Orangutans are an animal I had always wanted to work with and in 2019 I got the chance to spend four weeks with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in Indonesian Borneo. It was a long journey to get there with four flights from Dublin to get to Palangkaraya, it was then an hour’s drive to the sanctuary that is right on the edge of a rich rainforest. The Nyaru Menteng sanctuary is perhaps most famous for the recent series that was on Channel 4 called ‘Orangutan Jungle School’ (in fact they were starting filming for Series 3 when I was there). There are several orangutan centres on Borneo but I chose BOSF due to their no-contact policy for visitors, that is something I admire given the pull of offering close encounter experiences to tourists. After arriving early in the morning, I was shown to my accommodation, these were wooden huts on stilts in the middle of floodplains just off the rainforest. The huts were linked together by raised walkways, it looked like a film set, entirely surrounded by nature on all sides.
I completed ten days of quarantine before I could come into close contact with any orangutans. This is because they are so closely related to us that if I was carrying even just a cold it could pass to one of the orangutans very easily. I spent the days in the veterinary laboratory looking at faecal samples (which doesn’t sound like fun but it was!), doing work for my Master’s and even starting this blog! Even though this felt like a long time to not be doing hands-on work, it was well worth the wait. After the ten days, I pulled blood, administered meds and got to spend time with the younger orangutans in jungle school. It was an absolute privilege as the regular volunteers are not allowed to do this; they make enrichment for the enclosures instead. The orphans that come into the foundation have to be hand-raised, in the wild they would be with their mother until they are around 7 years old. This means that they need help learning the skills they will need to survive in the wild.
Going into Jungle School was pretty amazing. The centre sits just off the rainforest and the path to school every day is to walk on narrow wooden walkways made of tall tree trunks. When you take your first step on the walkways it is as if a sheet of green has swallowed you up, the rainforest engulfs you on every side. The classes are scattered in small alcoves of greenery dotted around the rainforest. The arrival at one of these alcoves was normally marked by a bright flash of orange high up in the trees hurriedly making their way down to check out the new class visitor, quickly followed by everyone else.
Now to the not so nice part, where are all the babies coming from? ‘A number of places’ is the answer. Their mothers can be killed when they encroach on crops or palm oil plantations, for bushmeat, they can starve due to the deforestation going on in Borneo or, worst of all, they can be deliberately targeted in order for the baby orangutan to be sold on the illegal pet market. While I was at the centre a Russian man was caught trying to get back to Russia with a drugged orangutan baby in his luggage!
People think the answer is simple to save the orangutans; stop using palm oil. The problem is much bigger and more complex than this. Deforestation on Borneo is not just happening because of palm oil plantations. It is happening because of illegal logging and mining as well. Regardless, palm oil is a very high yielding crop, if you just swap it for another type of vegetable oil then the problem worsens as more land has to be cleared to produce the same amount of oil needed. Therefore, the focus has to be on sustainable palm oil rather than eradicating it. (I am currently writing my dissertation for my MVetSci in Conservation Medicine about this topic with regards to Donna Haraway’s term the ‘Plantationocene’!)
The system that BOSF have is the baby orangutans come in, they go to forest school where they are divided into classes where they learn all the skills that they would have learned from their mothers. After this, they go to the ‘pre-release’ islands as a trial run before release. These are huge islands of jungle floating in a river to replicate as natural an environment as possible. If the orangutans are thriving then they can then be released into the jungle. If they are not fending for themselves, however, they are brought back to the sanctuary for more training.
As I was going as a qualified vet now, I was given all areas access to the orangutans that was a truly unforgettable experience. As I mentioned before, BOSF is very strict about ‘regular’ volunteers having absolutely no direct contact with the orangutans; they must be at least 6ft away and have a face mask on the entire time. I was allowed direct contact for treating and caring for them in a medical capacity.
BOSF also do not allow ‘regular’ volunteers into the forest where the ‘Jungle School’ programme is predominantly filmed for several reasons, 1) this would mean extra-human exposure when release is the end goal and 2) because it would expose the baby orangutans to more potential infectious pathogens. Shadowing the vets I was also given permission to go into the forest with them as some of the baby orangutans need treating. I was incredibly lucky to get this experience. I realised why it would not be possible for ‘regular’ volunteers to go into the forest with them the first day I spent with the baby orangutans. I don’t know if you have ever seen ‘The Walking Dead’, or indeed, any other zombie tv series or movie but that is what it was like. I had one orangutan baby attached to each limb at one point!
At the end of the day around 4 pm, the infants come back from forest school and have a play in the playground at the centre for about an hour. The ‘regular’ volunteers come and watch them in their last week but because the vet clinic is right by the playground I was able to watch them every day but was told that I was absolutely not allowed to approach any of them unnecessarily, if they voluntarily came up to me then that was fine but otherwise no. I greatly admire BOSF’s standpoint on contact, when so many other sanctuaries have caved into pandering to tourists at the expense of the animals’ welfare, they have stayed strong and true to their principles to give the orangutans the best chance of returning where they belong.
Most days the odd curious and/or naughty orangutan infant would come up to me, the picture is of when a huge thunderstorm broke out just as they had come back from school. They were all sheltering to get away from the lashing rain, the babysitters decided it was best to call it a night and started putting the orangutans to bed. Little Wine (pronounced ‘Winnie’ as I very embarrassingly found out later!) came over to me and paused for a moment to hold my legs, then climbed up and embraced me, she could have gone straight to her bed, it was closer than I was, but she wanted some comfort. A magic moment but one that should never have happened if all was right in the world and she had been where she belonged in the wild.
Now people who don’t know enough may say absolutely no direct contact should be allowed at the sanctuary. When the orphans come in, it is just not possible to do that. Orangutan babies stay with their mothers until they are about 7 years of age, getting taught everything they need to know about how to live in the jungle. With their mother gone, they need to be taught those skills if they have any hope of being released back into the wild. MOST IMPORTANTLY, as I mentioned earlier, unlike most other species, even when orangutans are hand-raised they do not get habituated to humans forever and so can still be released as has been proven by BOS with more than 200 orangutans released back into the wild. I have to stress that volunteers at BOSF are in no way allowed to touch the orangutans. The only people who are allowed contact are handlers and vets who are allowed to interact with them for treatment.
BOSF is doing a great job, however, they need more land to create more pre-release islands. This will mean that there is a quicker transition between the orangutans finishing Jungle School and going to the pre-release islands; a time where they are sitting in cages. This time can often be years depending on how the orangutans’ skills are developing as they wait for a space on the pre-release islands. Obviously, this is both detrimental to their mental health and will ultimately reduce the chance that they can be successful on reintroduction to the wild. You can help by donating to BOSF to allow them to buy more land to create more pre-release islands. By doing this, we can ensure that orangutans are reintroduced to the jungle where there belong as soon as possible. Orangutans are crucial to seed dispersal in the rainforest, getting them back into the rainforest sooner will increase biodiversity. We can help the orangutan become the King of the Jungle once again.
If you’d like to see a video of my time in Borneo please click here!