May 14, 2020, BORNEO – Following a dramatic last-minute rescue and confiscation by the Indonesian Wildlife Authority BKSDA, the team at FOUR PAWS ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL in Borneo has taken another defenseless orangutan baby into its care.
Restrained in a sack tied to a motorcycle, the two-year old male orangutan was destined to be abandoned. Supposedly, because the owner was fearful of contracting COVID-19.
A gas station owner in Bengalon was chatting with the former owner when he noticed the sack on back of the motorbike moving. The owner explained that inside was a small orangutan whom he intended to dump in the forest. The compassionate gas station owner managed to convince his customer that the orangutan baby was doomed to die alone in the forest, and that it would be better to leave the animal with him. Knowing that it is illegal to keep orangutans as pets, the station owner handed the baby over to the local police. Lacking a cage, the police put the baby in a free cell next to several incarcerated humans until staff of the Indonesian Wildlife Authority BKSDA (Balai Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam) and the FOUR PAWS team came to pick him up.
The illicit trade in apes is worth several million dollars per year, and the illegal market for baby orangutans is thriving with around 150 orangutan offspring sold each year, mostly to Asian buyers. Often baby orangutans are sold into the entertainment industry, ending up in Thai boxing shows, as a photo prop for tourists, or as a pet in a wealthy family. However, the global coronavirus pandemic could further exacerbate the situation where pets could be abandoned more frequently.
“It is quite possible that his illegal owners wanted to abandon him because they were scared they may contract COVID-19 from him. We know that people are now concerned that animals make them sick, especially wild animals. We had to soothe fears in the local community and explain that in our forest school it is the orangutans who are at risk to get infected by humans, not vice versa.”
-Dr. Signe Preuschoft, head primatologist with FOUR PAWS
Just a few days after his rescue, Damai was handed over to FOUR PAWS and has already formed a strong bond to his human surrogate mother, a vet at the quarantine station of the FOUR PAWS ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL at Samboja, East Kalimantan. This little orangutan orphan was lucky. He has been through traumatic upheavals in his short life and it may take time for his psychological wounds to heal. Since he was rescued on May 8th, the 75th anniversary of the end of WWII, he was named Damai, Indonesian for peace.
“In times of COVID-19 this rescue is no small feat. We made it clear that during intake and the re-homing of the orphan we all needed to stick to strict health precautions. When our team arrived, the little orangutan was terrified and tried to bite and escape. A superficial health check showed no obvious health problems – in particular, no symptoms of flu and no injuries. The orphan drank milk greedily from a bottle, and this familiarity suggests that he had been under human control for a while.“
-Dr. Signe Preuschoft, head primatologist at FOUR PAWS
When the rescue team arrived at the forest school’s quarantine station, the baby quickly settled himself into a suspended basket furnished with leaves, similar to an orangutan night nest, which had been prepared for him. The next morning, he already appeared brighter. Damai had boiled sweet potatoes, drank more milk, isotonic water and received a full body exam.
Damai needs to undergo a series of health tests and at least 60 days in quarantine before he can be allowed to socialize with the other orangutans at the forest school. He will be introduced to and immersed in the Bornean jungle, an environment that is natural for orangutans, by taking walks and learning to forage and climb trees with his surrogate. He will attend “school” until at least the age of six to seven years old. During this time, the goal is to teach the orphans the skills needed for a successful life after release, skills that their mothers would have taught them.
FOUR PAWS has been working to rehabilitate traumatized orangutan orphans for reintroduction into natural habitats for over a decade. Following a re-organization of local activities, the FOUR PAWS-funded FOREST SCHOOL is a cooperation project between FOUR PAWS, its local partner Jejak Pulang, and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry. While it is estimated that only 100,000 Bornean orangutans live in the wild, eight are currently attending the rehabilitation program and are planned to be released in the years to come.