Orphaned-Orangutan Rescue Highlights Threats

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June 2, 2009—The rescue of an orangutan in Indonesia underscores threats posed by the expansion of palm oil plantations. Orangutans could be extinct in parts of Borneo within two years, experts say.

© 2009 National Geographic (AP)

Unedited Transcript

This one-year-old orangutan has been rescued from a palm oil plantation in Indonesia. She was saved by a rescue team from the Centre for Orangutan Protection.

The rescuers are on the move on the island of Borneo, also called Kalimantan by Indonesians.

Their mission is to rescue orangutans wherever they are found in a life-threatening situation.

Less than a week before, a palm oil plantation worker encountered a female orangutan and her child wandering inside the plantation. The worker hit the adult orangutan in fear of being attacked. She fled into the jungle, leaving behind her child.

When the rescuers arrive, the young orangutan is freely swinging around on top of the tree branches.

Immediately, they make preparations for what could be a long rescue.

A safety net is put up to catch the orangutan in case it falls.

Tranquilizer blow guns are readied.

Other rescuers are on standby on a boat in case the orangutan falls into the river.

The Centre for Orangutan Protection, formed 2 years ago to rescue orangutans that have lost their natural habitat, is organizing this rescue.

SOUNDBITE: (Indonesian) Lutfi Pratomo, Team Leader, Centre for Orangutan Protection: "Firstly, the location is at a palm oil plantation. Secondly, there have been land clearing activities in this plantation. We know there are orangutans in the area. We are focused on rescuing these orangutans."

Rescuers climb a tree trying to reach the orangutan. But the young orangutan keeps moving around the branches.

Plantation workers look on as the rescue continues.

The plantation manager says he fully supports rescues like this. SOUNDBITE: Nahason Sitorus, Plantation Estate Manager: "We support this rescue and we will inform forestry officials if we find more orangutans. We will work together with them for what needs to be done. We have asked them for instructions."

But many conservationists see palm oil plantations as the main reason why orangutans are losing their habitat. The demand for palm oil is likely to grow as Indonesia plans a dramatic increase in biofuels production.

And the Centre for Orangutan Protection is warning that orangutans could be extinct in some parts of Kalimantan in two years.

SOUNDBITE: (Indonesian) Lutfi Pratomo, Team leader, Centre for Orangutan Protection: "The orangutan population in Kalimantan (cal eh MAN tan)has been driven away by the existence of palm oil plantations. Those populations outside of conservation forests are especially affected by the invasion of palm oil plantations. This will slowly drive orangutans towards extinction."

As the second day of the rescue operation begins, rescuers resort to drastic measures. They cut down a tree where the orangutan is hiding to limit its movement.

They also use a blowgun to inject the young orangutan with tranquilizer.

After waiting for most of the day, the orangutan starts to feel the effect of the drugs.

It falls from the tree landing safely into the net.

Karmele Llano Sanchez is on standby to give on the spot care. She is a veterinary surgeon for International Animal Rescue.

She says orangutans who have wandered away from their habitat are often found in poor health conditions. Malnutrition and dehydration are common in rescued orangutans.

SOUNDBITE: Karmele Llano Sanchez, Veterinary Surgeon, International Animal Rescue: "The adult orangutans in the wild can be relocated to other forest areas, but it has become a problem to find a forest for them. In the present situation, forests are getting smaller, and so is the orangutan habitat."

The rescued orangutan is female. The team estimates she is 5 years old.

She's then taken to the transit shelter for rescued orangutans in the nearest main town, run by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry.

But as people continue their pursuit of valuable resources, the fate of this endangered primate remains uncertain.

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