Anyone who has volunteered at Matang over the last 5-6 years will have seen the daily excursions of Matang’s youngest orangutan to the forest. This is not an activity that volunteers take part in or observe, but during the morning husbandry routines it has been common to see the local keepers leading the young animals out into the national park for forest training.
Taking the youngest orangutan into the forest for daily excursions is common practise at all of the rehabilitation centres, and has become something for which they are known. Documentaries about orangutan have almost all focused on the rehabilitation centres, and the young babies travelling to ‘forest school’. It is of course the ‘cutest’ aspect of the centres, though it leaves a large part of the story untold, as it is only orangutan that are rescued or surrendered as babies that will have the chance to take part in any kind of forest training. Any adults that are surrendered will almost always be destined for a life in captivity, and the centres often struggle to find resources to provide adequate enclosures for the life-time housing of adult orangutan. Therefore, the general public are often left with the impression that the rehabilitation centres are full of baby orangutan only, none of whom are in cages and all are on a successful road to re-release to the wild once they are grown, which is sadly very far from the truth.
It is also assumed that the keepers who accompany the orangutan to the forest are spending their time training the orangs for life in the jungle. However, there is not a great deal that a human can teach an orangutan about how to thrive in the rain forest. Wild orangutan have a far greater understanding of the rain forest than even human scientists that are studying this ecosystem. They are perfectly adapted to this environment and are truly masters of their world. This understanding is achieved through many years of learning from their mothers, and the biggest problem facing rehabilitation efforts is that this education is denied them. It cannot be replaced by people – the best we can do for them is give them as much exposure to the forest as possible, from as young an age as possible, with other orangutan for company. Hopefully this way they can learn through experimentation, familiarity and watching other orangutan, slowly gaining confidence in the jungle world. Orangutan learn a huge amount through observation, as do many young animals (including of course humans), so the fact that humans need to be involved in rehabilitation efforts is actually a significant problem. Through observing their human keepers, orangutan learn that they should be ground dwelling, bipedal and predominantly stationary beings, which are anything but useful lessons to learn!
Prolific exposure to the forest is still the best that we can do, and last month four of the young orangutan at Matang moved out to the ranger station; Ali, Simanggang, Lingga and Doc. Of these four, Ali and Doc have historically shown the most promise with their forest skills, and we attribute this to them having a longer period of time with their mums before they were sadly orphaned (18 months and 15 months respectively). Simanggang was just one month old when he arrived at the centre, and Lingga only six months, so they had precious little time with their mums and were far too young to retain any knowledge of life in the wild. However, we hope that Ali and Doc can provide a good example for the other two orangutan to watch and continue to learn from. Ganti and her son (two existing semi-wild orangutan at Matang) have shown interest in the younger orangutan in the past during their daily trips to the forest; indeed her son has made good friendships with these orangutan and he regularly joined them for play time while Ganti watched from a nearby tree. Ganti and her son are great examples for the orphaned orangutan to follow, so we hope they will take a small role as an educator too.
Unfortunately we have already seen displays of aggressive/frustrated behaviour from Simanggang and a couple of the keepers have suffered minor injuries thanks to bite wounds he has inflicted. He is now a seven year old orangutan, and much stronger than a person. With this new behaviour added to his repertoire, it is unclear if he will be able to remain in the semi-wild where people are present; both the keepers at the site and potential tourists in the park. This is another rarely mentioned problem with orangutan rehabilitation; it is easy to take the youngest orangutan into the forest every day, but what happens when they reach an age where they would be heading for independence in the wild and it transpires that they do not have the skills, personality type or simple willingness to stay out in the forest and up in the trees? What if instead they remain on the ground, show too much interest in the human world, continually return to human areas and start biting people? In these cases the only options are to return the animal to captivity, or try to find island areas where the animal can live in some kind of semi-wild/naturalistic captivity.
For now, all four orangutan remain at the ranger station, with three keepers who are currently all fit and well! We will keep you posted with any changes to or developments at this project site.