As you probably recall, a formerly blind adult female Sumatran orangutan named Gober was released in in the forests of Jantho, in Aceh Besar, on January 5th 2015. Gober, whose eyesight was restored after ground-breaking cataract surgery in 2012 was released with her twin infants, a male ‘Ganteng’ his sister ‘Ginting’. Twins are rare among orangutans but these twins are particularly unique as they were born to parents who were BOTH blind at the time. Leuser, their father, is blind due to having been shot more than 62 times with an air rifle and still has 2 pellets lodged in one eye and 1 in the other. He will certainly live out his days in captivity, hopefully eventually in the SOCP’s planned “Orangutan Haven” facility (see http://www.earth4orangutans.com).
As reported shortly after their release, all did not go exactly as we had hoped. Poor little Ganteng got left behind in the forest and had to be returned to the on-site cages for his own safety. Gober and Ginting on the other hand seemed to perfectly fine in the forest. Gober happy to be free as a wild orangutan once again after several years in captivity and Ginting doing great too, with the best “survival teacher” she could possibly hope to have (see my earlier blog for the full story of the release itself: https://iansingletonsocp.wordpress.com/2015/01/09/gobers-story-formerly-blind-sumatran-orangutan-mother-of-twins-returned-to-the-wild/).
When I left them in Jantho to return to Medan we had not yet given up hope that Ganteng might still be reunited with his mum and sister, but were forced to wait and see how things developed. 20 days later, the following is my attempt at a brief update on how all three of them are doing.
During their first two days out Gober and Ginting ventured as far as about 200 m to the north of the cage complex, finding some of the fruits available there and spending the nights in some large and luxurious nests high in the trees. Ganteng was already back in the cages after one miserable night out alone in the forest. He’d got some decent food into him and begun interacting with some of the other orangutans hanging around at the time, including Wenda and Miki.
Over the next day, Gober and Ginting took a u-turn, and headed back towards the cage area, coming late on their 3rd day of freedom within sight of little Ganteng once again. They were still rather slow at moving through the canopy, but that probably reflected Ginting’s lack of experience in keeping up as much as anything else, and Gober was always patient enough to wait for her. Gober was clearly interested in her son when she could see him from her vantage point and spent long periods gazing towards the cages from her night nest too. Ganteng saw them as well, and vocalized a few whimpers from time to time. The team therefore agreed to assess the situation at first light the next day and if they felt their was a chance that the three orangutans might get together again, they would think about opening Ganteng’s cage door again and see what happened. But the next day Gober and her daughter headed of in another direction. They didn’t go so far, only a few dozen metres south, but Ganteng could no longer see them any more. Gober and Ginting were focused on feeding on “Terap” fruits (Artocarpus spp.). Some of the other previously released orangutans were too, and Gober and Ginting had their first encounters with Wenda, Miki, Ruben, Sachi and Balaram. Each of them approached the two newcomers but Gober seemed to deliberately to keep her and Ginting’s distance from them.
On January 9th Gober and Ginting made a nest for a nap at midday, as usual, but this time Gober then left Ginting in the nest they’d been sharing and made a another new one for herself just 2 metres away. The staff noted at the time that Ginting seemed to be adapting to the forest very well herself by then, moving much more easily through the trees, finding fruits and feeding herself.
Around 6pm on January 11th the pair again returned to the cage area, sitting in a clump of lianas just 10 metres from Ganteng’s cage. By then without his mum for a whole week, he cried when he saw them. But they still didn’t come any closer or show any sign of doing so. Instead they simply watched from afar and made another new nest for the night when the light began to fade.
The staff were optimistic that this could be the chance they’d been hoping for, and made plans to open Ganteng’s cage the next day if the prospects of reuniting them all looked good. So at first light, Wenda and Miki were enticed into another of the cages with a little food and locked in. This was to ensure that Gober would not be put off from approaching the cages and her son by their presence. Then just after 7 am Gober and Ginting did move a little closer, Ganteng’s cage door was opened accordingly and the staff scurried away to observe what happened from a good distance.
After about 3 minutes hesitation Ganteng came out, climbed up and sat on top of his cage. He moved around a bit more, mostly in and out of his cage. He climbed along some of the rubber ropes leading from the cages to the trees too, but didn’t go any further. Surprisingly, he did not seem so attentive towards his mum and sister whilst he was doing all this, despite them sitting just 10 m away watching him.
