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Orangutan update from Borneo

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  • Michelle Desilets
    Dear Friends of the Orangutan, I am writing from the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Reintroduction Project in Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo). It has been some
    Message 1 of 3 , Dec 3, 2005
      Dear Friends of the Orangutan,
      I am writing from the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan
      Reintroduction Project in Central Kalimantan
      (Indonesian Borneo). It has been some time since I
      have been here (nearly a year!) and there have been
      lots of changes and developments.
      But let me go back a week or so, when I first left the
      UK on this journey. The 22nd-23rd of November, I
      attended a conference of the 3rd Roundtable on
      Sustainable Palm Oil in Singapore. I was joined by
      Helen Buckland, author of the Oil for Ape Scandal palm
      oil report, Ed Matthew from Friends of the Earth UK,
      Dr. Willie Smits, Chairperson of BOS, and Lone
      Droscher Nielsen, project manager of Nyaru Menteng and
      the catalyst behind the BOS palm oil campaign. On the
      morning of the first day, I was interviewed, along
      with Patrick Rouxel, who made the compelling film
      “Losing Tomorrow” about the clear-felling of forests
      and its effects on wildlife and humans, for Prime Time
      NewsAsia International. The meeting had over 300
      delegates, mostly palm oil industry people, but also
      70 representatives of social and environmental NGO’s
      from around the world. To say that there was some
      tension between the industry people and the NGO’s is
      to put it mildly. But I am proud to say that the NGO’s
      held their ground and expressed their opinions with
      conviction. Interestingly, there was a great deal of
      reaction from the industry people to the BOS UK palm
      oil campaign and documents, showing that the word has
      gone out far and wide. All the copies of the Oil for
      Ape Scandal report and the BOS pamphlet “Save
      Orangutans from Extinction When You Next Shop” were
      quickly picked up by the delegates who hadn’t already
      had copies. (Please email me if you require a hard
      copy of either of these documents or see the pdf’s on
      www.SafePalmOil.org). In the General Assembly at the
      end of the second day, the draft criteria were
      approved by all the delegates, except one who
      abstained. This represents an important first step
      towards sustainable (non-destructive) palm oil, but
      there is far to go to making it a reality on the
      ground. It is hoped that with the input and efforts of
      the several NGO’s driving this campaign, that we will
      succeed in stopping conversion of rainforest to oil
      palm as well as addressing the other important issues
      such as human rights. A longer report of the
      Roundtable meeting will be available from BOS UK
      From Singapore, Lone and I travelled back to Jakarta
      and stayed at the idyllic Guest House of the Pusat
      Primata (Schmutzer Primate Centre at Ragunan Zoo), and
      the following morning Lone returned to Nyaru Menteng
      whilst I went to the airport to meet a film crew from
      S4C Wales. We were met by the ever-accommodating Waru
      (name changed to protect his identity) from the XXXX
      Rescue Centre in Jakarta, and having found a tiny
      starving kitten in the hotel, I found this to be an
      extraordinary bit of luck, as we were able to take the
      kitten back to the centre immediately. A plate of dry
      cat food was laid out and the kitten proceeded to
      hoover up the food whilst standing, all four feet, in
      it. I named him Slim.
      We then drove out to the Ancol Circus, part of a huge
      complex for recreation and tourism. Amongst other
      animal shows, the circus presents a dreadfully
      demeaning orangutan show, similar to those that we
      campaign to end in Thailand, Cambodia and elsewhere.
      We started with the sea lion show, the typical type of
      thing where the animals balance things on their noses,
      jump through hoops and clap their flippers. Then there
      was the Multi-animal show, which featured two hungry
      otters doing similar tricks, a sun bear who rode a
      tricycle and a full grown hippo whose trick was to
      open his mouth wide. Before the final orangutan show,
      we saw the orangutans lying listlessly in the small,
      bare cages they are kept in between the shows. In the
      performance, there were 3 orangutans, two of them
      about 6-7 years old and one about 2-3 years old. They
      all looked dejected, and one in particular looked very
      unwell. They were all terribly thin and lusterless.
      They were made to dress up, clap their hands, lift
      weights, ride bicycles, play basketball, dance, and
      stand on their hands. The audience was delighted by
      these shows, laughing hysterically when the animals
      were made to do the most ridiculous of things. We
      found it hard to pretend to be tourists, to feign
      amusement and delight at this derogatory exploitation.
      Pram has been investigating this and other performing
      animal shows in Java for some time. He tells me that
      the animals are fed only enough to keep them alive, so
      that hunger (as well as fear) drive them to perform.
