This month saw the youngest orangutan at Matang enjoy another week’s camping trip into the national park. The aim of these trips is to allow the youngsters to further acclimatise to the rainforest environment, and to realise that the trees are a fine place to bed down for the night.
One orangutan having no such problem with this realisation is Matang’s youngest and newest arrival – 18 month old Sangdau. During the week of the camping trip, Sangdau was introduced to the forest for the first time since arriving. She was surrendered to the centre in January, and we always delay their first jungle trip for a few reasons:
- When young orphans arrive, it is safe to assume they have been through hell. Even if they are in fairly good physical condition, at the very least they have been witness to their mum being killed, been separated from her and been passed around from person to person. Unfortunately it is all too common for these animals to be in bad physical condition too – with Sangdau, she was frightened, underweight and suffering from conjunctivitis when she arrived, which is not too bad all told. However, it is still an awful lot to have been through at such a young age. On arrival, baby orangutan will always spend at least the first few weeks in a quiet, indoor space where they can get used to their new surroundings, their new carer and start to feel a little at peace with the world again.
- Due to their ordeal, it is quite normal for them to be quite unhappy in the presence of humans, which is understandable of course. If we were to take them to the jungle as soon as they arrive, it is likely that they may attempt to run away and then get lost in the forest. Even a wild born and raised orangutan will not be attempting independent life until they are at least 8 years old, and often older than this. If a one year old orphan took off into the forest with no back up at all, it is a fair assumption that the animal would not survive. Therefore, the first few weeks are spent in close proximity to their new carer, so they learn to trust that person and do not want to flee from them when they are taken into the forest for the first time.
- When orphaned infants are taken to the forest for the first time, they often exhibit a behaviour that they never have in their lives before – walking around on the ground. A consequence of this is exposure to potential pathogens and parasites that they would not encounter if they were with their mums in the tree tops. Worm infections are very common in the first couple of years of jungle school. These infections can make the orangs quite poorly until, after repeated exposure, their bodies develop an immune response to the parasites. If we took them to the jungle as soon as they arrived with us, when they are already suffering from severe stress and malnutrition, it is likely that infection with parasites would be incredibly harmful to them, and might not be something they would be able to bounce back from. Therefore it is important for them to be in good health when they venture into the forest.
- One of the most important stages of rehabilitation for orangs is getting them successfully socialised with other orangutan. With new arrivals, we always begin the socialisation process first in cages, then in a controlled outdoor enclosure. Play fighting/wrestling between young orangs can get quite rough, and it’s not the best idea for these initial play-battles to be taking place 20m+ off the ground in unstable trees.
So, once the orangutan is well settled, friends with his/her carer, good friends with his/her fellow orangutan and in very good mental and physical health, we start their forest-exposure. Sangdau had her first day out with Bunyau, who is rather excellent in the trees already. Sangdau obviously felt like she had returned to her long lost home, as she stayed out in the forest all day. And all night. And all of the following day. And through a huge rain storm. No amount of shouting or bribery would bring her down. This is amazing behaviour to see from such a young orangutan, but does not mean she can be left in the forest and released to wild – a one year old would never survive on her own. Also, releases without any attempt to follow and/or monitor the animals are not responsible, so it can be quite the logistical challenge for a centre to ensure staff enough to be able to go off and live in the jungle for a few months to track the released animal. Indeed, we are already doing just this for a slow loris that has recently been released with a radio collar and have employed extra staff specifically for the task.
It seems to us that one of the most important factors in the rehabilitation of orangutan is the length of time they had in the wild with their mum before they were orphaned. If they had a year or more with their mum, this stands them in excellent stead as they have already learned such a lot of useful information regarding how to live and survive in the forest. All we can really do is provide them with as much exposure to the forest as we can – it is then down to the individual as to whether they will thrive in this environment or continue to covet the safety and familiarity of captivity and the more human-focused world.
Of course due to the slow development of orangutan, we have to wait many years before we can see whether they are truly adapting to the forest environment and therefore being rehabilitated. It is by no means a process that happens quickly, and as the orangs get older, larger, and as a consequence more dangerous to handle, the challenges only increase. Still, hopes are high for Matang’s newest arrival! If you’re still following us in 10 years or so, we’ll let you know if rehab was successful :o)