After half an hour of this, the team decided to open Wenda and Miki’s cage as well, in the hope that Ganteng might follow them as they made their way into the trees. When they first came out, however, the 3 of them simply fooled around and played together a while, and when Wend and Miki did finally move off to the trees he didn’t go with them, immediately withdrawing to the security of his cage instead. At that point Gober and Ginting moved off further into the forest too, so the staff closed poor Ganteng’s door again and gave him some food and bedding to take his mind off things.
By noon Gober and Ginting had already covered over 100 m and were at trail SA 50. They stayed around SA for the next 2 days and then went further into the forest as far as FB 500, near the top of a steep ridge, and then on to PB 250, where they met another orangutan known as Mawasudin, who they then followed to MU 150, about 1.5 km away from cage complex.
Ginting by then was showing signs of increasing confidence as a wild orangutan. Not only was she now finding her own fruits to eat in the trees, she had also learned to process and eat rotan (rattan) stems, just like her mother. This is an extremely useful skill as rotan is almost always available as a fall back food, when other foods are scarce. Its also notoriously thorny and spiny, requiring extremely careful processing to do it safely! Ginting was also interacting a lot with Mawasudin, pulling his hair and teasing him to encourage him to play with her. On the other hand though, she would cry out out if she turned round and found herself too far from mum all of a sudden. Usually though Gober would come immediately and chase Mawasudin away. Based on the staff’s daily monitoring notes, the furthest distance Ginting has been away from her mum is still only about 5 meters.
Interestingly, Gober did not show any obvious reaction towards some distant long-calls heard in the forest. The calls came from Seuna’am, a fully adult wild male rescued and relocated to Jantho from an isolated patch of forest in the Tripa peat swamps, back in 2012. He was up at FB 2400, nearly a 1 km from Gober’s position, trying to chase another large male, Radaria, away from a party of young females, Mongki, Marconi and Ayu Ting-Ting. On January 16, Gober and Ginting also met Marvel, a young male released in 2014, notable as he lost his left foot when an illegal pet due to a chain being too tight around his ankle and cutting of the blood supply. Marvel is doing extremely well in the forest despite his minor handicap,…which turns out not to be much of a handicap at all really! Gober and Ginting where by then also finding and eating many additional new fruits, both in terms of numbers and species.
Back at the cage complex, Ganteng is still fine and seems to really enjoy playing with Wenda and Miki through the cage bars. He also has a very healthy appetite, which is a positive sign. The team are putting a lot of effort and time in to give him more attention and win his confidence. They’re also giving him lots of enrichment and are paying extra close attention to his behavior and progress.
Each night at the camp there is a 10 minute informal discussion after dinner to update each other on Gober and Ginting’s progress and movements, Ganteng’s welfare, and to plan for the next day. There is a real air of excitement and ‘spirit’ amongst the staff since the arrival and release of this unique orangutan ‘family’. They are always talking about how brave little Ginting was when so high in the tree, how she moved this way or that to get the new fruits, and how concerned they were during the heavy rain that she might fall, so they gathered under the tree ready to catch her etc. Its easy to see how the Jantho team are impressed by Gober, who has gone through so much in her life, and is still doing such a great job as a wild orangutan and as a teacher for Ginting. They’re also concerned to make sure Ganteng is okay and getting over his separation.
I guess its not impossible that Ganteng met get back with his mum and sister sooner rather than later, but the longer it goes without happening, the more likely it is to be later rather than sooner. Without his mum, we need to wait quite some time I think before we try to release him again properly. The first thing we need to do is really gain his confidence and trust. As noted in the earlier blog, Ganteng and Ginting have never been close to people and remain suspicious when approached too close. The next time we try and get Ganteng out of the cage and into the forest on his own, we need to be sure we can monitor him closely and give him extra food, and get him back to safety if it doesn’t work out. Ideally we’d be able to take him out during the day and return him at night, and gradually enable him to learn the skills he needs that way. But we need to build his trust in the staff first, before we will be able to do that and that will take several months at the very least.
NOTE: This account is based on notes made on January 19, 2015, using the daily field observations of Mukhlisin and the rest of the SOCP’s Jantho team.
