A successful release

4 August 2008

At BOS, our ultimate goal is the release of healthy orangutans back into the wild - so it’s always gratifying to be able to give our supporters good news about just such an event - the first translocation programme of 2008.

This took place when we recently transported 25 orangutans to freedom in an area of protected forest in Central Kalimantan. These orangutans were not part of our rehabilitation programme at Nyaru Menteng, but wild orangutans which had been rescued from areas of rainforest which had been devastated by the establishment oil-palm plantations, forcing them to go in search of food wherever it could be found.

They had been brought into Nyaru Menteng at various stages during the past year.  On arrival their condition was assessed and they were medically checked to ensure that they were fit enough to be relocated to their natural habitat at the earliest opportunity.

The area in which the release was to take place had to be carefully chosen. The one selected, a large valley,  about 70,000 hectares in size, is in the interior of Central Kalimantan, along the Banana River - an appropriate name for the release of a group of orangutans, although it was not, we believe, actually named after the fruit! 

It’s an area which is safe from hunting, due to its inaccessibility. The rivers are full of big rocks, making it impossible for the local people to use boats, and the few landings visible at the mouth of the river look as though they had been deserted some years ago.  No large settlements are evident along the river banks, and there are no villages close by.  It is also within the boundaries of the Heart of Borneo, which would offer an increased opportunity for conservation management.

Since these orangutans had not been part of our rehabilitation programme, it wasn’t necessary for the area in which they were released to be free of a wild population.  This part of Central Kalimantan has always been considered to be well within the historical range of orangutans, and although there are still a few of them in the forests here, there are no substantial breeding populations. It’s estimated that one orangutan per square kilometre, maybe even more, could easily be supported here, since the lowland forests along the Banana River would be likely to provide a fair amount of food, and the network of small rivers indicates the existence of a number of fruiting trees.

The group of orangutans which left Nyaru Menteng on that morning in June consisted of 14 males - nine adults and five sub-adults, and 15 females, one of which was Pika, a baby of two-and-a-half years, with her mother, Mama Pika.  They were accompanied by Lone Droscher Nielsen, a paramedic, two orangutan caretakers, a communications officer, a doctor, two members of a BBC camera crew and two representatives of the BKSDA (Agency for Conservation of Natural Resources).

For the first leg of their journey, the orangutans were settled into their individual cages and flown by Cessna, eight at a time, from the nearby Palangka Raya airport to a transit point, IndOmUro Kecana - the operation taking two days to complete.  Here they were put into large individual holding cages, similar to the ones in which they had been kept at the Centre.  They seemed to have taken their first flight well in their stride - despite being awake during the entire 50-minute trip - and spent the next day resting, whilst the translocation team were helicoptered to the release site to co-ordinate activities in the field.

On the following day, the first five orangutans were transferred to their transit cages for the 30-minute helicopter flight to the release site. Any change in weather, such as strong winds or rain, could result in disruption to the schedule, and some low, dense, ground fog did indeed delay their departure. At around 11.00 am, however, the helicopter finally took off, four cages of precious cargo suspended beneath it.  Mama Pika and her baby were amongst this group, which also included M Otong, Yoyon and Ardi.

The second group - Keray, Nelly, Mustapa and Difta - also had their departure delayed, this time by a heavy downpour, and had to wait until 3.00 pm for their flight.

It must have been slightly petrifying for these wild animals to wake up hanging under a helicopter, high over the canopy of their new home,” says Lone. “Though they are in transit cages and cannot see much, they certainly must feel the movement and hear the noise of the helicopter.  However, when the cage is opened, they rush out as if nothing has happened, and quickly climb into the nearest tree.  Some of them are still slightly drugged, and might stagger around a bit before disappearing into the forest, but one thing is for sure - all of them will turn around, once in safety, and have a look at us, as if they want to thank us for giving them this second chance in life.”

Good weather the following day meant that Devsing, Chelsea, Arimbi, Chris, Jimmy and Pangit were able to leave on schedule, at around 9.00 am, followed at noon by Senny, Dion, Siwi, Bojeng and Leli.

On the final day, the weather turned again, but by 11.00 am, the final four orangutans, Mapak, Yanti, Odah and Gromik, also found themselves on their way to freedom.

At a future date, field researchers and primatologists will carry out a nest survey, which will provide information on how widely the newly released orangutans have spread out, living as nature intended, and making their valuable contribution to both the ecosystem of the rainforests and the survival of their species.
 
“Everyone at Nyaru Menteng is so very happy to be able to give these orangutans another chance in life,” Lone says, “and you can be sure that we’ll continue to save the lives of orangutans as long as we are able to.”