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Training Ganteng. Abandoned twin orangutan, returns to the wild in 2015.

23rd November 2015
Written by: Jessica McKelson, Pan Eco Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP)

It’s November 10th 2015, and I’m back in Jantho Reintroduction Station, Aceh. I’ve just had 2 months break in Oz, so the last time I visited was early August. I love it here; it is where I get to escape from the busy life of Medan City in North Sumatra, where I get NO mobile phone service and am not required to answer emails and be ‘on call’ 24hrs a day. It’s where I get to witness all our released orangutans returning to their rainforest homes.

Surrounded by a mixture of grasslands and spectacular rainforest habitat, our station is nestled within the highest protected status ‘Cagar Alam’ and therefore suffers very minimal disturbance from illegal activities. I’m sat with the river on one side, watching the otters feeding as they pass our release site. They remind me of meerkats, the way their heads bob up and down in the water checking up on us as they swim past. Towards the forest, I also watch our recently released orangutans, Genang and Monic, feeding on fig tree fruit about 100m from the release cages. Last time I saw them, they were in cages at Quarantine, and it gives me immense joy to witness their wild existence once again.

Checking up on released animals is one reason for my monthly visits, but what I have really been working on since February is the Animal Training Program for a young male twin, Ganteng, and his friends, Mikki, Rachmad and Lucky. I reminisce about the program and how far we have come since March. Ganteng has progressed far more quickly than I could have ever imagine and the past few months have taught me a great deal about juvenile orangutans and training them back into the forest. How fast they can adapt when released role models are a part of the training program along with staff who can help build the confidence and independence (the first steps required) for the animal to be free once again.

PHOTO 1 Photo: ‘Ganteng’ – Jess McKelson, SOCP

Ganteng’s Story

Back in February, I visited Jantho Reintroduction Station and was amazed to see the release efforts going from strength to strength. But I left feeling bothered about Ganteng and his development. He was a different animal from the one I’d worked with at the Quarantine Station; he had a different attitude, showed some sterotyped behaviours (possibly stress driven) and seemed to be simply ‘lonely’. After discussions with SOCP’s Director Ian Singleton, I realised here was an opportunity to put my past animal training experience to good use. This time though my training challenge would be much more complex and have a large load of past baggage to sort through.

Ganteng’s story is heartbreaking. He was one of a pair of twins born into captivity to a wild orangutan, Gober, who was blind but had her sight repaired by surgery. Despite being born in captive environment, Ganteng is quite wild as he stayed with his wild mother and twin sister, Ginting, and never interacted with people. For his future returning to the forest it was the best not to condition him to people and to let him learn from a wild orangutan, his mother. However, when the three were released at Jantho, his mother and sister, left him behind in the forest, where he spent the night alone for the first time in his life, sleeping on the ground.

Watch the video on release efforts of Gober, Ganteng and Ginting HERE

Tragically Ginting’s body would be found just a few months later by SOCP Jantho staff and myself on a visit that will never be forgotten. Our thoughts are with her everyday.

Read more from SOCP Dr Ian Singleton, HERE.

I can only imagine how this experience must have affected Ganteng. His first and only memory of the rainforest was his family leaving him behind. He never climbed a tree and was never taught how to move around a forest by his mother. After that harrowing night asleep on the forest floor, humans surrounded him and brought him back to an empty cage. Training him looked to be impossible, as a 4-year-old orangutan, he should still be learning from his mother; he had no trust for people, showing signs of stress whenever SOCP’s keepers tried to work with him. Furthermore, he’d had no interaction with orangutans except his family, and he’d need to learn all of these social skills, as well as how to be a wild orangutan. He was left by his mother, lonely and afraid, and not in any condition to leave the pre-release cages unless these insecurities were broken down.

PHOTO2.JPGPhoto: ‘Gober and Ginting in the forest’ – SOCP 

I am a firm believer of ‘reduced human contact’ for orphaned orangutans; therefore everything we do at Quarantine is non-human contact or very limited human contact. Even at the very young age they arrive, while orangutans may have some hands on comfort from vets and keeping staff, they are quickly ushered into social groups so they can develop confidence and learn skills from each other. In this way we try to teach them how to be as wild as possible in a captive environment; they spend all day with other orangutans, and sleep in hammocks filled with leaves, not in washing baskets, or with people or on the floor in any shape or form. It is the best and ‘kindest’ form of teaching if you want to return them to their forest home.

