It is with an EXTREMELY heavy heart, and immense sadness, that we must report the very sad loss of Ginting; a famous and unique little ‘star’ of an orangutan who touched the hearts of countless fans and admirers around the world. All who knew her personally were heartbroken by the news that she’s no longer with us. Ginting, the daughter of ‘Gober’ and twin sister of ‘Ganteng’ was a VERY unique and special little orangutan and we owe you all an explanation of what has happened.
My apologies too, that this news is somewhat belated now. In the first instance we wanted to be sure of all the facts before we released the news. Then just when I was halfway through drafting this article I also had a mishap, breaking my collarbone in a motorcycle accident on the way to the quarantine centre. Fortunately, that’s the only injury I sustained though, and all being well its healing okay, but it did prevent me from writing anything for a while and my apologies again for that.
Many people are already familiar with the story of this unique orangutan ‘family’ already, but to put these recent developments in context I try here to summarise their journey thus far!
Back in November 2008, the SOCP’s vet team was called out to rescue an elderly orangutan female who was blind, and raiding farmers crops in the Sampan Getek region of Langkat, in North Sumatra. The orangutan in question was Gober and she would certainly have been killed by local farmers if not rescued. SOCP vet drh Rachmad Wahyudi and a team from the Orangutan Information Centre (OIC), with staff of PhD student Gail Campbell Smith (who was studying the Sampan Getek orangutans at the time) therefore tracked Gober down in the corner of a small mixed rubber agroforest, surrounded by palm oil plantations, and evacuated her to the SOCP’s quarantine centre for her own safety. We immediately confirmed she was blind due to cataracts in both eyes. We also deduced she was an elderly female, probably over 40 years of age, based on her very worn and not too pretty teeth!
Given that she was blind we all considered that she’d almost certainly never be wild again. As she’d also been a wild orangutan her entire life, we also felt that the rest of her days captive in a cage, especially as she couldn’t see, would be both highly stressful and extremely miserable. It was already clear she was terrified of humans.
Ensuring Gober’s psychological welfare
In an attempt to address this problem, to improve her welfare and reduce her boredom we opted to allow her the chance to get pregnant at the quarantine centre. Normally, we try to prevent orangutans falling pregnant whilst in our care, at least until after they are released! In Gober’s case, however, we knew she was an experienced mother, and felt strongly that the benefits of having an infant to care for would be a huge boost to her psychological welfare. None of us had any doubt it was something we simply had to allow her to do. Furthermore, all being well, we felt there would be every chance for her infant to eventually be released to the wild as well. The decision was therefore made to introduce her to a male orangutan and see what happened.
Ironically, the best male orangutan “suitor” for Gober was also blind and already living in the adjacent cage; separated by a solid wall and a steel door. Unlike Gober, Leuser’s blindness was due to his being shot 62 times with an air rifle, with pellets still lodged in each eye.
As we anticipated, Gober fell pregnant shortly after the pair were introduced to each other. What we hadn’t anticipated, however, was that Gober’s pregnancy would result in TWINS! Ganteng (male) and Ginting (female) were born on 21st January 2011. Twins are rare in orangutans. In 25 years working with the species, I have only ever heard of around 8 or so cases, almost all of which were born in zoos, and some of them didn’t survive.
Despite being taken by surprise with the twin infants, we carefully evaluated the unexpected situation once we were happy that Gober was caring for both of them. The twin’s father, Leuser, had already been separated from Gober by then, behind the wall again, to prevent any accidents with him grabbing her or the infants through the cage bars. We also had the option to confine Gober to a smaller cage within her larger one, and did that to minimize the risk of the twins falling and injuring themselves during their early months.
We still considered Gober would never be a wild orangutan again, but as noted, had not ruled out the possibility of her twins eventually being released one day. But then, in early 2012, we were contacted by a friend who knew someone willing to perform cataract surgery for Gober, and naturally jumped at the chance to try and restore her eyesight! The surgery was performed by leading Indonesian ophthalmologist, dr Arie Umboh Sp.M (K) and the SOCP vet team on 27 August 2012, and was a complete success. Over the following months Gober fully regained her eyesight, increased her activity accordingly, and the twins went from strength to strength.
A chance of freedom?
