Indonesia: Young orangutans find sanctuary in Pulang Pisau

Moses Ompusunggu The Jakarta Post 4 May 17;

At the verdant Salat Island orangutan pre-release site in Pulang Pisau, Central Kalimantan, Romeo, a 10-year-old male orangutan, was busy trying to open a coconut using a rock in a scene reminiscent of the ape-like men’s actions in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 magnum opus 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The coconut was supplied by workers of the facility — run by local conservation group the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) — who also beckoned Romeo’s fellow orangutans, 24 in total, to have lunch with him under the lush rainforest canopy.

“He [Romeo] needs to be familiar with life in the wild. That’s why we don’t feed him, but merely provide him with the fruits, letting the orangutans open them up by themselves,” BOSF CEO Jamartin Sihite told The Jakarta Post during a recent visit to the site.

The BOSF, the biggest orangutan rehabilitation foundation worldwide, currently takes care of around 700 orangutans in its facilities on Salat Island and in Nyaru Menteng in Central Kalimantan and Samboja in East Kalimantan. The group members describe themselves as “teachers, as well as mothers” for the apes and aim to rehabilitate them before releasing them in the wild.

Workers in Nyaru Menteng lead a school forest program for the orangutans that teaches survival and food gathering skills, among others. After they are deemed mature enough to face situations in the wild, they are relocated to the pre-release site and spend six months to a year there before being released to the wild.

In order to provide more prerelease sites for the orangutans, BOSF has teamed up with publicly listed palm oil company PT Sawit Sumbermas Sarana, which bought 1,434 hectares of land around the current Salat Island site. “We hope to go from being the biggest rehab foundation in the world for orangutans to the smallest. Something must be wrong if we are still the biggest,” Jamartin said.

Just an hour’s drive from Salat Island, a delta in the Kahayan River, dozens of infant orangutans played with women acting as their surrogate mothers after concluding their daily reintroduction training at a sekolah hutan (forest school) at BOSF’s rehabilitation center in Nyaru Menteng.

One of the women, Sri Rahayu, an employee at the facility since 2007, spends most days taking care of the orangutans. She said she would always “burst into tears” when any of the arboreal apes “passed the training,” which typically lasts six to seven years.

“But the tears are not a form of sadness. Rather, I cry because finally they are a step closer to becoming real orangutans,” said Sri.

Orangutans are dependent on their mothers for seven years before they fend for themselves, but rampant deforestation driven by land clearing for industries, such as palm oil, timber and mining, has threatened the species and its natural bonding process.

With forests shrinking at an alarming rate, orangutans are forced to seek new homes, such as in plantations. Locals, meanwhile, often capture the infants as pets, leaving the mothers behind.

Nyaru Menteng rehabilitation center manager Denny Kurniawan said around 40 percent of the orangutans in the foundation’s facilities in Central Kalimantan were rescued from plantations, thanks to tip-offs from citizens. The remaining 60 percent come from locals who previously kept them as pets.