Bringing Orangutans Back Into The Wild

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Bringing Orangutans Back Into The Wild

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The name orangutan derives from the Malay and Indonesian phrase ‘orang-hutan’, meaning ‘person of the forest’. It appears that these animals share 97 per cent of our DNA. They express emotions just like we do.

Orangutans are highly intelligent. They have the ability to reason, think and can use tools. During heavy tropical rainstorms or hot days, they have been known to make ‘umbrellas’ out of big leaves. They can learn and pass on behaviours. Orangutans in south-central Borneo have been observed to self-medicate by using plants to treat infection and inflammation.

Orangutans are only found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, living in lowland and mountain tropical rainforests. They do spend time on the ground but make nests in trees where they rest and sleep. Males can weigh up to 100 kilograms and are the heaviest tree-dwelling animal. Their feet are designed like a second pair of hands: opposable thumbs and big toes help them climb, travel through the canopy. They can even eat with their feet.

There are three species of orangutan – the Tapanuli orangutan, the Sumatran orangutan, and the Bornean orangutan. Just a century ago, there were probably more than 230 000 orangutans. Scientists estimate that there are now fewer than 14,000 Sumatran orangutans and about 57,000 Bornean orangutans living in the wild today. More than half of the population (nearly 150,000 orangutans) vanished in Borneo over 16 years between 1999 and 2015. In the IUCN Red List, both are listed as critically endangered.

The orangutans were transported across land and rivers in a 20-hour journey to their freedom. The seven latest orangutans released join 22 others which had been released since 2016. Photo by BOS

Working to Save the Orangutans

Australians are no strangers to endemic or endangered wildlife. Eighty per cent of Australia’s flora and fauna is unique to the continent: kangaroos, dingos, wallabies, wombats, koalas and the platypus being just a few of their well known native species. 

So it’s not so strange that an Australian not-for-profit organization, Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS), is dedicated to raising awareness and funds to protect the critically endangered Bornean Orangutans and their habitat.

BOS Foundation, the parent organisation of BOS Australia, rescues, rehabilitates and releases displaced orangutans back into their natural habitat. They operate in cooperation with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

Ten rehabilitated orangutans were released back into the forests of Borneo in February. Another seven have just been released in June into the forests of Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park (TNBBBR) in Central Kalimantan, Borneo.

Two hundred and twenty-two other orangutans that have been successfully released into the National Park since 2016. However, there are still 416 orangutans in care across the two centres managed by BOS.

Why Is It So Difficult to Rehabilitate Orangutans In Their Habitat?

The rehabilitation process takes between seven to 16 years to ensure they have the best chance of successful integration back into the wild. It is slow due to the long-sustained abuse most of the orangutans have previously suffered.

Suayup, a 22 year-old female had been abused as an illegal pet. It took 15 years after she was rescued before she was successfully rehabilitated and released into the National Park in Central Kalimantan, Borneo. Photos by BOS
Suayap finally tastes freedom.

One of the orangutans just released is a 22-year old female, Suayap, who was rescued 15 years ago from a life that saw her forced to live like a human for entertainment. She was also forced to perform in boxing shows.

Orangutans are our closest relatives. Unfortunately, it also means they are susceptible to the COVID virus. Strict health protocols and rigorous testing of COVID-19 has added another layer of complexity and slowed down the process.

Sadly, not all orangutans can be rehabilitated.

BOS Australia President, Tony Gilding, said of the latest release, ”To release another seven rehabilitated orangutans safely so soon after our February release – and still with COVID causing additional stress and delays – is an incredible achievement. The care and generosity of Australians have been key in making this second release a possibility, and we have been humbled by the response.” 

The Lifecycle of an Orangutan Resembles That of a Human

Orangutans have a lifespan of 30-40 years in the wild and are solitary animals. Males only hook up to mate and then resume their solitary life.

The only permanent bond is between mother and infant. A female orangutan will not reach sexual maturity until she is about 14 to 16 years of age and will only bear offspring once every six to eight years. They give birth to one infant at a time after eight and a half months of pregnancy, and they do not have another child until the first infant reaches seven years of age. This is the longest inter-birth interval known in the animal kingdom. Orangutan babies nurse for up to six years. Females will stay with their mother into their teens to observe mothering skills they will soon need.

Amber at home in the trees. Photo by BOS

Threats, Deforestation, Illegal Pet Trade and Poaching

The principal threat for orangutans is deforestation and the subsequent loss of their habitat. Illegal pet trading and poaching are also to blame.

In the past 20 years, over 80 per cent of the habitable rainforest in Indonesia and Malaysia has been lost largely because of legal and illegal logging. Palm oil plantations are steadily replacing forests areas. Land clearing also leads to frequent forest fires during the dry season.

Researchers predict that deforestation alone could wipe out another 45,000 individuals by 2050 (Voigt et al., 2018, Current Biology).

Sourcing for food and shelter brings them into conflict with humans. Not only are they killed to protect crops, but hundreds of orangutans are hunted by locals annually for meat or traditional medicine. It is estimated that 750 to 1,250 individuals are killed in human-orangutan conflicts each year.

While adult orangutans are killed, baby orangutans are captured to sell as exotic pets. As these cute babies grow larger and stronger, they are simply killed or kept confined.

Some experts are predicting extinction in the wild likely to be within 10 to 20 years without effective protection of orangutan habitat.

There are currently 416 orangutans in the two centres managed by BOS. Despite having released 17 orangutans this year, there are still 16 rehabilitated orangutans waiting for sufficient funding to be released.

BOS Australia is currently working to raise these additional funds to free the waiting orangutans before the end of the year. Please help make this happen by visiting the links below.

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