      He has seen the animals beaten and punched, and they
      live in terrible conditions. He has been trying to
      end these horrific shows, but needs the help of the
      international community to condemn them. Please won’t
      you send a short, polite letter to ask the authorities
      to put a stop to this?
      On the 26th we flew to Palangka Raya to go to the
      Nyaru Menteng Project. Joining us on our flight were
      two orangutans and a proboscis monkey from the West
      Java Rescue Centre. One orangutan, Ipon, was 3 years
      old and the other, Cornell, was about 6-7. The young
      female monkey was named Monique. When they were
      offloaded from the plane, Cornell and Monique were
      particularly stressed, and the team worked hard to get
      their papers processed and get them to the centre as
      soon as possible. Cornell was soon put into a
      quarantine cage and Ipon was allowed to have a little
      walkabout. Walk about he did! As well as run about and
      climb about. He explored everywhere, like a small
      hairy version of Livingstone, and clambered over giant
      heaps of fruit trying a bite out of each type. Olympia
      had found here way to the centre from the Midway
      House, and Ipon was determined to make a friend of her
      immediately, whether she wanted to or not. He embraced
      the larger orangutan around her knees, and allowed
      himself to be dragged along as she tried to flee.
      A baby sun bear has been rescued, and will stay here
      until we can transfer him with some others to our
      Samboja Lestari Sun bear Sanctuary in East Kalimantan.
      He is no bigger than a puppy, and just as playful.
      We then delivered Tarzan, our largest wild male, to
      Nyaru Menteng Baru, the new centre down the road,
      where thanks to help from BOS Germany, a number of
      large, extra strong cages have been built for the
      rescued wild orangutans waiting for translocation to a
      suitable release site. Several of the females have
      babies, and there were a number of impressive males
      with cheek pads. Contact with the wild orangutans in
      holding is minimized, not only to lessen their stress,
      but to prevent unwanted habituation that could prove
      fatal in the future. As such, our visit was received
      by a cacophony of kiss-squeaks, raspberries and other
      indications of their annoyance at our intrusion. While
      we waited for Tarzan to wake up from the tranquiliser,
      Lone showed us the new knock-down cages for the
      residents of the second midway house, which include a
      number of my old friends, Deri, Keke, Martizen, and
      Nabima. Opening this second midway house meant that a
      number of them were able to graduate from baby school
      and move over to the larger forest with stronger
      trees, and to gain more independence and training.
      This move most certainly represented a sigh of relief
      on the part of the smaller individuals at baby school
      who had thus far had to tolerate their boisterous and
      rough play. The new center was built to house the
      orangutans that we still hope to rescue one day from
      Safari World in Thailand.
      When we returned to the centre, the baby school
      youngsters were returning from their day of learning
      in the forest, for their late afternoon play at the
      edge of the forest near the baby house. An amazing new
      adventure playground has been built here for the
      orangutans including swings and climbing frames made
      from fallen wood and old strips of rubber tyres. A
      number continue to play energetically in this
      playground until the last light, and some beyond.
      Others crashed out, spread eagle on the lawn,
      exhausted from the day’s exuberant play.
      Lone pointed out Pahawan in the crowd, the little
      chap I looked after last time I was here. His face
      was instantly recognisable, but his physique is
      something altogether different. From the hunched over,
      bony figure he once was, has emerged a fit little
      fighter with long, thick hair. I remember when Lone
      told me on the phone a few months back that our little
      2-3 year old Pahawan was getting his adult teeth,
      meaning he is closer to 6 -7 years old. Indeed, his
      large head does correspond with this, but he maintains
      the body of a 4 year old, no more. He is no longer
      afraid of other orangutans, and plays confidently with
      the other. He pursues me in the afternoons, but
      regrettably I have not finished my quarantine period,
      so I must avoid him.
      Also in the crowd was little Lykke, who is not so
      little anymore, but not too big either. Whenever she
      sees Lone, who looked after her from a very young age,
      she dashes directly over to her, pushing aside or
      climbing over anything or anybody who gets in her way.
      A few other orangutans I know were here, including
      Taruna, Doren, Tara, and Bali, but there are many more
      new arrivals I have not yet met.