Jantho, January 6th, 2015.
On Monday January 5th 2015, an adult female orangutan, Gober, with a unique story to tell, was finally returned to the wild in the forests of Jantho, in Aceh Province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Aceh will be known to many due to the devastating 2004 tsunami that killed around 200,000 of the people.
Gober was originally captured on 22 November 2008, by a team comprising the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP; veterinarian drh Rachmad Wahyudi and Operations Manager Asril), the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s Conservation Agency (BKSDA SU; Head of the Technical Department Pak Siswono and local staff, Darmin) and a foreign research team led by Dr Gail Campbell Smith (including Misran, Krisna, Rudi, and Rabin).
The capture took place using a blowpipe and anaesthetic dart in an isolated patch of mixed rubber gardens and agro-forest near the villages of Citra Kasih and Sampan Getek, in Langkat District, North Sumatra Province, and Gober was immediately transferred to be cared for at the SOCP’s Orangutan Quarantine Centre near Medan, North Sumatra. She was captured for her own safety, as she was blind in both eyes due to cataracts (she is quite senior in years) she was raiding local farmers crops to find enough food to survive. If not removed from the area promptly she would surely have been killed for this reason.
Most orangutans that enter the SOCP’s Quarantine Centre and Reintroduction Programme are confiscated illegal pets, captured when their mothers were killed. Despite being illegal to kill or capture an orangutan under Indonesian National Law (UU No 5, 1990), orangutans are frequently deliberately killed in areas where the forests are being cleared, e.g. for palm oil plantations, or if they are in conflict with farmers, such as for raiding crops at the forest edge.
Occasionally, however, the SOCP is called out to rescue wild orangutans in isolated forest fragments, where they would surely die in the near future due to malnutrition or be killed by local people, e.g. for crop raiding or to capture an infant for trade. At the time of Gober’s rescue, an English PhD Student, Gail Campbell Smith (email@example.com) was studying human orangutan conflicts among the isolated orangutan population at Sampan Getek, hence Gober’s situation was well studied and documented.
Since everyone agreed, even the local farmers themselves, that she would certainly be killed if left where she was the decision to capture her and remove her to safety was both easy and unanimous. At that time it was considered that she would never be able to live in the wild again, due to her blindness, and that she would spend the rest of her life in captivity.
For this reason, the SOCP team made an unusual decision, contra to normal policy, to try and improve her quality of life and welfare. Normally the SOCP actively tries to keep mature adult females separate from males at the quarantine to prevent pregnancies. There are already several hundred orangutans in captivity throughout Indonesia, many unlikely to be released in the forseeable future, and producing more of them simply adds to the problem. The SOCP much prefers females become pregnant and reproduce AFTER they are released to the wild, making their re-adaptation to the forest much easier for them without the encumbrance of an additional mouth to feed. Gober, however, was known to be an experienced mother, having reared infants already in her previous habitat, and given her blindness it was felt that having an infant to occupy her time and attention would be a huge boost to her psychological welfare in captivity. Furthermore, all being well her infant could eventually be released to the forest, with the additional benefit of allowing both Gober’s, and their father’s genes would continue to contribute to their species’ survival in the wild, despite never being a wild orangutans again themselves.
Subsequently in June 2010, Gober was gradually introduced and eventually mixed with a young adult male orangutan at the quarantine centre, named Leuser. Ironically, Leuser was and still is, also blind, in his case, due to being shot at least 62 times with an air rifle, 2 pellets being lodged in 1 eye and 1 in the other. Leuser will spend the rest of his days, hopefully eventually in the SOCP’s planned “Orangutan Haven” (see http://www.earth4orangutans.com). Despite both adults being blind, they soon mated successfully and Gober fell pregnant within just a matter of days. The pair where then separated again a few months before Gober was due to give birth, to ensure the safety of the infant. Normally adult males are not unduly aggressive towards their infants, even in captivity, but orangutan copulations can be rather ‘aggressive’ affairs, and with both adults being blind the risks were assessed to be high enough to warrant separation in this case, just to be on the safe side.
As predicted by the SOCP team, Gober successfully gave birth in January 2011, on the 21st in fact. But, what no-one had predicted and much to our surprise, was that she produced not one, but TWO healthy infants; TWINS! Cases of twins are rare in orangutans, but twin orangutans born to parents who are both blind is totally unheard of! Being such an experienced mother, and despite her handicap, Gober proceeded to rear both infants in exemplary fashion; Ganteng (meaning handsome, a male) and Ginting (a local karonese name, female).
