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Orangutan babies graduate to next subject: Learning to climb in the rainforest of Borneo

California based group help train staff in ground-breaking rehab program


BORNEO- NOVEMBER 1, 2018 – Four orangutan babies named Gonda, Tegar, Kartini and Gerhana have a new subject on their school schedule: climbing in Borneo's rainforest.


These four, who range in age from 16 months to 2 years, are the youngest of eight orphaned apes. And despite their latest skill, they still have a lot to learn at the FOUR PAWS Orangutan FOREST SCHOOL in East Kalimantan before they can be released back into the wild.


Physically, orangutans are perfectly capable of living in the treetops of the rainforest, but their climbing skills are not innate. They need to learn this and practice it intensively.  Normally orangutan babies learn survival skills such as climbing, foraging and nest-building from and with their mothers.


But Gonda, Tegar, Kartini and Gerhana are growing up without these natural role models after having witnessed their cruel killing. To enable them to develop into well-adjusted adult orangutans despite this sad past, the four attend forest school. In the care of their human surrogate mothers, they have begun to practice climbing and searching for food in the more than 80 ft. high tropical trees. 


But first, their surrogate mothers had to learn how to climb trees safely. Therefore, FOUR PAWS enlisted the help of California- based organization, Tree Monkey Project, who sent a team of professional climbers to train the animal caretakers to climb the tropical trees — equipped with ropes, harnesses and helmets.


"One of our guiding principles at the FOREST SCHOOL is that we don't humanize the orangutans, but we do orangutanize the humans," explains Dr. Signe Preuschoft, primatologist and project manager at the international animal welfare organization FOUR PAWS.


"This means we don't bring the orangutan orphans down to the ground, we send the humans up into the trees."


The climbing lessons for the forest students started last week. For the first time Gonda, Tegar, Kartini and Gerhana climbed up to the treetops together with their expertly-paitred surrogate mothers. All four orangutan babies were willing to learn and be curious while noticing their companions could now keep up with them, even vertically.


“Orangutans sometimes climb up and can’t make their way down, like cats," says Dr. Preuschoft. "They climb high into the tree, can’t climb down and start crying. Last year, this happened to Gonda, who was barely one year old at the time. He had climbed up a tree, too high for us to get to him, and then he didn't dare to come down again. His surrogate mother had to talk to him from the ground and encourage him for a very long time until he had the courage to climb down again on his own. That was a thoroughly dramatic experience that he has still not forgotten."


These new climbing skills will allow the surrogate to climb and practice with the babies safely, all the while protecting the very trees from damage of more invasive construction like platforms and walkways.


James Reed, Founder of Tree Monkey project based in California, who just returned from Borneo over the weekend explained, “Orangutans spend more than 75% of their lives in the trees, making nests and sleeping off the ground, and the staff must be equipped to follow them where they live. Technical tree climbing skills are vital in ensuring the staff are safe and effective while protecting the forest itself.”


"We do it more like orangutan mothers: We lead the way and are present while they explore different things. It is crucial that an orangutan child can always return to the safety of a maternal embrace. If the child trusts in this, it is very courageous and curious," says Dr. Preuschoft. The primatologist is sure that her protégés will now spend more time in the trees because they no longer have to come to the ground to find shelter or comfort.


This simple change of now having the human surrogate with them is not just more natural for the orangutans, but ground-breaking. This is the first time that professional climbing equipment and training is being used in this manner to rehabilitate orangutans in Indonesia.


A key feature of the FOREST SCHOOL’s rehabilitation curriculum is adhering to the natural stages of child development. As babies, they first live in the loving care of their human surrogate mothers in the baby house and go to kindergarten. From the age of two at the latest, the toddlers attend the FOREST SCHOOL where they learn to navigate full-grown tropical trees with lianas, the native long-stemmed, woody vines that root in the soil growing vertically to the canopy: An ape’s most suitable, built-in climbing equipment.


As their competence increases, the orangutans become more adventurous and independent. By the time they reach puberty, they are ready to graduate from the so-called FOREST ACADEMY. From there, the FOUR PAWS team decides on a case by case basis for each orangutan when the student is ready to be released into the wild. 


FOUR PAWS has been working to rehabilitate traumatized orangutan orphans in Borneo for over a decade. Following a re-organization of local activities, FOUR PAWS opened the ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL in East Kalimantan in May 2018. Here, Dr. Signe Preuschoft and an Indonesian team of 15 animal caretakers, a biologist and two veterinarians are currently looking after eight orangutan orphans aged between 16 months and nine years and are preparing them for release into the rainforest. It is financed by FOUR PAWS and is a cooperative project among FOUR PAWS, local partner Jejak Pulang, and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which provided the nearly 250 acres of low-land forest area for the project.


Rainforest has been destroyed on a massive scale in Borneo over the last four decades. Thousands of orangutans have become victims of the palm oil, tropical timber and coal industries. Every year, between two and three thousand orangutans are killed either because they are considered ‘harvest thieves’ or competition by palm oil plantations or their meat. Helpless orphans whose mothers were deliberately killed end up as pets. The Bornean orangutans are among the critically endangered species.  


Dr. Preuschoft and her team believe that in properly equiping these orphan orangutans with the knoweldge and skills needed to survive in the wild, there is now hope for the conservation and protection of orangutans in Indonesia.


“In the end,” Mr. Reed from Tree Monkey Project concluded, “we are just apes teaching other apes how to be apes.”