Life, again

A story about the return of the orangutans from the concrete jungle to the wild woods to be what they were meant and named to be -- each a man of the woods

By Neelima
Published: Wednesday 30 June 1999

Life, again

-- (Credit: Photographs: Neelima Mathur<sc) The Iban tribals of Indonesia have a beautiful tale about the man of the woods. The father of an Iban died. His body was laid out for the night, awaiting rituals in the morning. The next day, when the son came to the corpse, he found it was not his father, but an orangutan. The father-orangutan said:

"I am your father. I am not dead, but because I have turned into a maias (orangutan), I can no longer live in the long-house. I must go and live in the forest. But because I am your father and I am joining the other maias, we must have a bond between the people and the maias."

Across Southeast Asia, there are many such tales concerning orangutans -- or the man of the woods. Once, these primates ambled through large tracts, from China to Southeast Asia. Today, there are found only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. Orangutans have preferred to live in the same alluvial terrain that humans find so fertile. Unfortunately, the human-animal conflict has not spared them either.

Within a century, the population of Indonesia has increased from 10 million to 200 million. At the same time, the orangutan population dwindled by 80 per cent. Other things have happened as well. The flourishing timber trade has caused large-scale deforestation. The demand for edible oil has turned many forest lands into palm tree plantations. Further, in the late 1980s, owning an orangutan became a fad after a pet orangutan was included as a character in a Taiwanese family television show. In addition to this, the late 1990s saw Indonesian forests ravaged by uncontrollable fires.

The cauldron of facts changes the essence of the Iban tale. A shrinking habitat has brought orangutans closer to the plantations and fields. Adult orangutans in search of food are considereds pests -- a menace to be eliminated. If the adult is a female with a baby, the killing brings additional economic benefits. Even fines up to us $50,000 have not proved an effective deterrent to the illegal trade in baby orangutans.

Amid all this lie innumerable sad tales of baby orangutans, who would never have been touched by human hands had their mothers been alive. It was the plight of one such baby that inspired a major 'save-orangutan' initiative by forest ecologist Willie Smits. A Dutch national, who set up the Wanariset Samboja (a forest research centre) in East Kalimatan, Smits is also personal advisor to the Indonesian ministry of forests. He began a rehabilitation programme for orangutans based on a translocation model developed by another Dutch national, Herman Rijksen.

The Orangutan Re-introduction Project had all the scientific base in place and a suitable base of international funding to begin with. But to be really successful, it needed support of the law. Subsequently, a law was enacted, which enables forestry officials and the Wanariset team to "confiscate" illegally-held baby orangutans -- a first step to saving this primate specie.
No place like home In its many raids, the Wanariset team has found babies almost everywhere. A string of informers across Borneo keep them updated. They take the team to rich, palatial homes of businesspersons or even lawyers, who claim ignorance of the orangutan law. Or it could be a backstreet in a small town...

There was a cage in the courtyard corner of a low-roofed dwelling. In it, a small baby orangutan crouched, gnashing its teeth with a transfixed fearful look in its beady eyes. Accompanying Smits and other Wanariset team members is Nita, a primatologist who loves children -- of the human and orangutan kind.

While Smits explains the finer legal points to the wary, defensive family, Nita is crouched near the baby. The cage is open. The baby retreats in fear. She cajoles it with baby sounds, enticingly holding a milk bottle before it. In a while, the baby is in her arms. Nita quickly moves back down the street to the jeep. The baby is feeding hungrily. In less than 15 minutes, it looks relaxed, almost peaceful -- no gnashing teeth.Week after week, the rescue teams conduct many such raids. But the confiscation is only the beginning. After that, it is a long, patient process by a dedicated team of veterinarians, pathologists, primatologists, forest experts and young technicians. The orangutans, especially the young ones, at the Wanariset Centre are monitored round-the-clock. The reasons are simple: orangutans have a balanced and spaced out reproductive cycle. In her fertile life, an orangutan may give birth to three babies, with gaps of about eight years between them. She makes sure the young ones are never left unattended till they are fit to live an arboreal life on their own. The orphans at the centre are divested of that security and comfort. And the Wanariset team, as surrogate parents, take their roles very seriously and sincerely.

Life at Wanariset
The little ones crawl around, clutch and hang on to foster parents. Some traumatised infants cannot be left even in the company of other babies at the clinic. Some vets keep such babies in their own rooms through the night -- feeding and caring for them.

Daytime is an endless bout of attention and channelising of the baby orangutans. In an open-air, fenced enclosure, infants are cuddled, fed and motivated to play. The small ones mostly prefer the laps of technicians unless, of course, they want to get mischievous, like chewing show laces or pushing the wooden gate and waiting for it to swing back with a bang.

By and by, the babies are weaned away. Then it is time for them to undergo three stages of "socialisation". Huge cages, as tall as trees in the rainforest, are homes before the orangutans are ready to live in the wild again. Each cage is a mass of constant movement: orangutans chattering, jumping, playing, spitting and fondling each other. And at meal time, a cacophony of demands greet the technicians as they bring sackfuls of bananas and other tropical fruits for them.

There are special routines for the younger orangutans. They are taken out into a playground every day. Here, they learn to climb, slide, jump and hang while they merrily grab at the milk feed the technicians bring to them.

Back to the wild
When the babies are about 8 to 10 years old, it is time for them to be free. The release of rehabilitated orangutans into the wild is a major event. A day before, the identified group of 10 to 12 orangutans go through a medical check-up. Computer identity chips are checked and photographs taken. In the evening, they are put into sturdy steel cages, ready to be loaded into a convoy of vehicles in the morning.

It is an early start next morning. The team prays for their successful journey and release. They know they need the prayers for the arduous task ahead. Often, a group of volunteers joins the team. After a thorough ground and aerial search for the right site, Smits decides on Meratus, a rainforest with a suitable variety of fruit trees that orangutans can forage on and, most importantly, uninhabited by humans...

In the darkness, with wireless sets in hand, a convoy of 12 vehicles leaves for Meratus forest. If is afternoon when the convoy reaches the base camp. But night falls dark and quick in the forest. The team moves quickly. The cages are unloaded from the jeeps. The orangutans are transferred into lighter cages which can be carried on the shoulder.

In less than 45 minutes, the first cage is being carried like a palanquin by two volunteers. Then on to a cable car to cross the river. Then a long climb of 1,000 metres over two-and-a-half kilometres of slushy and leafy treacherous terrain.

One by one they reach the core site where a wooden cage has been set up. The orangutans will sleep there, while some watch over them through the night. It is late evening when the remaining team members and volunteers all return to the base camp. They have barely enough energy to wash up, eat the team-cooked dinner, set up mosquito nets and retire for an early start before dawn the next day.

But the rainforest dictates its own terms. For nearly three hours through the night, there is continuous, thunderous tropical rain. In the darkness, the chances of even experts walking through the rain-drenched terrain are slim. After a four-hour delay, the path is still dangerously slippery. But the team moves ahead over the steep climb.

About 10 am, the wooden cage is opened. And the orangutans are out in the open, surrounded by what is naturally theirs -- the grand rainforest. Some run and climb immediately onto the 250-feet-tall trees. Others hesitate for a while, then take the plunge. Some wonder, take a few steps and come back. The technicians and vets cajole them to go.

By noon, the group of orangutans are truly what they were meant to be -- each one a man of the woods. Thanks to the bond between humans and orangutans that the Iban father wished for.

Neelima Mathur is a New Delhi-based media personality

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