Two orphaned orangutans, once kept as household ‘pets’, will soon live free in a Borneo nature reserve thanks to the Australian Orangutan Project.
Kevin (aged about 7) and Bobby (5) almost certainly lost their mothers when their forest habitat was clear-felled. Increasingly, Indonesian forests are cleared for agriculture — usually palm oil or paper plantations — and the adult orangutans either starve or are killed as pests.
“The adults die but the babies are sold as pets,” Australian Orangutan Project (AOP) founder and president Leif Cocks explains.
Wealthy buyers will pay as much as US$10,000 for a cute baby orangutan, despite the fact that the trade is illegal, as is keeping the animals as domestic pets.
“The way they’re treated varies,” Cocks told Australian Women Online. “Some people really love them; some people literally torture them. But in the end it’s never a good situation, because once they get larger and stronger they tend to get stuck in a cage in the back yard.”
Kevin and Bobby received ‘reasonable’ treatment, he says, although both were removed from their native Borneo and taken to Sumatra. Kevin was held in captivity by a businessman whereas Bobby was kept by a former district regent. “It proved that even high-ranking officials could still keep protected wild animals.”
The little orangutans were rescued by the Indonesian Nature Conservation Department and the Sumatra Orangutan Conservation Programme, Kevin in 2006 at age two and Bobby in 2009 at age three. Since then, they have lived in an AOP-funded quarantine centre in North Sumatra.
Rehabilitating the rescued orangutans is not straightforward, according to Cocks. These babies have been taken from their mothers at an age when they are still breastfed — for the first four to six years of his or her life, an infant orangutan holds tight to its mother’s body as she moves through the forest in search of fruit.
“The major thing we have to provide is help in psychological development. These animals are very young; they should really be with their mothers. At the centre the very little ones are usually looked after by human caregivers, then as they get older they’re paired up with other orangutans, to learn social skills.”
Kevin and Bobby grew and gained weight, became sociable and, like other young males, began to love rough play. “They were very much ready for a return to life in the wild,” said Cocks.
But they were on the wrong island. Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are separate species, and mixing the two could damage the genetic viability of the already-threatened wild populations.
At this point the AOP stepped in, funding the return home of the two orangutans. On September 19 they flew to Borneo via Jakarta, arriving ‘not too stressed’, peering out of their cargo crate and curious about their new surroundings.
Soon, following final pre-release medical checks, Kevin and Bobby will travel by river on a longboat, to the 76,000-hectare Lamandau reserve, which is financially supported by the AOP.
Once at the reserve they will be housed in a large cage for a few more weeks — but this time deep in the swamp forest that they will soon be free to explore.
“We call it a ‘soft release’,” says Cocks. “They spend some time in cages until they’re familiar with the area, then we let them out and give them food. Slowly they make their own way away from the camp, and try to pair up with other orangutans.”
“All orangutans deserve the chance to be wild. The transfer of Kevin and Bobby is a small step towards making this happen.”
The Australian Orangutan Project is a not-for-profit organization. As well as rehabilitating and reintroducing displaced orangutans back to the wild, it supports orangutan conservation, rainforest protection and local community partnerships, all in order to save the two orangutan species from extinction.
How to help
Australian Orangutan Project is in constant need of funding, as it struggles to help support the more than 2000 orphaned orangutans in rescue and rehabilitation centres in Indonesia and to maintain the Lamandau River Wildlife Reserve, as well as AOP’s other programs. Donate at www.orangutan.org.au or by calling 1300 733 273.