Having previously thought that Gober would spend the rest of her life in captivity, the SOCP was later thrilled to receive an offer from top Indonesian ophthalmologist, dr Arie Umboh Sp.M (K) to carry out cataract surgery and try to restore her eyesight. Dr Arie and the SOCP vet team performed the surgery on 27 August 2012 and it was a complete success. Gober gradually regained her vision whilst kept in low light conditions for a few months and since then her eyesight has been restored almost 100%, as far as we can tell.
The success of the operation naturally prompted renewed discussion regarding Gober’s future and the prospects of her returning to a life in the forest as a wild orangutan again. It was still considered too risky whilst the twins were very young, however, but today, at almost 4 years old, they are considered old enough to look out for themselves in the forest, with their mother as their mentor. Plan s were therefore put in place during 2014 to try to release all three of them together at the beginning of 2015. This decision was very much welcomed her caretakers at the SOCP quarantine centre. Gober had never liked people, not surprising really knowing her history, and despite doing a great job rearing her infants she has never really thrived in captivity. Her bodyweight has always tended to be rather low, probably at least partly reflecting her age, and she has always been afraid and stressed by people near her cage, especially when she could hear them but not see them. She never really got rid of her fear and always seemed stressed by captivity. After the surgery and she could at last see everyone, the staff had even then deliberately tried to avoid “humanizing” her any more than necessary, knowing her fear of people would be an advantage if she could indeed be released to the forest again.
So on December 5th 2014, Gober and the twins were transferred together to the SOCP’s Orangutan Reintroduction Station in the Jantho Conservation Forest. On arrival they were released from their travel crates into purpose built cages right at the edge of Jantho’s pristine rainforest habitat. Staff then began introducing them to various foods available in the forest to ensure they were familiar with many of the locally available wild foods in the intervening weeks, and plans were made to finally release them on 5th January 2015.
Accordingly, I arrived in Jantho a few days earlier, and discussed with the Jantho team how it would be done, and who would do what. Then on Monday January 5th the big day finally arrived. A select few staff gathered at 8 in the morning for the “grand opening” of the cage door. Rubber ropes cut from old car tyres had been strung between the cage roof and the nearby trees, to facilitate easy access to the forest from the door of their cage. Then with a few cameras ready to capture this unique event, SOCP’s Jantho station manager, Mukhlisin, unlocked the padlock and slid open the door nearest to the trees.
After a few minutes of hesitation, both the twins went outside, the young female Ginting being by far the most confident, venturing all around the cage barwork and also on the grassy surrounds. She even crossed the bare soil (still unfamiliar to her) to one of the other cages nearby, panicked a little when she realized she’d have to do the same again to get back to her mum, and then figured out that she could also get there via the rubber ropes and hurriedly did so. Ganteng, on the other hand, stayed near to the cage door, not letting go of the bar work at all and not setting foot on the ground below. Gober herself resisted to opportunity to immediately escape and steadfastly refused all attempts to tempt her outside, remaining in the cage as if fearing the whole thing was a trap, probably in large part due to her inbuilt fear and suspicion of people. As she was clearly concerned about the fact her kids were running amok outside the cage, the team decided to close the door again once they had both rejoined her inside and to try again an hour later.
The second time the cage was opened, just before 11 am, all three orangutans immediately sat in the doorway, gazing out at the forest. Ganteng was again hesitant, but after just a minute or so both Gober and Ginting exited the cage and made for the nearest trees, opting to cross the 2 meters of ground on foot rather than using the ropes. This unexpected turn of events clearly took poor Ganteng by surprise, and before he knew it he was quite separated from his mum and sister 15 metres away in a tree, with totally unfamiliar, uncharted and novel territory in between. Neither of the kids had ever been on grass or soil before. Ganteng was obviously upset, repeatedly pacing and swinging in circles inside the cage, but surprisingly was very quiet, not crying or screaming as most would have expected. Gober was also somewhat concerned, vocalizing with “kiss squeaks” now and then, which she is wont to do anyway whenever around people, but amazingly was not willing to come back to retrieve her son, despite the staff who were present quickly retreating some distance away from the scene so as not to discourage her from coming back for him.
