Rescued orangutans face new test of survival: returning to the wild

Washington Post Foreign Service: 13 November 2009: Andrew Higgins

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Early next year, some 75 orangutans will relocate from a wildlife sanctuary to a remote forest in Central Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on the island of Borneo. After years of living with assistance from humans, can they survive?

PALANGKA RAYA, INDONESIA -- Over the past decade, Lone Droscher-Nielsen, a former Scandinavian Airlines Systems flight attendant, has saved nearly 600 orphaned orangutans in Borneo from almost certain death. Funded by donations from abroad, she's given the apes food, shelter and better health care than many humans in these parts ever get.

Now, the 46-year-old Dane is preparing for a more difficult -- and controversial -- task: returning tame orangutans to the wild. "They were born wild and they deserve to go back in the wild again," said Droscher-Nielsen, founder and director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation and Rescue Project. "That is our ultimate objective."

Early next year, if all goes according to plan, she'll release a first batch of about 75 rehabilitated orangutans into a remote forest in Central Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on the South East Asian island of Borneo. Tiny radio transmitters placed under the skin will monitor their movements -- and also help answer a big question: Can they survive?

Some experts wonder whether orangutans raised by humans will be able to hack life in the forest, and also worry that diseases they might have caught in captivity will harm kin that never left the jungle.

Droscher-Nielsen, whose 10-year-old project has grown into the world's largest primate rescue effort, expects most to make it. "The ones we set free are not going to be wild, but they can manage," she said.

It will take a couple of generations for bad habits picked up in captivity to be completely purged. Disease, she added, shouldn't be a problem because the area selected for the trial release doesn't have a viable orangutan community of its own.

The orangutan -- which means "man of the forest" in a local language -- is one of mankind's closest cousins in the animal kingdom, sharing about 97 percent of its DNA with humans. But it has suffered catastrophically from contact with man.

A century ago, Borneo had more than 300,000 wild orangutans. Today, the number has fallen to about 50,000, most of which live in Central Kalimantan. They could vanish if forests keep getting chopped down at the current rate of what Indonesian environmentalists say equals the size of six football fields every minute. Palm oil plantations, which have expanded rapidly in recent years as demand for the cheap oil surged, have led to an even bigger influx of baby apes at the rescue center.

Droscher-Nielsen initially hoped to start returning orangutans to the wild years ago but, as forests kept retreating, it became increasingly difficult to find a safe place to put them. The task was further complicated by the fact that rehabilitated apes don't fear humans -- a big problem when many humans see them as a menace and want them dead.

Keeping orangutans fed and sheltered is expensive. The Nyaru Menteng project has a staff of about 200 people. Salaries, food, medicines and other expenses mean that it costs about $2,000 a year for each of the nearly 600 apes in residence. That is more than twice the average annual income for humans in the area. Another 400 or so are being cared for in other rehabilitation centers elsewhere in Borneo.

"I'd like to be an orangutan," joked Nordin, a local environmental activist, who like many Indonesians uses just one name. "They get given meals and when they get sick they get sent to hospital."

Droscher-Nielsen's center has a well-equipped clinic. Adults spend much of the day in a nearby peatland forest that is off-limits to loggers and oil palm growers. Each afternoon, dozens come out of the trees for a "social hour" in the main compound. They munch fruit, climb on a jungle gym and play on swings. At night, adult orangutans are escorted to a cluster of cages while younger ones are piled into wheelbarrows and taken to a separate sleeping area.

To survive back in the wild, orangutans will have to forget their pampered past lifestyle. Droscher-Nielsen's staff have devised a number of techniques to try and help prepare them for life on their own in the forest. About 125 apes, for example, have now been moved onto islands in a nearby river, where they have little contact with humans. They still get most of their food provided but have to work much harder to get it: It has been stuck up in trees instead of just left on the ground.

Some of her center's orangutans, said Droscher-Nielsen, have scant chance of ever surviving in the wild, so they will have to stay put until they die. This could mean decades, as the average life expectancy is 40 to 45 years. Those likely to stay include the blind, the maimed and apes "just too plain stupid to make it." Some question whether protecting apes in captivity will contribute to the long-term survival of the species. Rescuing baby orangutans is a "welfare issue but it is not good for conservation," said John Burton, the head of World Land Trust, a British conservation group. He's against returning orangutans that might be carrying human diseases to the forest and thinks that keeping them in expensive rehabilitation centers is "not cost effective" as it only adds to a "world surfeit of captive orangutans." The main focus, said Burton, should be on protecting forests and the wild apes that live in them.

Droscher-Nielsen agrees that the fundamental problem is the destruction of trees. But she also thinks humans must take responsibility now for the havoc they've already caused.

"I don't look at this with my brain. I look at it with my heart. I cannot leave these victims," she said. "We're the cause of their becoming orphans. What should we do, just euthanize them? Should we just kill them and say, 'I don't really care?' "

Staff photographer Linda Davidson contributed to this report.