However, there are some orangutans at quarantine that are very human focused, due to the previous hands on care and attention they have received from their illegal captive days and also with previous Quarantine keeping staff who used to sleep with the small orangutans in the vet clinic. These animals require special care, as they will take longer to become ‘wilder’ and it’s not possible to take them from all human care and throw them straight into social groups. Actually, I think it’s cruel to ‘fuss and over comfort’ infant orphans when they arrive at Quarantine, and would only have a negative impact on their development. The results we have seen from the new orphan arrivals at Quarantine have been outstanding, so I thought it would be possible to develop a methodology of Operant Conditioning practices towards Ganteng’s development.

As you can probably work out, these previous experiences, challenges, and individual orphan cases have made me very motivated to develop Animal Training Plans for captive orangutans (Quarantine) and for the rainforest (Jantho Reintroduction Station, Aceh).

It all started with Ganteng, my biggest ever challenge, with so much unfortunate history and anxiety to work on. I needed to design a training plan that would prepare Ganteng for the forest; one that would include meeting other orangutans so he could learn the skills to be a wild orangutan, but also keep him safe until he was independent and ‘ready’ to venture off on his own. Not only did the responsibility for his future cause me great stress, but also I would be working with staff unskilled in animal training. What would the best option be? I had to trust my past skills and my gut instinct. Each day will be a different adventure!

Photo: ‘Team’ – SOCP  /  Photo 2: ‘Jantho Rainforest’ – Udin, Jantho SOCP staff

Stage One: Operant Conditioning

For me, the most critical part of the training program was to develop a trusting, healthy relationship with Ganteng. We needed to enter his space and develop a rapport with him. There would be no use opening the cage and allowing him to explore by himself if he had no idea what to do and had no trusted friends to guide him along his journey.

In April we nominated three staff to train Ganteng, to give him the same people to work with every day. Each orangutan is different and each will respond differently to conditioning, but we could maximise the training’s effectiveness by keeping his conditions stable and consistent. The staff also needed to learn patience. Over three long days I worked closely with the training staff, critiquing them on how to feed Ganteng in his cage, slowly conditioning him to only feed with people giving him his diet. This was an absolutely critical first step for the operant conditioning to succeed.
Initially I set a goal of 3-weeks, by the end of which Ganteng had to confidently come to people when his name was called, and to be hand fed at all times. He was not to be nervous or to show any signs of abnormal stress or anxiety.

The staff worked fantastically hard and within a week Ganteng began to consistently come to people when being ‘cued’ to do so. The first step on his journey back to the forest was beginning

Watch the First Step to Ganteng Development HERE

Ganteng meets Meysin, a wild orangutan.

PHOTO 5                            Photo: ‘Ganteng & Meysin’- Jess McKelson, SOCP

During April it happened that a wild, adult female, Meysin, who’d been released 12 months prior, returned to the pre-release station looking slightly underweight. I decided to put her in the cage next to Ganteng. This decision would shape not only his future, but also potentially everything we do to train reintroduced orangutans.

Putting a wild female next to Ganteng was controversial, many of you reading may disagree with this step; certainly the monitoring staff did, and it took me a long time to convince them that it was best for the training and welfare of Ganteng. My feeling was I could keep her in the cage, well fed to get her weight back up, all the while introducing forest fruits and leaves to Ganteng while he had another orangutan to learn from.

During the month of April I visited twice. The second time was to introduce Meysin with Ganteng to one another so he could play and develop his social skills that can only be learnt from other orangutans. She could be a perfect surrogate mother for him, but we needed to move slowly; I did not want Meysin to become frustrated with a 4-year-old orangutan that always wants to play and interact, steals food, and invades her space. The two would be separated for periods of the day, at feeding times and at night, but otherwise mostly left to interact. The introduction went well and after a few days Ganteng came to treat Meysin as the dominant, older animal. Eventually, Ganteng began to sleep in her nest overnight and became the adopted son I’d hoped he would. This experience and companionship improved his confidence dramatically, allowing us to move to the next vital stage: introducing the rainforest and trees into his life.