Eventually, after several long minutes Ganteng did pluck up the courage to cover the short gap between the cage and the trees and entered the forest on foot like the others. He then managed to climb a few very small trees, but did not seem confident doing so and remained some distance from Gober and Ginting, who had by then moved another few metres further away. He was clearly well out of his comfort zone and showed little sign of having enough courage to try to get to them by himself.
Then followed a worrisome couple of hours as we watched poor Ganteng clinging to the trunk of a small tree, with mum and sister still 20 metres away and much higher in the canopy. Gober seemed aware of where he was all the time, and now and then seemed to try to move towards him but it also seemed she was having difficulty making sure Ginting could keep up with her.
When orangutans travel through the forest they most often do so in the middle canopy layer, swaying small and medium sized trees in order to grab the next tree and pull it towards them, moving into that before letting go of the previous tree and allowing it to swish back out of reach again. Orangutan mothers usually wait until their infant has crossed over, often using their mums body as a living bridge, before letting go. Ginting, however, being a total novice at this was slow on the uptake, meaning Gober had to wait several long minutes before her infant would figure it out and make the crossing. This was clearly slowing Gober down, and hence prolonging Ganteng’s trauma.
Much to everyone’s relief, Gober did eventually get to him, reached out her hand, which he duly grabbed and pulled him into the neighbouring tree with her and his sister. At this point we were all ecstatic, thinking the worse was over and they would now start travelling around in the trees as a family, but sadly, our delight was premature. Within just a few minutes we could clearly see that once again Gober and Ginting had moved on about 10 metres, but Ganteng was nowhere to be seen. She waited patiently for him to catch up with them, but as earlier he showed little sign of doing so and was again alone clinging to the trunk of a small tree. Gober waited and waited, but again he made no attempt to catch them.
Her stomach probably getting the better of her, since she hadn’t eaten much that day, Gober decided to climb a nearby fruit tree with Ginting and began to assuage her hunger. Ginting followed suit, having her first ever taste of truly fresh, wild forest food ‘still on the tree’.
Another hour or so passed, Gober still frequently looking back to see if Ganteng was following, but not going back to find him. Ganteng was still clinging forlornly to the same tree trunk. It was by now late afternoon and beginning to get dark, but to our surprise once again Gober still showed no indication of going back to find her son, as we’d all expected and hoped she would. Instead she moved even further away and made herself a nest in preparation for the night, a task she repeated four times until she finally built one that she felt was up to her required standard.
At this point all of us were very concerned. I don’t think any of us had ever really considered that Gober might give up on one of her infants so readily, or so quickly. It was a shock to all of us. Even when making her nests she clearly knew exactly where he was as we could see her regularly looking in precisely his direction. We had considered the possibility that one of the kids might fall from a tree, and get injured or even killed as a result. We also anticipated that the kids might struggle to keep up with their mum. But we all still considered the benefits of releasing them together as a family were so great, that they massively outweighed the possible risks, and we all fully expected Gober to do everything in her power to look after both of them to the best of her ability.
Poor Ganteng, who for sure was having the worst day of his life, a living nightmare in fact, had little choice but to find a branch a little way up a small tree just 15 meters or so from the cages, and try to survive the night there. He was a sad sight indeed as the sun went down, and darkness enveloped all around him, a situation made worse by gathering clouds and the first spots of rain. He did have the good sense to cover his head with some leaves during some of the rain though. The rain threatened to be torrential, but fortunately was only a short shower and eased off after only an hour.
An emergency meeting was called near the cages. The only real option was to make sure that we did not lose touch with Ganteng during the night, and to keep a very close eye on him so that we could intervene if his condition became serious. Catching him up there and then and returning him to the cage was certainly an option, but the consensus was that if he could just get through the first night okay, “surely” Gober would come back this way first thing tomorrow to try and find him.
So we put some food at the base of his tree and tried to let him have some time alone to collect his thoughts, checking on him only very briefly, at regular intervals through the night. We wanted to ensure he was still okay without disturbing him too much with noise and flashlights. We wanted to make sure we could react in case he began crying or panicked, or in some other way got into serious difficulty during the night. We were also concerned that he could succumb to hypothermia, since even in the tropics it can get extremely cold when temperatures drop at night, especially if its raining.
