Sun, 06 Aug 2000

Captive orangutans relearn what nature intended

By PJ Leo

SAMBOJA, East Kalimantan (JP): Slowly but surely, several young orangutans (pongo pygmaeus) climb the tall trees of Wanariset, Samboja, East Kalimantan, after being released from cages in the morning.

After a day of playing in the trees, swinging and moving among the cluster of branches, they return to their cages in the evening.

One day, if they are judged to be ready to live on their own, the jungle will once again be their home.

Young orangutans separated from their mothers before they were fully reared are cared for at Wanariset, which is run through aid from animal lovers from inside and outside the country.

Some of the animals are the victims of human greed, orphaned after their mothers were killed by hunters. Others lost their habitat from forest fires, many of which were set by people.

"The population of orangutans is already on the brink of extinction," said tropical forest expert Willie Smits, who is also the chief and founder of the Wanariset Orangutan Reintroduction Project.

"If the government is not serious in upholding the law for those who hunt and sell the orangutan as well as those who destroy and burn the forests, then the orangutan population will in two or three decades share the same fate with the Sumatran tiger and Javan rhinoceros, with populations which can be counted on one's hands."

The project was started in 1991 as part of the activities of Wanariset Station, located in the jungle of Samboja, about 38 kilometers from Balikpapan. Its Kalimantan Project from forestry research agency Tropenbos trains forestry officials and local populations in sustainable use of forests.

There are about 250 young orangutans in quarantine at Wanariset. About 100 more from different places in the country are waiting for entry to Wanariset; for the time being they are kept at zoos in their areas. Hundreds of other young orangutans in foreign countries, mainly Taiwan, are also on the waiting list for an opening at Wanariset.

"For every orangutan sold on the market, people must kill at least three adult orangutans, especially the mother. While a female orangutan can only give birth and raise a maximum of three offspring during her lifetime," Smits said.

To introduce animals raised as pets to life in the jungle, the center has created a special playground. Only orangutans under two years of age which have passed selection by a medical team are permitted to play in the area. They are free to play from morning until the evening under the supervision of their keepers.

In addition to the playground, Wanariset has opened up a jungle area of about 10 hectares on land owned by state oil and gas company Pertamina. It is designated as a "halfway house" to provide the transition period for the orangutans before they return to life in the jungle. Only orangutans which are at least three years old and have passed medical selection can reside in the area.

"After being at the site from six months to a year, the young orangutans are ready to released into their natural habitat in the wild," Smits said. "They will be taken to a protected area of forest near the Wain River about 40 km from Wanariset, or protected forest near Mt. Meratus which is about 100 km from Wanariset."

Hundreds of orangutans once kept as pets are now doing what comes naturally after being returned to the wild by the project. Wanariset is in the process of establishing another orangutan conservation area at Nyaru Menteng near Palangkaraya, South Kalimantan.