Going back into the forest… A small ray of sunshine!

Over the month of May, my goal for our little twin male was to get him into the forest school setting, which would really test his relationship with the staff!

We needed to improve Ganteng’s confidence in the forest and push him to follow his trusted staff into the jungle. Once he gained the confidence to go about 20m into the forest, we would then be able to work on staying out in the forest rather than returning automatically to the cage.

As the staff pushed Ganteng into unknown areas, they would also need to teach him the pathways orangutans use in the wild. Once he’s learned these pathways, he will be able to explore the area until he is 100% confident to return alone.

Photo: ‘Ganteng & Damsen’ & ‘Monitoring Staff Jantho’ – Jess McKelson,SOCP

To start, we set up small coconuts and plastic buckets with his food to encourage him up to climb high into the trees until he gained the self-confidence to go exploring by himself. This period of conditioning went really well and Ganteng began to get stronger, developing his muscles, allowing him to spend longer periods in the forest. He also interacted and played with new orangutan friends; Ruben, Mikki and Krisna.

PHOTO 8 Photo: ‘Ganteng & Ruben Playing’ – Udin, Jantho SOCP Staff

This was excellent as he began to learn social skills and independence from his peers. Though he watched the other orangutans eating jungle foods around him Ganteng would still came down to his trusted staff for his diet, which allowed us to move him between the pre-release cages and the forest each day.

Witness Ganteng Rainforest Training MAY VIDEO HERE

Releasing Ganteng

In June, we let Meysin and Ganteng out of the cages together. Automatically, the young male followed her out into the jungle. As we watched the two travel Ganteng would cry out for her and she would have to wait for him to cross the forest canopy (exactly as a mother orangutan does with her infant). We did have a number of concerns however: this was the first time he had climbed so high, travelled so fast, and ventured so far from the cage area (up to 300m); Meysin is a wild animal and might just go back to the forest where we would have no control to work towards strengthening Ganteng’s skills further. Most worrying we noted he wasn’t making a nest in the trees, a vital skill for his survival.

So, we pulled him back for another week, only letting him out each day and keeping him well trained to come back each night. We encouraged Meysin to stay around the release space by supplementing her with food, until eventually she became bored with the process and naturally dispersed. However, this time together with Meysin really shaped Ganteng’s confidence and development; her teaching him to move through the trees and allowing him to play with other orangutans in the forest was the most developing week of his entire life.

PHOTO 9Photo: ‘Training Ganteng’ – Jess McKelson, SOCP

In the months of July and August I visited a further 3 times, continuing to work on Ganteng’s development in the forest. During this period we released Rachmad, a 7-year-old male. Rachmad slept outside overnight, but had a hard time acclimatising to his new surroundings. Seeing he quickly interacted well with Ganteng, I made the two complete the daily training program in the forest together. This worked well for both orangutans; it’s provided Ganteng with another role model, and is helping Rachmad gain further confidence in the forest.

Photo: ‘Rachmad & Ganteng’ – Jess McKelson, SOCP
Photo 2: ‘Animal Training in Forest’ – Udin, Jantho SOCP Staff.

I left for Australia in mid August, wondering how this entire program would progress, hoping that Ganteng would continue to improve and hoping I could apply the same methodology for future smaller orangutans. The results were outstanding to date, and there was no reason we couldn’t develop this program over the next 12 months.

PHOTO 12 Photo: ‘Ganteng’ – Udin, Jantho SOCP Staff

Returning in November, a breath of fresh air and a proud ‘mum’ moment… Ganteng in the forest!

Black Hornbills pass over me ready to roost in the pine trees behind camp. I’ve just finished a horrendous, neck-breaking hike for 4hrs in the forest. I wanted to see on the furthest transect what orangutans I could find. I wanted to secretly find Ganteng’s mother, Gober, to see how she’s doing. I couldn’t find her, but I’m still beyond happy, sat by the river reflecting on her infant’s training program (pulling leeches off my body), thinking about how far Ganteng has come since I was last here. I’m also proud I made it back in one piece! It’s Musim Hujan – raining season. The transect trails and off path hikes make it very slippery to navigate around the forest. I often wonder, ‘what the hell’ am I doing here and why is my body tolerating this abuse. Mukhlisin Jantho Camp Manager reminds me, “Jess, you need exercise as it makes us sweat out our toxins and breathe in fresh air. You will thank me afterwards.”