By about 3 am he had moved down to the base of the tree, clearly quite exhausted from having to cling on all this time, and curled up on the ground to try and sleep properly.
I visited him at 5 am and found him fast asleep. I then checked him again about 5.45 and found he had barely moved. I went closer and was surprised he didn’t wake up or react. Leaning over him I could see his lips trembling and this prompted me to try and touch him to see how warm, or cold he felt. I expected this to immediately wake him up, startled, and for him to leap away from me terrified, but he didn’t, and I was able to stroke him softly several times. I was not at all happy that I was able to do that. I could see he was breathing okay, and he was still reasonably warm to the touch, but the fact that he didn’t react at all made me extremely concerned. I then called Mukhlisin on the radio. He was already at Gober and Ginting’s nest waiting for them to wake up but I suggested he return to the cages and we try and catch Ganteng immediately. He agreed, so we grabbed a small net to bundle Ganteng up in and returned to his sad little body curled up on the bare soil, ready to grab him and try to resuscitate him.
Thankfully our concern was unjustified. We were very much relieved when as we approached him to do the evil deed he woke up, sat upright immediately and bolted up his tree again. What I had thought could have been the signs of hypothermic shock, was just a very deep and much needed sleep, after many hours of stress, fear and profound emotional trauma.
Another “day 2 strategy meeting” was then held with the team. Again there was consensus that if Gober was ever going to come back and try to retrieve her son, she would do so that day. If she made no attempt to do so, the most sensible and safest conclusion to draw, at least for Ganteng’s immediate welfare, was that she was never going to come back for him at all. In that case, we agreed that the best thing for him would be to recover him, get him back in the shelter and safety of the cages, and make sure he doesn’t have to endure a second miserable night, hungry and alone in the dark wet forest. We also agreed, after further observations, that he was fit and strong enough to stay out in the forest that day whilst we monitored Gober’s behavior and movements.
We then tried not to disturb him too much for a few hours and let him rest and sleep after his ordeal, as the mist rose higher over the forest and the air temperature increased. Then we would try and get some food to him in the hope he might eat some of it.
This plan worked well. I watched him from a fair distance, often using binoculars to make sure he was really okay and the others followed Gober and Ginting. Ganteng got some much needed additional rest, but kept a wary eye on me at the same time. I went close to him a few times, just 2 or 3 metres away, and he was fine with that, but any closer and he would climb off the ground to get out of my reach. He always climbed the same tree though and came down to rest in the same place when I moved away, so I got some of his favourite ‘Salak’ fruits (known as snake fruit by English speakers in Indonesia) and put them in his resting place. To my delight he came down after I retreated and devoured the fruits. Happy with this bit of seemingly small, but in reality quite significant progress, I proceeded to give several more items over the next few hours.
One problem I encountered with this approach occurred shortly after the initial success. One of the other reintroduced orangutans at the centre, Wenda, who was released early in 2014, saw me take some food from the cage area and walk into the forest. Watching from her, to me unknown vantage point, she then headed straight in Ganteng’s direction. Just a few minutes after I had put some more food out for Ganteng and he had come down, she descended next to him and stole the lot! Clearly I had to be smarter, and waited until she was well out of the way and well out of sight, before giving little Ganteng some more.
It was now midday. Ganteng had had some rest and also now had some nourishment in his little stomach. It was time to find out what Gober and Ginting were doing and in what direction they were travelling. I called Mukhlisin on the radio to find out, but was disheartened to hear that rather than gradually coming nearer to Ganting’s position, they had actually travelled further away and were now half way up a ridge about 200 metres away, feeding on some fruits. Yet again this was not what we had hoped for. We had seen the day before that Gober’s movement was hindered by Ginting’s lack of forest experience, but that she was travelling even further away from us and not even attempting to locate Ganteng was a major disappointment. It was becoming more and more obvious that for whatever reason, she had given up on her little son and was not coming back in any hurry to look for him. For his sake then, we should start thinking seriously about where he was going to spend his second night since short of a miracle, he was going to be spending that one alone as well.