With these major developments in their story, and as things were all going so well, we began thinking more seriously about the future of these 3 unique orangutans. Prior to her surgery we’d never really considered that Gober could ever be a wild orangutan again. On the contrary though, we always felt that her twins ‘could’, actually have that chance one day. The idea would be to leave them with their mum until they were around 4 or 5 years old, an age that we thought would ensure they gained as much experience and confidence as possible from their mum, whilst still being young enough to team up with other orangutans in the reintroduction project, and learn to be wild with them. But now, we began to realise, there was no longer any good reason why Gober couldn’t also be given the chance to be wild again as well, ideally with and as mentor to the twins! If we could manage this, not only would she be able to live out her days as a free, wild orangutan once again, but if she could also take her infants with her, they would have the best possible teacher they could possibly have, to teach them all the skills they’d need to survive in the forest.
The next question then, was what might be the optimum age to release the twins to give them the best possible chance of success. For Gober we felt the sooner the better, as she clearly still hated people and living in captivity. The twins on the other hand, would have to learn alot from Gober, but with her looking out for them, we felt that 4 years old would be a sensible option. They were already adept at climbing and feeding for themselves, and were also already building basic nests in the cages with leaves. We certainly debated if it might be wiser to wait another year, till the kids were 5, but at the back of our minds also knew that Gober was not a young female, meaning there was an ever-present risk that she could die naturally of old age, at any time. Weighing up all the options, and all possible scenarios, we therefore concluded that the sooner we could release all 3 of them together, the longer the kids would probably have with their mum still around, to protect them and teach them what they needed to learn. Hence we started making plans for their release around the time of their 4th birthday.
The journey to freedom
Gober, Ganteng and Ginting were transferred together to the SOCP’s Jantho Reintroduction Centre in December last year. There they spent several more weeks in cages, acclimatizing to their new forest habitat, new staff, and some of the foods they would find in the forest, before we finally opened the cage doors to freedom in early January this year.
First deviations from the plan
It was at this point, for the first time, things began to deviate somewhat from our initial plans and hopes for Gober and her kids, and we realized that our much hoped for ‘fairy tale ending” to their story may not actually be realized.
Gober and daughter, Ginting, both exited their cage and climbed nearby trees very soon after the door was opened. They did exactly what we’d expected all three to do, but Ginting’s little brother, Ganteng, totally surprised us all by not following and keeping up. He was quickly left behind in the cage, despite everyone’s best efforts to keep the three of them together.
For a fuller account of these first days of the release process see my two earlier blogs:
As you can see from these earlier reports, Gober and Ginting did a fantastic job job of being wild orangutans, whilst Ganteng was resigned to spending longer in the cages, until he too is brave enough to try and make it as a wild orangutan.
After much consternation and considering all the options, we all resigned ourselves to the fact that this was how it was going to be from then on; Gober and Ginting living free, Ginting learning everything she needed to know from her mum, and Ganteng having to play catch up later, when ready to try on his own, without his mum’s care and support. Given mother and daughter’s obvious progress, none of us anticipated the tragedy that was still yet to come. In hindsight, however, life in the wild is always fraught with risk and dangers too, and at the back of our minds we knew you can never rule out all of the potential hazards.
Sad end to little Ginting’s story
Gober and Ginting we’re really doing great. They’d been building great nests, Ginting sometimes even opting to build her own next to mum’s. They’d been. feeding on a wide variety of the wild fruits, leaves and other foods available in the forest and they’d been keeping their distance from people and other orangutans as well. Despite the setback for Ganteng, we were all thrilled to see mum and daughter behaving so much like truly wild orangutans and looking so healthy and happy in the trees.
I saw them myself several times over the weeks following their release and each time got a huge sense of satisfaction seeing them both high in the trees, acting like they were totally at home in the forest and ecstatically happy to be there. Ginting’s future seemed all but assured. She would grow up as a wild orangutan and eventually become a founder of the new orangutan population being established in Jantho. Gober would spend the rest of her days free once again, as she had spent most of her life, only this time in a far better quality, richer forest than she had ever known before. Ganteng would still get his chance eventually too, and with a little luck also meet up with his mum and sister again as a wild orangutan.