Thanks for the reminder… Thanks for my ridiculous slippery hike…

Photo 1: ‘Ganteng Feeding’- Jess McKelson,SOCP  
Photo 2:’Staff monitoring Ganteng’ – Udin, Jantho SOCP Staff

As you can see in my video below, I watched Ganteng follow the staff into forest each day, during which he ate wild fruits and leaves and interacted with other orangutans. I even witnessed his natural ‘display’ towards a group of pig-tailed macaques; kiss squeaking, breaking branches and shaking the trees. This is a natural behaviour he developed alone. He was still coming to the staff for some of his diet, and they take him back to the pre release cage area for the night. The last three weeks, Ganteng decided he will no longer sleep in the cage but on top of the cage with his friend Rachmad. In this way we’ve been using his diet to reward him for moving through the trees and not using the forest floor to walk to the next tree.

I have also pushed him, because I am a negative in his world, (he doesn’t like me as I am the nasty one who pushes him back to the forest and not his comfort space) specifically by holding a broom up. I do think that one day the broom will be thrown back at me (lol)! Using this method a few nights ago, I wanted to test my big questions: What would happen if we don’t let him come back to the cages? Can he build a nest?

He did get little upset at first, but then watched his friends ‘Genang’ and ‘Monic’ build a nest and go to sleep. What made my night, and what makes this training program such an important achievement, was that Ganteng also made his own nest for the first time in the forest! Without ever having lived in the wild he performed the most important of an orangutan’s natural behaviours! After we left, he did retreat back to sleeping on top of the pre release cages, but the very next night was he no longer was sleeping on top of the cages, but in his own nest with friends Genang, Kluet and Monic in the area!!!

I cannot express how proud I am of the team implementing this training program and how hard they’ve worked with me on pushing Ganteng a little further. Through a mixture of Animal Training, consistency from staff, regular evaluations and behavioural modifications, and wild orangutan social based training, he has developed so much in the last 8 months!! More than anyone would have expected. Happy moments and a sense of achievement on a grand scale!


What’s Next?

IMG_7803Photo: ‘Ganteng in the rainforest’ – Udin, SOCP Jantho Staff

Well we now hope Ganteng will build his nest and stay longer in the forest without wanting to come back to the pre release station. This will be evaluated daily, as he still is not confident in sleeping in his nest overnight with torrential downpours. However, when it is a nice evening he will happily stay in his nest. So its Time…. Patience…Team Work…and slow natural dispersal with his fellow friends.

Stay tuned for his next step to freedom in 2016!

Jess McKelson,
Pan Eco Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP)


*Special thanks to James Askew for helping edit this long blog post. Jantho Team for being so incredibly tolerant of me during this process and having the patience to implement this program, when I was at times ‘demanding’…. It couldn’t be done without your admirable dedication. Its truely appreciative.


Great apes, small numbers | Science Codex

Great apes, small numbers | Science Codex.

From the Forest: Jantho, Aceh Besar, Sumatra 2011

                      Dr. Singleton comforts Kis kis prior to the orangutan’s release into the wild

From the Forest is a new feature on the Orangutan Conservancy website written by those on the front lines of orangutan conservation and research. This month’s column comes from Dr. Ian Singleton of the PanEco Foundation: Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. OC helps to support Dr. Singleton’s work.

From the Forest: Jantho, Aceh Besar, Sumatra 2011

by Ian Singleton, Ph.D

Conservation in Indonesia is always an uphill battle and it’s often difficult to know if you are ever achieving anything at all in reality.

The opposition, namely crony politics, massive corruption in every level of society and government, and the disproportionate influence on everything here of a relatively few extremely wealthy and powerful individuals and companies, means that a few dedicated conservation NGO’s, with relatively little money and overstretched resources, are always going to struggle.

In fact, it once occurred to me that many of the people we see and read about in the world, hard working and dedicated to their companies as they are, normally get to see the results of their toil directly, whereas we usually don’t.