      I woke at 5:30 the next morning, in time to get to
      the centre to see the babies wake up and come out for
      their morning feed and play on the playground before
      venturing in their smaller groups of 8 with their
      caretakers to various parts of the forest. The
      mornings see the orangutans more energetic than the
      evenings, as they are rearing to go. Few seem to have
      the problem I have of always wanting to have a bit
      more of a lie in than is necessary. The babies are
      weighed every morning to monitor any fluctuations in
      weight which may indicate something. We followed group
      4 into the forest for a bit of filming. Most of the
      orangutans in this group were a bit unsure of the
      large white people with their camera equipment, and
      either took to the trees or the safety of their
      caretaker in a hammock. But Margello was not afraid,
      and enjoyed performing for the camera. The crew
      remarked how luxurious her hair was, and Lone spoke of
      the day she was found in a logger’s camp near to a
      palm oil concession, completely hairless and covered
      with a skin fungus. It was hard to believe this was
      the same orangutan.
      In the afternoon we went to the forest behind Lone’s
      house where the littlest orangutans play and learn. It
      is always a delight to watch their wobbly efforts at
      navigating their mini-climbing frames, as they stick
      out their tongues in deep concentration on the task.
      We were introduced to Kesi, the orangutan featured in
      the BOS UK baby orangutan appeal and the palm oil
      pamphlet. Kesi’s hand had been chopped off by a
      machete when her captor’s took her mother’s life.
      Because of the patient nurturing of the amazing women
      who look after the babies at Nyaru Menteng, Kesi is
      now happy and confident, and to prove that to us she
      climbed a tree and had a bit of a play. Kesi is one of
      the orangutans on offer for adoption from BOS UK.
      Another early morning the next day, as we had to
      prepare for the release of two orangutans (and the
      recently arrived proboscis monkey) onto Bangamat
      Island, the island which was acquired for this purpose
      by the generous contributions of BOS UK supporters. 8
      year old Bento (male) and 6 year old Dian (female),
      who had originally lived together in the same cage
      with one owner, were the chosen ones. Neither had
      seen forest for maybe 6- 8 years, since they were
      captured at a young age. Too big for the midway
      houses, but too weak for the toughness of the
      socialization cages, Bangamat is the perfect place for
      these two.
      Both orangutans had to be tranquilised for the
      transfer to the island, as they would become extremely
      agitated. This is not always needed, but in this case
      it was. We wanted them only groggy enough to be easy
      to manage, but instead they went out completely. It
      was a long wait for them to wake up with the antidote,
      and we did not want to put them into their transport
      cages until they were somewhat alert. Bento woke
      first, but was not the malleable patient we had hoped
      for. Instead, with an amazing burst of energy, he
      made a run for it, whilst the men tried to secure him
      and coax him into the cage. In doing so, he had a fine
      roll in the mud before the men were successful. Dian
      was much easier and happily and groggily went into her
      We set off for Bangamat Island with the orangutans
      and monkey on a gloriously sunny morning. It would be
      the first time I would see the island that BOS UK paid
      for, and being able to witness the release of these
      animals onto it made me feel immensely proud. We
      offloaded the cages onto the shore, and released the
      proboscis monkey first. She ran straight up the
      nearest tree, but not high, and honked at us
      repeatedly. The orangutans in their cages were sleepy
      again, and we did not dare release them until they
      were more alert, thereby avoiding any accidents.
      Bangamat residents Danur and Simona swung into the
      scene and descended to peer into the cages of the
      newcomers. Irritated that they were half asleep and
      not coming out of their cages, the two of them rocked
      and banged on the cages in a futile attempt to rouse
      the inhabitants. Danur, far smaller than Bento,
      discovered a dormant courageousness in himself, as he
      taunted and displayed menacingly at the unresponsive
      Bento. His girlfriend, Simona, became more interested
      in throwing branches down at the film crew. Meanwhile,
      Monique the monkey was not at all sure if she liked
      her new home with these large hairy neighbours, and
      she screamed at Danur or Simona whenever they came
      near. Having chosen the hunky Welsh presenter, Iolo,
      as her saviour, she followed him wherever he went,
      honking little protestations of love to him all the
      while. I showed her the leaves she should be trying to
      eat, and she gobbled these up happily, but I was less
      successful at teaching her to drink from the river.
      She much preferred to drink from my water bottle,
      despite the fact that her pendulous nose always got in
      the way. Eventually, she did climb a tree or two and
      fed herself, which was very satisfying to see.
      Again, we waited a long time for the orangutans’
      drowsiness to subside, but eventually they did emerge
      from their cages. Dian clung to a tree as she sat on
      the forest floor, still a bit dazed, and Bento climbed
      onto the feeding platform, even more dazed than Dian.
