Giving Orangutans Back Their Freedom: A Story Of Hope

Today they face a very tenuous future in the wild

With so much depressing news reported globally every day, it can be hard to maintain any feeling of hope for the future of our planet or the species we share it with. But for hundreds of orphaned orangutans, hope is in sight thanks to the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation in Indonesia, whose efforts have led to the biggest primate rehabilitation and reintroduction effort in the world.

The BOS Foundation’s team of 440-strong are the ‘999 call’ and lifeline for orangutans in need of rescue, protection and a second chance of a life in the wild and their efforts don’t stop there. They are protecting natural habitat and wild orangutans, replanting forests, working with local people and spreading awareness worldwide. I became part of this inspiring team eight years ago, after relocating from Cameroon to Indonesia. I had spent over a decade studying and conserving the poorly-known Cross River gorilla, but arriving in Indonesia and witnessing the scale of deforestation and the plight of orangutans, my focus was immediately drawn to conserving the gorillas’ Asian cousin.

Found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, orangutans were once more widespread and numbered in the hundreds of thousands, but today they face a very tenuous future in the wild. As huge swathes of forest have been cleared to make way for mining, logging and the establishment of large monoculture plantations like oil palm, coupled with hunting for consumption and the illegal exotic pet trade, orangutan populations have plummeted leading them to the brink of extinction. The very survival of these sentient beings now hangs in the balance.

But there is hope and our team is dedicated to saving orangutans both in the wild, and those orphaned or displaced through hunting or habitat loss. Rescue missions are a regular occurrence and orangutans of all ages and in all conditions arrive at our care centers. Older orangutans are often rescued when they are found hungry and in search of food in areas such as newly cleared oil palm plantations, whilst orphaned infants are frequently rescued from villagers keeping them illegally as pets or hoping to sell them on the lucrative pet-trade. Each of those orangutans deserves a new chance of life and that opportunity starts the moment our rescue team arrives.

Almost all new arrivals are either sick, injured or traumatised, so first we heal their physical issues and over time, their psychological issues. But once physically healthy, each individual is able to embark on the rehabilitation process, which means teaching them how to be an orangutan. In the wild, a baby orangutan would stay with his or her mother for six to eight years and she would teach her young all the skills needed to survive in the wild; what foods to eat, how to build a nest, how to travel through the trees and how to avoid predators. The rehabilitation process follows the same timeline, roughly seven years, and in the absence of the mother our babysitters act as surrogates and provide that learning. Infants start their learning in our Forest School Nursery and gradually progress through different levels of Forest School until they are ready for the final part of their skill-building, which takes place on natural forested islands; this is their ‘university’ and the final step before their release back to the wild.

Following the orangutans progress through this journey to freedom is a mix of joy, frustration, heartbreak and elation, and catering for 560 orangutans with completely individual characters and all have tragic and varied life histories prior to their rescue, is no easy feat. But that moment when we open that final cage door and release an orangutan back to the wild makes every single challenge worth it. Over six years, we have released 358, and we are well on our way to establishing new viable orangutan populations to bolster conservation of the species in the wild, which is our ultimate aim.

Orangutan Jungle School gives you an amazing insight into the characters, their unique journeys and the love and dedication of the people who care for them every day.

Orangutan Jungle School, Channel 4, Wednesday 15 August at 8pm.