Think of a large company CEO who is lucky enough to get a contract to build a major new airport. For sure he will be working just about 24/7 for several years, but then one day the job is done. He then gets to cut that ribbon and drink a swig of champagne, followed by a well earned rest before the next multi-million dollar contract comes along.

We in conservation, on the other hand, also work 24/7 for years on end – often for half the salary that a “proper” job might provide us – but we never get to cut that bloody ribbon! In fact, we may not see anything on the ground that we can definitely say is the result of our own labor, and even if we are lucky, we may in reality only be slowing down the inevitable.

Despite this rather depressing outlook, there is the occasional reason for hope that does get us out of bed (or wakes us up in the car half-way across Sumatra) and keeps us going. Just such an event happened to me earlier this year.

In 2009, a decision was made by the Aceh Government stating that they wanted all illegal pet orangutans confiscated in Aceh to be released there in the wild. This was after several decades of a separatist struggle in the region. Since 1998, a civil war raged on, which only ended after the tsunami of December 2004 devastated much of the province. Shortly after, Aceh Province was granted special autonomy status, which gave the provincial government considerable sway over the conservation of its own resources, including protected areas and wildlife conservation.

Given that directive, we began to look for a suitable site for orangutan release. We soon found it in the lush foothill forests of an area known as Jantho, near the northern tip of Aceh, and of the island of Sumatra itself. The site is a protected area of exceptionally rich lowland forest, with an unusually high density of fig trees, one of the orangutan’s staple foods. There is also a river at the edge of the forest that can normally be crossed by people on foot, but is at the same time an effective barrier to all but the most belligerent orangutans. The surroundings of the reserve are also largely open savanna-like areas with no local agriculture. The risk of orangutans released there coming out and raiding farmers’ crops is minimal. In the other direction, the forests are part of the immense Ulu Massen forest block (circa 750,000 ha) and ultimately connected to the vast Leuser Ecosystem, in which around 85% of Sumatra’s remaining wild orangutans reside. Jantho, in 2009, though, did not have any wild orangutan population, and may not have for several hundred years. We therefore considered Jantho the perfect site for the new project and began to build a simple site in the forest with accommodation for staff at one side of the river and some small cages and facilities for the orangutans at the other.

                                       Field staff keep a close eye on Kis kis as he readies for the forest

In the meantime, we were accumulating quite a number of Acehnese orangutans at our quarantine centre in Batu Mbelin, near Medan in North Sumatra. The plan was that all orangutans confiscated in Aceh would be released in Jantho, and all others would continue to be released in the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, at the SOCP site there managed by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, to continue to build up the new orangutan population already established there. So to ease numbers at the quarantine, while waiting for the new camp in Jantho to be ready, we transferred several down to Jambi and freed up some much needed cage space that way.

Finally, in March 2011, the new site at Jantho was ready to receive the first orangutans. On March 28th the Governor of Aceh, Irwandi Yusuf, the Bupati of Aceh Besar, Pak Abu head of the Aceh Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and a host of other dignitaries, local NGO’s, community leaders, and even Prof. Jean Michel Hatt, a veterinarian from Zurich and friend of PanEco, who was at the time teaching as a sabbatical at Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh, attended a well publicized media launch of the new centre. The Governor and the SOCP team then drove the first five orangutans into the new site and let them out of their travel crates and into the new cages. This in itself felt like quite some achievement, and it was already clear that the orangutans where highly interested in their new surroundings.

                  Operations manager Santi, cleaning up a baby orangutan during confiscation

It’s important to understand that virtually all of the orangutans confiscated by SOCP and the Indonesian Government’s PHKA are illegal pets. Most of these are kept in atrocious conditions. A few lucky ones may be loved for the first few days or weeks by their owners, but the vast majority of owners soon get bored, and the orangutans end up crammed into small rusty old cages or chained by the neck or waist to a tree, often with no shelter whatsoever from the sun or rain. Many of these individuals are kept for years in the same cage or chained to the same tree. Frequently the chains used to tie them are never loosened, such that as the orangutan grows the chain gets tighter and more painful. Not surprisingly, the orangutan gets more aggressive too. This means the owner is less and less likely to be able to loosen the chain, as he would get badly bitten. So he simply doesn’t bother! Needless to say, some of these animals undoubtedly die due to their conditions, despite every effort by ourselves to confiscate all those we know about.