Sadly though, our initial optimism was short-lived. It was a HUGE shock to all when the monitoring team found the lifeless body of a young female orangutan in the forest early on February 5th. She was lying at the base of a large tree, near the ridge about 1km north of the cage area. There was no doubt the body was a young female orangutan, but we weren’t 100% sure who it was at first. There were two possibilities, both of which were heartbreaking. One was Ginting, and the other was Mawar.
Mawar is the young daughter of an adult female named ‘Merkati’. Both were rescued together in 2014 from an isolated forest patch surrounded by palm oil plantations in the Tripa swamps, and were released in Jantho the very next day (incidentally, the capture of Merkati and Mawar was featured recently on TV by VICE on HBO in the US, see ‘sneak peak’ here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t6pDW3HWYs4).
The monitoring team had been following Gober and Ginting extremely closely since their release, virtually every day in fact, and all their movements, behavior and interactions with other orangutans had been observed and documented. There had been a couple of breaks in contact though, mostly due to heavy rains, when we had lost them for a day or two. This event had happened during just such a break in contact.
The pair had last been seen just a few days earlier. They’d been observed being pursued, and harassed to a degree (i.e. approached, chased etc), by some of the males we have released in Jantho. These include ‘Radaria’, a large subadult/unflanged male approaching full maturity; and ‘Seuna’am’, a fully adult male, complete with cheek flanges. Both Radaria and Seuma’am were seen close by during the days prior to finding the little body. The monitoring staff hadn’t actually witnessed any direct physical contact between either male and Gober or Ginting, but it seemed clear both were very interested in Gober, as one of the few sexually mature females in Jantho to date. They also noted that whenever the males were nearby, Gober would quickly grab Ginting and try to keep out of their way.
An ‘all-out search’ was immediately initiated with everyone instructed to find Gober as quickly as possible, and Merkati too if she was in the area. They had the unenviable task of needing to confirm which of these two females was missing their daughter.
Being such young animals, and completely mother-reared, we had never implanted a transponder chip into either Ginting or Merkati, so could not check the ID of the body that way. Nor did either of them have any tattoo, for the same reason. Furthermore, when found, the little body had already been dead for a couple of days such that facial features were no longer recognizable enough for a convincing ID that way either. The only way to be sure was to track down Gober, or Merkati, and see who was missing their daughter.
The very next day, Gober was found resting in a nest very close to a large subadult, unflanged male orangutan known as ‘Harry’ (also rescued from Tripa and released in 2012. His capture was featured in an NBC TV broadcast: http://www.nbcnews.com/video/rock-center/49472280). Harry was sat feeding happily in a nearby tree.
Ginting, unfortunately was nowhere to be seen, meaning we could finally confirm that it was indeed her little body that had been found. Unsurprisingly this sad realisation was a major blow to all the Jantho staff, and to all those who had worked with and known Ginting since she was born.
Everyone considered Ganteng and Ginting ‘extra’ special! Indeed they were totally unique in the world, being twins born to parents who were BOTH blind. The devastation we all felt, and are still feeling today, really cannot be adequately described in writing.
What I will say though, is how thrilled I was with all the email and text message updates I’d been getting from the staff in Jantho throughout the early weeks of Gober and Ginting’s freedom. I was bombarded nightly with stories of “today Ginting did this…”, “today she did that…”, “we held our breath when she was doing this, or that, or the other….” etc. Everyone who knew these amazing characters had a special place in their heart for them, and was willing them with all their power to do well. I was extremely proud of the whole team. It’s one thing to work in a foreign country and try to save the wildlife that lives there. Its certainly not easy, I can tell you that! But when you see young Indonesians themselves, with no prior history or interest in wildlife and conservation, rooting for individuals like Gober, Ganteng and Ginting, it’s a total joy. It reminds you that there is actually still some hope!
I was personally doubly sad, therefore. First, of course, shattered to lose little Ginting, but also to see the devastation and deflation her loss caused amongst the staff. It’s certainly true that some of the SOCP staff have become conditioned to orangutans occasionally dying, though you never really get used to that either. We don’t lose a lot but there have been a few over the years that haven’t made it, despite all our efforts. That’s reality of course. In a place like Sumatra animals and people get sick and die all the time. It’s the way it is here. Some orangutans arrive with the SOCP barely hanging on. Some of those we lose, but happily some of them do make it too.
