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At “forest school,” humans teach orphaned orangutans how to be apes

As orangutans’ habitat and population shrinks, sanctuaries have to help young apes, who are often left without any adult role models, learn about wild life.

In the rainforest between the cities of Balikpapan and Samarinda in Borneo, a 14-month-old orangutan is beginning to learn how to find food and climb trees. Its teachers are human caregivers who themselves are learning how to act like orangutans. The Four Paws Forest School, run by two nonprofits in cooperation with the Indonesian government, was created to help orphaned orangutans prepare to eventually live in the forest on their own.

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“They’re learning all of the basic things that they need to do in order to survive,” says Robert Ware, the director of the U.S. division of Four Paws, an international animal rights nonprofit that funded the new sanctuary. Jejak Pulang, a local organization, is running the “school” in a 590-acre section of rainforest provided by the Indonesian government.

[Photo: © Jejak Pulang/Four Paws]

The youngest orangutans, who would normally cling to their mothers until they’re two years old, get care 24 hours a day, and attend what the school calls kindergarten to learn some of the basics of orangutan life. At the age of two, as the animals become a little more independent, they learn more about skills like what to eat, how to travel through trees, and how to build a nest to sleep in at night. By the age of six or eight, the animals are ready for “orangutan academy,” the final stage, when the caregivers pull back on any human contact before the orangutans can be reintroduced into the wild.

All of this is expensive to run: The school, which began construction in 2017 and is still under development, is led by a primatologist, and currently has a staff of 15 caretakers, two vets, and a biologist. (The school is now building “night houses” where the baby orangutans can safely stay without caretakers while they sleep.) The teaching methods are based in part on the experience of the primatologist, Signe Preuschoft, who has rehabilitated apes for more than 20 years. At the moment, there are eight young orangutans in residence. Though the school is scaling up, it will eventually care for a maximum of 30 animals. “With the level of care they need, and the more or less 24-hour supervision that the younger animals need, we don’t want to stretch ourselves too thin and not be providing the highest level of care and training to the animals,” says Ware.

[Photo: © Jejak Pulang/Four Paws]

This level of effort is necessary, arguably, because the Bornean orangutan is critically endangered. Between 1999 and 2015, more than 100,000 of the animals were lost. Only around 50,000 are left, many living in isolated patches of forest in groups that are too small to maintain the local population. Huge swaths of the local rainforest have been converted into plantations to produce palm oil, used in everything from lipstick and shampoo to pizza dough and instant noodles. As the orangutan’s habitat shrinks, the animals have also increasingly come in conflict with humans. Farmers sometimes kill adults that eat crops, leaving babies to be sold into the illegal pet trade or abandoned.

When orphaned animals arrive at the new sanctuary, they often need intensive care. One one-year-old orangutan was starving, hairless, and had a bullet embedded in his shoulder. The sanctuary has to address basic health needs before it can teach skills. The work is challenging. The animals normally would learn motor skills from their mothers, and when they’ve lacked proper nutrition, their cognitive skills are also delayed. Caretakers have to provide emotional support to baby orangutans that saw their own mothers die, while teaching the orangutans not to bond with other humans by limiting contact with other people (unlike some sanctuaries that allow visitors, this one does not).

The caretakers also have to learn new skills, like how to find fruit in the forest. A tree-climbing specialist, who trains firefighters and others how to climb trees, visited the sanctuary to give caretakers lessons in how to safely climb high into the canopy.

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The sanctuary is not the only one to rehabilitate young orangutans in the area. Another, in central Borneo, is using an uninhabited island for its own forest school. Both sanctuaries face the challenge of finding safe permanent homes for the animals once they are old enough to leave, as forests continue to shrink.

[Photo: © Jejak Pulang/Four Paws]

“Clearly, protecting the habitat in the first place is the only longterm viable answer,” says Laurel Sutherlin, with the nonprofit Rainforest Action Network. The organization, along with others, has pressured major brands to commit to using palm oil that is produced without causing additional deforestation. They’ve had some success–companies have made commitments. But those commitments, unfortunately, haven’t yet translated to enough change on the ground.

“[Companies] need to really do the hard work necessary to engage with their supply chain, and then when they find suppliers that are unable or unwilling to comply, they have to be willing to cut relationships with those suppliers,” Sutherlin says. “They have to be willing to invest the money that it’s going to take to actually fulfill achieving truly responsible palm oil.”

If deforestation doesn’t stop, orangutans–and other species that rely on the rainforest–ultimately won’t survive, with or without forest school. And it’s easier to preserve existing forests than to try to bring them back after they’re gone. “Every ounce of restoration is painstaking and expensive,” he says. “Whereas just avoiding that destruction in the first place is critical.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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