Orangs - Out on a Limb

Article written by photojournalist Annemarie Hollitzer

Lestari is an orphan. She is only five years old and all she wants to do is hold your hand. Her thin, long fingers reach through the rusty bars of the quarantine cage and grasp yours in a firm grip. Lestari is a timid, female orang-utan, whose sad, wrinkled face looks worried beyond her years. A few months ago she arrived at the Bohorok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in North Sumatra, Indonesia after spending her first years with a family at Pekanbaru. She has not known life in the wild and she is still hungering for human contact.

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Lestari is too young and helpless to be rehabilitated into the jungle. She'll have to wait till she's seven or eight. In the wild, young orangs still cling to their mothers until they are four or five and most are not completely weaned until they're seven. Separated from her mother when she was still a baby, Lestari has never learnt how to climb trees or how to search for food in the jungle. In fact, she only feels secure in her cage. When Nurdin, the National Park Ranger, takes her out for a short spell in the open, she is petrified, and when he lifts her up to the lower branches of a tree to encourage her to climb, she screams in distress. Only when she is safely back in her enclosure, does she relax again.

In the cage behind Lestari young Jonny swings restlessly to and fro. He is also five years old but boyishly boisterous and confident. When offered an outing, he only hesitates for a moment before he scrambles up the nearest tree. We watch him disappear into its leafy crown. Soon the first green twigs and shoots start to hit the ground as he exuberantly strips the tree of its thinner branches. Obviously, climbing trees will not be a problem for Jonny, but there is still much more to learn before he can be successfully released into the jungle. To survive in the wild, an orang also needs to know which fruits, berries and leaves to eat, and how to build a nest for the night by breaking and bending leafy branches.

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The Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre was established in 1973 to help orphaned or previously captive orangs like Lestari and Jonny learn all the necessary skills for life in the wild. Located on the banks of the Bohorok River, on the border of the 900,000 hectare Gunung Leuser National Park, the Centre was started by two young women, Regina Frey and Monika Borner, supported by donations from the Frankfurt Zoological Society. After seven years of direct involvement, the Society handed over the administration to the Indonesian Government and the Centre is now run by the their Forestry Department, the PHPA.

Next morning we set out early from our hotel and follow the path that runs along the river. Lining the banks are an assortment of small hotels and guesthouses catering for the many young backpackers who visit this area. The early morning air is pleasantly cool and the crowns of the tall trees lining the path still shine with moisture from last night's rain. Tiny droplets shower down as tribes of macaques and Thomas Leaf monkeys swing through the high branches. In a bend of the river a small canoe waits to take us across to the Rehabilitation Centre. Here the clear, fast-flowing stream is pristine, and upriver there are no more signs of human habitation. Only misty green jungle.

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Cautiously, we step into the small dugout trying to avoid the water that sloshes around its bottom. To keep our feet dry, we squat on the narrow cross benches. The canoe is attached to a cable and pulley and we're soon safe at the other side. A short climb up the bank takes us to an office staffed by the Park Rangers. This is the entry check-point into the park where all visitors must register and show their permits. A few simple buildings house the rangers and their families, and behind their homes lie the basic and austere quarantine cages, currently holding seven orangs.

Nearby starts a slippery, muddy path that leads steeply uphill through bamboo groves and lush green jungle to a wooden feeding platform. This is the orangs' halfway station. Here, each day at 8 am and 3 pm, the recently released orang-utans can drop in for a meal, if they choose. And here each day, groups of tourists come to watch them feed. On average, the park gets around 2000 visitors a month, most of them young Europeans, and on Sundays hundreds of day-trippers from Medan make the three and a half hour journey to join them.

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To encourage the orang-utans to forage for their own food in the wild, their meal is kept deliberately bland and monotonous. Every day it's the same, just milk and bananas. This way most orangs soon learn to find the delicacies of the jungle, and when the wild mango, durian or mangosteen are in season it can happen that no orangs turn up at the feeding station. Although the tourists may be disappointed, the rangers are delighted. The ultimate success of the rehabilitation programme is when an orang stops coming for its meals and instead settles permanently deep in the jungles of Gunung Leuser. And the greatest joy for the rangers is when a female orang temporarily returns, bringing her newborn baby.

After a few short breaks along the way to catch our breath, we arrive at the viewing area just in time to see the ranger climb the rough steps to the feeding platform. In his hand is a bucket of milk and his backpack is filled with bananas. High above, a rustling in the treetops announces the approach of the first orang. It's an adult male, swinging fast and effortlessly from branch to branch, his reddish-brown coat ablaze in the rays of the sun.

Soon a mother and infant join him, the baby tucked safely under the mother's arm. A young orang makes a lightning descent from his nest in a nearby tree. They all climb the table and stretch out their long arms for the food. And their arms are long, almost twice the length of their legs. The large male pushes his way to the front and greedily stuffs one banana after the other into his mouth until his whole face is distorted. Mother and baby gulp their milk from a red plastic mug and then disappear clutching a bunch of bananas. In an unguarded moment, the young orang grabs the red mug and gleefully swings up a tall tree, ignoring the ranger's angry calls. It settles in a fork of the tree, and with a teasing look at the helpless ranger, it toys with the red plastic, tossing it into the air and catching it at the last moment. Its cunning expression is so human that we burst out laughing.

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The name orang-utan (originally, orang hutan) is Malay for 'man of the forest', and these lovable primates do resemble humans both in looks and behaviour. It is hard to believe that they are, in fact, the most distantly related to us of all the great apes. Unfortunately, the endearing ways of young orangs, is what have made them sought after, and even today they are stalked by unscrupulous hunters who will deliberately orphan a baby orang so it can be sold as a pet. Through extensive logging they have also lost much of their natural habitat and although they once ranged as far as Java and China, they are now only found on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Despite recent efforts to protect these great, lumbering creatures they are still on the edge of extinction.

Another factor endangering the survival of the orang-utans is that although they have a long lifespan - many live to the age of forty-five or more - they breed slowly. A female orang may have her first baby between the ages of ten to fifteen but will only remain fertile until around thirty. Also slowing their procreation is the fact that for its first four years, the infant hardly ever leaves its mother's side. And mother is not interested in the advances of an amorous male while she is nurturing her clinging baby. So for several years there is no sexual contact.

Since its opening in 1973, the Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre has released more than two hundred orangs into the jungle. Most have been successfully rehabilitated, although, over the years, some have died. The most common cause of death is illness, especially pneumonia or diarrhea. But one of the first orangs to come to the centre, Purba, had the extreme bad fortune of being eaten by a rare Sumatran tiger. Says Riswan Bangun, Head of the Centre: "I've walked the trails of this National Park for seventeen years and only twice have I seen a tiger."

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As most orang-utans are frightened of water and cannot swim, the Bohorok River has proved to be an excellent natural border to the Park. Although some years ago one orang, named Atta, fell in the river and drowned. But to prove that every rule has its exception, one afternoon we find a young orang playing happily at the river's edge.

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To stop the cruel trade in young orang-utans the Indonesian government has brought in tougher measures. Keeping an orang-utan without a permit now carries a one year jail sentence. There have also been increased efforts to enforce the laws, and this, combined with better public awareness, has resulted in fewer orangs coming to the Rehabilitation Centre. On average there are only two or three new arrivals each year.

So although the great red apes may still be out on a limb, there is hope for young Lestari and Jonny as long as responsible governments have the will to protect the orang-utans' habitat in the unspoilt jungles of National Parks such as the Gunung Leuser.

the end

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