Losing Ginting was another thing altogether though. She’d made it all the way through the quarantine and reintroduction process and was already free in the forest. She was a little orangutan that offered so much HOPE, only for that to be dashed one very sad and emotional day in February. It was a big blow for all of us.
What could have happened?
Once everyone had collected their thoughts and started to come to terms with the news, the first thing we did was try to understand what could possibly have happened. Little orangutans do fall out of trees. I saw it myself once in Suaq Balimbing during my PhD research there in the 90’s. One of my assistants in Suaq saw infants fall on two separate occasions before I ever saw it happen myself. One day I was following ‘Mega’ and her 2 year old daughter ‘Meggie’. As Mega reached the top of a large fruit tree she left Meggie hanging on a branch on her own, while she stuffed her own face with fruits. Just a few minutes later I watched dumbstruck as Meggie grabbed a small branch, which immediately snapped, and came crashing (more ‘splashing’ really, as Suaq is a swamp forest) to the ground a couple of metres in front of me. There was then a period of total silence. Think of when the wind is knocked out of you by a fall, and you can’t say or do anything for a few seconds until you’re lungs start to function again. That’s what happened to Meggie. But then there was an almighty scream, emanating from the long swamp grass just in front of me. Amusingly, to me at the time at least, Mega’s first response on hearing the scream 30 metres below her was not to look down, but to immediately look behind her and scour the tree’s canopy. She must have thought it so unlikely that Meggie could fall that before anything else she had to check if that infant orangutan way down there could possibly be hers…which of course it was! On seeing no little orangutans behind her and realizing the scream was indeed Meggie, she immediately hurtled downwards, and I backed away, so she could come and scoop her daughter up to safety again. So as I say, it may not be so common but wild orangutan infants DO fall out of trees, and for sure sometimes they won’t be as lucky as Meggie was.
What seems equally plausible in Ginting’s case, is interference from the male orangutans in Jantho. Gober is one of very few sexually mature females in Jantho. The majority of orangutans we’ve released there to date are even now still only 10 to 12 years old at most, having been released on average around 6 to 8 years of age. Most won’t be sexually receptive for a few more years yet, wild females tending to give birth to their first infant when 15 years old on average. This makes even elderly females like Gober a major focus of interest for the larger males in the forest. Male orangutans are also well-known for “rape” or if you don’t like the term (I don’t much), ‘forced matings’ with females. This can be an aggressive affair if the female resists, ending up with a lot of screaming, shuffling and wriggling as she tries to fend him off. It frequently leads to quite violent slapping, grabbing and even biting, and it’s easy to imagine how a young, naïve orangutan like Ginting could get bitten or knocked to the ground in such a situation.
One of the orangutans I worked with at Jersey Zoo some years ago, a large Bornean male named ‘Giles’, had always been branded as a baby killer by some of the staff that knew him before I did. Two infants born to females whilst Giles had been in the same cage had been killed soon after. Myself I always doubted Giles would kill an infant deliberately, but can easily see how they could have been batted aside or have fallen during one of his amorous episodes with their mother. I’m therefore convinced that most males are capable of ‘accidentally’ killing infants during such forced mating events.
Given that Radaria and Harry (and other males in the area) had been seen taking a close interest in Gober in the days prior to Ginting’s death, and had even been seen harassing the two of them, my temptation is to assume, or propose, that a forced copulation could easily have been the ultimate cause of Ginting’s death. For one thing, as noted, these can be quite aggressive and violent situations, which of course are dangerous, especially when high up in a tree. Ginting also had zero prior experience of such things, and would not have known she was in danger or how to keep herself safe. She wouldn’t have understood that she was at serious risk of being suddenly slapped or pushed aside if she interfered, and hence may not have been concentrating on keeping her hand and footholds secure.
For the above reasons its not so difficult to imagine how poor little Ginting could have fallen from high in a tree, whatever the ultimate reason for that might be. To be honest, its just easy to imagine, and therefore not really surprising at all that it could have happened. Life in the wild is indeed dangerous after all.
