated to ecosystem restoration. “The granting of this concession by the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry was an important milestone towards the conservation of this critically endangered species,” said Andres-Brümmer. The concession represents a 25 percent increase in the protected habitat for all the species that call this forest home, including critically endangered Sumatran tigers and elephants.
However, Indonesia’s forests are still in danger of disappearing in the face of expanding palm oil plantations and the paper and pulp industry. Readers who want to help species facing extinction can donate to the project and can write their government representatives calling for support of policies designed to discourage illegal forest products. Right now, the WWF is running a campaign calling on the U.S. Congress to fully implement the Lacey Act amendments.