      Danur took this window of opportunity to make advances
      towards the unwilling Dian, who would probably thump
      him if she were in a more alert state. The men had to
      take Danur away to another area of the island, but he
      returned and prodded and poked at the reclining Bento,
      until Bento rose, grabbed him and gave him one solid
      bite that told Danur who was boss. Dian grew more
      active and climbed a tree with Simona, where they got
      to know each other through play and a certain amount
      of bravado. Simona started the encounter as the
      dominant one, but in short time, it was clear than
      Dian took the dominant role.
      The film crew left whilst the rest of us stayed,
      waiting for Bento to become fully awake. He seemed to
      have reacted quite strongly to the tranquiliser, as it
      is unusual for it to take this long to come round.
      Monique the monkey sat on the feeding platform with me
      much of the time, allowing me to groom her as she let
      out little grunts of contentment. Every time there was
      some action with the orangutans, she would scurry
      closer to get a good look, hands resting on her knees,
      but always amongst the security of a few human legs to
      grab onto if things got too much for her, which they
      often did.
      It was decided that the vet, Karmele, would stay with
      Bento that night to be sure that things were okay. We
      left her with a few security men on the island and
      returned to arrange supplies to be sent over right
      away. Karmele returned this morning and reported how
      things had progressed since we left the island:
      “It was twilight when Bento started reacting after an
      extremely long sedative effect of the anesthesia. His
      body temperature had dropped to 35.6 degrees and his
      heart beat was also quite slow. We were very worried
      that he wouldn’t be able to spend the first night
      outside, his first night of freedom, but he would not
      want to be returned to the clinic, as we thought we
      might have to do. The last warm sunlight rays were
      warming him up gently. I was sitting down next to him
      onto the feeding platform when he finally managed to
      raise himself and sit down next to me. Suddenly I
      noticed that his eyes expressed these desires that
      often male orangutans would show towards female
      humans. Apparently, he is very famous for such a
      passion for belly buttons and all of a sudden, feeling
      a lot better, he stood in front of me holding onto a
      branch and started to let his hands wander inside my
      clothing. He several times tried to suck my belly
      button and so, I commenced to feel a bit disgraced.
      One of the technicians, noting my discomfort, tried to
      pull him off me, but Bento was too intent and did not
      hesitate to roughly smack the face of the technicians,
      who was subsequently was thrown off the stairs of the
      platform. Bento was hugging me strongly, very excited,
      and his whole 43kilos body was all over me while he
      was trying to take my shirt off. Three more
      technicians that came to try to stop Bento, but they
      were not strong enough to stop his fervent passion.
      Fearing that Bento could eventually harm me or one of
      the technicians, I tried to get rid of him by throwing
      myself down from the top of the 3 meters high
      platform. I hit the ground but Bento came with me and
      landed with half of his body over me. Then I asked the
      technicians to step back because Bento was getting
      more furious. I moved then towards the river, dragging
      Bento who was strongly holding my leg. Next to the
      edge of the river, though, Bento decided he was not
      going any farther. I tried again to get rid of him and
      someone pulled my arms while Bento pulled my foot. He
      got off my boot but Bento still managed to hold my
      foot. He then bit my foot, but very gently, not
      causing me any harm. Finally, Bento, exhausted, gave
      up my foot and I fell free. Four people held him from
      behind but he did not dare to make any more movements.
      Hopefully, I thought, this had helped him to reach up
      a higher temperature…
      From that point, Bento, who was feeling much better,
      was wandering from one of the platforms to the other
      while I waited and observed him from the small boat on
      the river. Only when he dared to go farther, I stepped
      inland and went chasing him. Just calling, “Yoo hoo!
      Bento! I am over here!” from a distance was enough
      for him to turn back and head towards me. That is how
      we kept him around the place. We stayed a couple of
      more hours until we made sure that the tree above our
      heads was the one he chose to stay overnight.
      At 3:30 in the morning, we came back to the place and
      Bento was still there. He noticed our presence but he
      did not dare to move yet. Only at 5 am, when it was
      already complete daylight, he moved to the other tree.
      He refused the mango I offered to him. Promptly he
      started to climb up as well as any wild orangutan
      would do. He went a bit further and we left him alone
      when we were quite sure that he would do perfectly ok.
      He is now free to climb up and down for the first time
      in life. We desire the best for you, “lovely” Bento!”

      Until next time….

      Michelle Desilets
      BOS UK
      "Primates Helping Primates"

      Please sign our petition to rescue over 100 smuggled orangutans in Thailand:

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