We can speculate all we like but will never really know what happened. Knowing wouldn’t really make Ginting’s loss any easier to deal with either, but there is still some hope to be gleaned from this unique family’s story. I’ve been working on the SOCP for 15 years now, often rescuing pitiful little orangutans from appalling conditions under which they would almost certainly die if we didn’t get them. Likewise we also rescue relatively healthy animals on occasions, living wild in patches of forest where they too would surely die if left where they are. Gober was certainly one of the latter, even if she was initially rescued for an unusual reason, being blind and crop raiding to feed herself.
Gober is now a fully wild orangutan, as she was before we ever met her. She now has the prospect of several more years of freedom as a truly wild orangutan again, in a FAR better quality primary forest habitat than she ever had before in the mixed agroforest landscape she grew up in at Sampan Getek.
Ganteng is still fit and well too. Staff are working hard with him and he’s making major progress. He is now far more trusting of his caretakers and is gradually being conditioned to trust them even more before his eventual future release. Very soon we will be able to start taking him into the forest properly and teaching him in earnest the skills he will need to survive in the wild on his own. He also has several new orangutan friends. Wenda and Mikki, both released in 2014 but still frequenting the area, are always coming to interact with him.
We no longer have Ginting, of course, but she will always be in all of our hearts. Not only was she a ‘little orangutan star’ for everyone who ever met her, but also for many, many other people around the world who have followed the story of her unique family, and for those who will learn about them in the future. Ginting’s legacy will be with me for the rest of my life, and I am sure the staff at Quarantine and Jantho will never forget her either.
Ironically, whilst we all thought Ginting was going to have the easier ride to a new life in the forest, we must now focus on her brother Ganteng, who seemed to have drawn the short straw when he was left behind by his mother and sister. I therefore add a note here from Jess, who has been working closely with Ganteng and the staff in Jantho over the last few months and is most up to date on his progress. I won’t get there myself for a little while yet whilst I wait for my broken shoulder to heal!
Rest (or nest) in Peace, little Ginting!
Ganteng progress update – by Jess McKelson
Over the past 7 weeks I’ve been visiting Jantho regularly to teach the staff how to build a closer relationship and bond with little Ganteng. Using positive reinforcement training and conditioning as a tool we’re all excited to see the little guy growing fast and gaining ‘new found’ confidence and skills that will allow him to become a wild orangutan.
The first step in this process was to gain his trust and get him more used to his human caretakers. He’s had relatively little prior contact with people, even at the SOCP’s quarantine centre before moving to Jantho, as we always wanted him and his sister to be as close as possible to their ‘wild’ mum, and not people oriented. Because of this he was understandably lacking in confidence and extremely nervous when he was first left behind on his own.
The second step is to help him explore the surrounding area, close by but outside the security of his cage. We want him to climb the trees and to interact as much as possible with other orangutans, whilst maintaining our ability at all times to get him back to a safe environment quickly, whenever we need to do so. The ability to call him or direct him back to the safety of the cages is extremely important. On the one hand we don’t want him suddenly heading off on his own before he’s ready, and refusing to come back, and on the other hand, there are some large male orangutans around and we need to keep him out of harms way. He’s not ready to deal with those kinds of risks just yet.
Every day Ganteng is offered a variety of forest fruits and leaves and he really loves eating termites from rotting branches that we collect in the forest! He has also been able to interact with other orangutans who come back or pass through the cage area, like Wenda, Udin, Mikki and others. These social interactions are vitally important for Ganteng to develop and build his confidence further.
Happily he is responding really well to the work so far and is turning into a shining example of what dedication and patience can produce. All of the staff are totally behind him and offering as much support as they possibly can. Consistency and a strict daily routine are making his excellent progress possible and we aim to have him moving and climbing in the trees in the very near future.
The hope is that over time he will naturally follow his wild orangutan friends into the forest, as a natural integration method, with the staff just assisting him from a distance, providing the support and confidence he needs, as and when he needs it. We don’t want to rush him, and will take as long as we need to give him the best possible chance of success in the forest, but we’re all thrilled and encouraged by his progress thus far. And of course we will keep you posted along the way.
As an addendum, I have posted a very short video clip of Ganteng exploring outside the cage and playing with other orangutans. You can see from this how well he’s responding to the staff’s efforts. Take look at the link below:-http://youtu.be/TOEmFXd3mg4