At the morning meeting we had agreed that after he had got some rest, and ideally some food as well, we would try to get him off the ground again and see what he did, be it simply clinging to the tree trunk just a few metres up or trying to cover some distance and moving from tree to tree. So it was time for me to stop being “Mr Nice” and start being “Mr A Bit Nasty” for a while. I approached his resting spot again, and forced him off the ground, but this time instead of putting some food out and retreating again I moved even closer. As expected, this took the poor little guy a bit by surprise, but it had the desired effect and he climbed higher. I then moved away again, but in a different direction. He came down and I approached him again, this time with bit more menace in my mannerisms. Again this had the effect I wanted and he moved a few metres along the ground and sat in a new location. I gave him a couple of minutes rest, and then repeated the procedure, thus moving him along a bit further. The next time he climbed he actually moved between a few small trees before coming down again. He’s finally getting the hang of it a bit at least, I thought.
Then was the question of which direction did we want him to head in. We could have really put him through some exercise and tried to keep him moving along in this way all the way to Gober’s position, but by then that was a very long way for such a little orangutan with just a few hours daylight remaining. So the obvious choice was to usher him towards the cage area. Who knows, if he sees the familiar site of the cages, of cold metal bars and ropes made from old car tyres, the sense of being home and safe might just be enough to get him to climb back into the cage himself, which by then would be by far the most desirable outcome for the poor guy. So that’s what we did.
By then SOCP’s Jantho Project Manager, Adi, was with me and the two of us gradually steered him, little by little, towards the cages. We didn’t let him relax too much as we wanted to keep him moving but at the same time we didn’t want to stress him unduly, so we did it little by little. Eventually he was sat at the very edge of the forest in a clump of tall ferns, staring across the narrow patch of open ground to the cages where he had last spent a night with his mother and sister. We’d left the cage door open, just in case he was tempted, and much to our relief he clearly felt these cages were home. He suddenly jumped up, ran across the gap, and climbed on the cage roof. It only took a couple more minutes of shepherding him to the correct end of the cages and he slipped inside of his own accord. Adi then came around and closed the door behind him, locked the padlock and we both sighed a huge sigh of relief. He was going to be safe. He was also going to get a much needed good night’s sleep, and he had entered the cages by his own choice, avoiding what would otherwise have been much more stress if we’d had to physically catch him and put him back in there ourselves. Job done, for now at least!
Adi stayed behind and gave Ganteng lots of leaves to make a nest in one of the hammocks in the cage, and more food in the feeding basket, also made from old car tyres. I headed off to find Mukhlisin and see what Gober and Ginting were up to. I found them near the top of the ridge, still around 200 metres from the cage complex, high up in an enormous tree, feeding on the inner bark of some of the highest branches. Not long after I got there the clouds rolled in and a couple of hours of torrential rain ensued. Thankfully, we had got Ganteng back in the cage before it started.
Gober and Ginting sat out the heaviest of the subsequent downpour and when it finally began to ease, found a suitable location nearby and prepared a new nest for the night. Today we could clearly see that not only did she make an excellent, very leafy, luxurious and sturdy nest, as befits an orangutan with many years experience in the wild, she also added an equally leafy and luxuriant roof, to keep out any rain overnight.
As I write this, it’s 11pm that same day. Gober and Ginting are fast asleep in their beautiful nest about 500 m across the river from where I am sitting, at basecamp. Ganteng is about 200 m away, also across the river, asleep in a bed of leafy branches, in a hammock made of old fire hose in what is now his own cage. Wenda and another orangutan, Miki, are asleep on the roof of another cage next to his, and I am about to curl up in my own nest, a one-season sleeping bag, and follow suit.
The last 2 days have been an emotional rollercoaster for all of us, but none more so than poor little Ganteng. I’ve spent the time racking my brains and my conscience trying to figure out if we’ve done the right thing trying to release all three of them together, or if we should have taken another option.
When we first realized that the surgery had worked and Gober could see again, as stated we began to think about options for allowing her to end her days as a wild orangutan again. Before the surgery, we had always assumed this would never happen, and that one-day, when they were around 5 years old, we would remove the twins from her and start them on the path to release and a life in the forest. Of course it wouldn’t be nice to take the from her, but if the twins could become wild orangutans, free in the forest and contributing to the future of their species, then surely that would be the ultimate best outcome for them. Leaving them with mum until the age of 10 or 11, when young wild orangutans really start leaving their mum for good, would have made their release much more difficult and less likely to succeed. Gober we thought, could eventually be moved the “Orangutan Haven” (mentioned above) where orangutans that cannot be released will be able to live in a much more natural and stimulating environment than the cages they are in now.
