Explorer's Notebook: Orangutans Headed Toward "Catastrophe"

Jennifer Hile
for National Geographic Today
November 23, 2001

View a Gallery of Borneo's Orangutans: Go>>

People fail to appreciate orangutans' talent as thieves. Highly intelligent and uncanny imitators, orangutans don't take long to figure out how to unzip backpacks and fish out whatever catches their eye.

While filming them in southern Borneo, I quickly learned not to leave bags unattended. My tripod cover, flip-flop sandals, and sunscreen were among the items I never recovered.

The orangutans I was filming are all orphans. Their mothers were killed in the wild.

Once elusive, orangutans are now easy prey as Indonesia's national parks disappear. These little-protected parks can be seen floating downriver—rafts of illegal logs headed toward thriving sawmills.

Left behind is a torn, silent landscape. For orangutans, which live only on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, it's a catastrophe. Eighty percent of their habitat disappeared over the last 20 years, and illegal trade in orangutans as pets is booming.

When the police confiscate pet orangutans, they are taken to Pasir Panjahn, a small village in southern Borneo, where Orangutan Foundation International operates a center whose mission is to prepare orphaned orangutans to be returned to the wild.

What can people teach orangutans, who like to feast on fruit, flowers, and tree bark, about how to survive in the forest? That's what I went to Borneo to find out.

Testing the Wild

The founder of the center, primatologist Birute Galdikas, says the goal is to let the orphaned apes learn from one other and tap their own instincts about surviving in the jungle.

Every morning the animals are let out of the cages where they sleep and are herded into the nearby forest, which serves as a kind of "romper room." They make a beeline for the trees.

The orphaned orangutans spend their days wandering in the canopies of trees—testing which branches hold their weight, finding out what tastes good. These are lessons they would have learned from mom but now must discover on their own.

At the end of the day, they're brought back to the center for supplemental food and water. The infants and juveniles aren't old enough to be on their own just yet. Once they reach age seven or so—the age when they would part from their mothers in the wild—they will be released in the forest.

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