During routine orangutan husbandry this week, a slight error (!) led to Ohm wandering out the front door of his cage, pounding through the roof of the orang dens and climbing along the wall of the sun bear enclosure to have a little look at the forest.
Since his arrival to the centre back in 2011, we have wondered whether Ohm would be a potential orangutan to under-go some kind of rehabilitation in the jungle. In our experience, one of the best indicators for successful rehabilitation of orangutan is their history before they end up at a rescue centre. The amount of time spent with their mums in the wild is vital, as orangs don’t tend to forget skills they have learned.
One orphan at Matang, an orang named Ali, was roughly 18 months old when he was brought to Matang. Though this means the event of being orphaned can be harder to get over as he would have significant memory of his mum and awareness of what happened to her, it also means he had 18 months of life in the jungle learning about different tree species, climbing and moving around the canopy, what foods to eat and what trees make good nests. Armed with this knowledge, Ali is proving excellent in the forest, is a good example for younger orangutan and is a strong candidate for semi-wild life when he is older.
Ohm’s earliest days are unknown; though he was born in the wild we don’t know how old he was when he was orphaned. We do know that for many of his earliest years he was trained to perform in shows at zoos. We estimated him to be roughly 10 years old when he arrived at Matang. He was clearly very comfortable around humans and showed no fear or alarm to be in close proximity to people he didn’t know. He was also very comfortable walking around bipedally, a behaviour you wouldn’t expect to see in a more wildly-behaving orangutan.
Ohm quickly proved himself to be very smart, though his familiarity and creativity with human tools and cages further spoke of years around humans rather than trees. While he was in Matang’s quarantine area, we had to restrict the things we would give him for enrichment – a branch that was too long would be used to break lights and ceiling tiles, browse or bamboo too strong would be used to lever off bits of his cage, sacks would be used to fish for buckets, brooms, hoses and the occasional volunteer. Even heavy food items were a hazard, as he’d fling them out of his cage at unsuspecting passers-by.
The problem when thinking about rehabilitation for individuals like Ohm is his age and size. Jungle training across the rehabilitation centres is focused on the young baby orangutan, in large part of course because most of the centres receive many more babies than adults, and starting jungle time from as young as age as possible is obviously preferable. Older, humanised orangutan are a danger, to themselves and to any keepers that have to work with them outside of a cage. Though the instinct to climb seems pretty hardwired, indeed the physiology of the orangutan has evolved to give them every advantage off of the ground, the trees themselves are difficult to master. One of the reasons baby orangs stay with their mums for so many years is because there is an incredible amount to learn about the trees in the forest, and how to move through them safely.
Well, Ohm took matters into his own hands and decided to explore the wider world for a while. Unfortunately though he seemed rather terrified of the jungle. He took himself along the wall of the orangutan and bear enclosures and did head into the forest, though only a few steps. It was sad to see him looking confused and fearful of what should be his natural habitat. This is the reality facing the majority of animals that are rescued from pet trade or illegal zoos; their time with humans can ruin essential survival skills and instincts, and dumping these animals back in the middle of the forest is commonly a certain death sentence for them. Often the best thing we can offer is life in a sanctuary environment, though with this comes the challenge of funding and providing adequate care over perhaps a 50 year lifetime. For more information and insight into the challenges faced by centres dealing with confiscated or surrendered animals, have a read of the relevant IUCN Guildelines.
After about an hour spent outside, Ohm looked ready to return to his enclosure. He sat calmly with Leo in the jungle, and Leo was able to inject him by hand with an anaesthetic, after which the keepers were able to safely handle Ohm and carry him back to the night dens, where he slept off the drug and excitement. It can not be overstated that the keepers that had to be around Ohm in the forest were certainly not in a safe situation, and Leo was far from relaxed sitting next to him, offering up a needle for injection. To be able to do this, it is essential to have an established relationship with an animal, but there is still no predicting how they might react to such a strange and scary situation, however well you feel you get on with them. Thankfully though, Leo and the team returned with all body-parts intact, and an uninjured Ohm too. Pretty successful really!
The animals at Matang, with the exception of a few individuals born in captivity, have all been poached from the wild, kept or traded by humans, and later rescued, confiscated or surrendered from often miserable conditions. We find a lot of satisfaction in working to make each day a little more enjoyable for these guys, though sometimes they can be quite broken or physically damaged from their experiences and therefore hard to ‘cheer up’. However, we do believe that life can and will get better for each of the animals at Matang, whether that be through increased enrichment, construction of larger enclosures, semi-wild release where possible or socialisation with con-specifics. Or all of the above!
In accepting that a lot of the animals will never be released back to the wild, and freeing ourselves from the notion that the animals need to be rescued from the rescue centres, we can focus on showing these animals a better side of humanity and giving them some enjoyment in their lives. There are still thousands of animals held in illegal, abusive conditions that are in need of rescue and sanctuary, and it’s these as-yet-unknown individuals that need our greatest sympathy and our greatest efforts to help.