But this all changed once we knew that Gober could see again. Why not try releasing her to the wild again, and since she is a proven caring and attentive mother, why not try releasing her with twins? There are a few records of twin orangutans being born, and at least one such case was a mother living free in a forest. The literature suggests, however, that in none of these few cases did both infants survive. Presumably it is extremely difficult for a mother to carry to infants around in the trees when they are both clinging on to her body 24 hours a day, and the chances of at least one of them falling is likewise, presumably high too. Might it be easier when they are older, and no longer need to cling on to mum all the time? Once they are old enough to climb and travel themselves and look out for their own safety? It made sense to me, and others we discussed this with seemed to agree.
The next question then is at what age would all 3 have the best possible chance of successfully being released? We considered under 3 years old to be way too young, as infants still normally hang on their mum when moving from tree to tree. Around 4 years old would probably be much easier, as 4 year olds in the wild are already adept at travelling and climbing and feeding themselves, without relying on mum all the time. Beyond 5 years old, we thought the best time to learn the basic skills needed to survive has probably passed, and additional year after that would be further compromising their chances of ultimate success. Four years old therefore seemed a logical age to try this; old enough to look out for their own safety, young enough to learn what they need to know. 4 years was also considered potentially old enough for the kids to have a reasonable chance of surviving even if their mother died, for example due to natural causes because of her age, especially if they could get 6 months or a year under their belt with her as their mentor before that happened.
Another factor that we very much considered as well was Gober herself, her age, health and behavior. For sure she is quite elderly, the cataracts, her heavily worn teeth, and her general appearance testify to that. She also hates people. Before she was even rescued from Sampan Getek she must have endured many years of being shouted at by farmers, having sticks and stones thrown at her, and even being shot at. Then she lost her eyesight and was rudely darted, anaesthetized and put in a cold metal cage, a completely alien environment to her and one which she obviously couldn’t see either. Nor could she see any of her captors, or her caretakers at the quarantine centre, which must be awfully frustrating too. As a result she has always been stressed since the very first day she arrived, kiss squeaking whenever people came too close to her cage, and never ever coming down to take food from them directly. She was also mixed with a large, rough, and extremely sexually frustrated male orangutan for a while, and as is typical of male orangutans in such situations, was mated regularly and quite aggressively for several days in the beginning. She couldn’t see him either.
Needless to say she didn’t take well to captivity. In the early days staff and keepers tried to encourage her to calm down and be more friendly; to ‘tame’ her a bit for want of a better word, in order to try and reduce her fears and reduce her stress. But she never really changed much. Having the kids obviously helped take her mind off things to a degree, but must also have made her more protective too, possibly adding even more stress.
Then when she had the chance of the operation, and the very real possibility of being released to the wild again, the SOCP made a very conscious decision to avoid humanizing her and the kids, feeling that the less humanized they were the better they were likely to fare once eventually released. So staff spent less and less time with her for fear of upsetting her too much, and tended to leave her alone as much as possible, in peace, with the twins to keep her occupied.
As a result of her dislike of captivity, her weight and physique fluctuated over her years in the cages. She was never overweight, but sometimes did look rather thin and scrawny. We did increase her diet several times, but it didn’t really have much affect as her appetite didn’t change accordingly.
Given these considerations, despite the obvious disappointment that Ganteng is not with his mother and sister in the forest, we still feel we can consider their return to the wild as a success. Gober is now free again, and free of the stress she’s endured in captivity all these years. Ginting is also now a wild orangutan, with the best teacher she could possibly have. Ganteng is also still safe, despite his ordeal, but he will get another chance and we still very much hope we can get all three of them living side by side in the same forest within the not too distant future.
We haven’t yet totally given up hope that his mum might come looking for him again and the Jantho team will follow them closely for several weeks to monitor their progress and movements. If they do come close to the cages, and there is obvious interest from both Gober and Ganteng in being reunited, then the Jantho team will open the door and give them another chance, knowing from our experience with him now that we can almost certainly get him back to safety again if things don’t work out then either. So lets see what the future hold’s for all three of them.