For this release, we were focused on five orangutans: Kis kis, Pibi, Coconut, Sangir and Mongki.

                         Coconut and Sangir in their holding cages as the release date nears

Once they were settled in their cages I left them to relax. We agreed that they should have a few weeks of R’n’R before being released to the forest. These five were deliberately chosen as being the most suitable, in that they were a little older than most but also seemed to still be relatively wild. They’d likely make a quick transition to a life in the forest. The timing of these first releases was also planned to coincide with the onset of the fruit season. Luckily enough, this year has turned out to be a mast fruit season in most of Sumatra. A mast fruit season is a phenomenon peculiar to Asian forests, in which just about every tree in the forest, of every species, fruits at the same time. It happens on average about once every five years and is thought to be a way of combating seed predation, as seed predators (largely rodents) cannot possibly eat all the fruits of a given tree when a mast fruiting occurs!

A few weeks later, I returned to Jantho to check all was okay and help with the release of Kis kis and Pibi. On the morning of May 2nd the cages were opened and both were given their first taste of freedom in several years. Pibi was the most adventurous, immediately entering the trees and scaling a 44 meter high tree just behind the cages, like she’d been doing it all her life. Kis kis on the other hand preferred the security of the cage’s metal bars, but he also eventually made it into the trees after a few hours. These two were released first as we thought they would be the easiest to control once out of the cages. To a large extent that proved to be the case. Both returned to their cages that night, tempted by some juicy fruits, and were let out again the next day. Pibi then showed us that she was adept at nest building and has never slept in the cages again since. Kis kis, however, still prefers the familiarity of the cage complex and on occasions returns to the cages to sleep.

Shortly after Kis kis and Pibi were free, Coconut, Sangir and Mongki were also released. These three were never particularly close to people and we wondered if they would simply head off. Despite the best efforts of the field staff, it was possible that we might lose these orangutans in the undulating Jantho terrain. Indeed they did come out of the cages quite quickly, and they immediately headed into the trees too, much as we had predicted. What we had not really predicted and fully appreciated, though, is just how well they did it.

I, along with two of the staff, followed Coconut and Sangir all day that day, and it proved to be one of the highlights of my whole career. Mongki also did fine, but she preferred to hang around with Pibi and Kis kis during her first few days of freedom.

                                                Coconut and Sangir on their first day of freedom                              

It’s quite some years – thirteen in fact – since I spent every waking hour of just about every day for two years following orangutans around in the swamp forests of Suaq Balimbing, in South Aceh, for my PhD research. So I was keen to spend a whole day following orangutans again at the new site. I was hoping they’d stay in the trees, and not keep coming down to the ground, and that they’d be able to find and eat wild foods and build nests. Indeed, they didn’t let me down, but even I was taken aback by just how well they did.

From the moment they left the cage, neither orangutan set foot on the ground again that day, or to my knowledge ever since. Both found and ate several different fruit species and also leaves and rotan vines. We saw them eat insects too. What was perhaps most surprising was that even though when in the cages they would come and take food from your hand and interact physically, at least Sangir, both of them were clearly concerned and anxious when they came lower in the trees and were in their view too near to myself or the other staff. This was just like wild orangutans often are!

        On that same day, Dr. Singleton observes the orangutans as they explore their new forest home

There was a point when they were sitting on a fallen, but still leaning tree, whose roots had partially lifted out of the ground on the slope of the hill, revealing a rich clay-like soil. Humans sometimes ingest this kind of soil for an upset stomach (it’s sold in chemists as kaolin); wild orangutans have been seen to eat it occasionally too, probably for the same reasons. On seeing that, I half jokingly said to the field assistants to watch the orangutans as they might try it, at which point Sangir inched her way to the soil and promptly took a mouthful before returning rapidly again to the treetop. Wow, I thought, how much more like wild orangutans could these guys be? Even I was amazed!

We then continued to follow them, recording their behavior, activity, food intake, etc. on our checksheets. It was late in the afternoon and the pair were now around 700 meters away from the cage complex. Coconut soon began constructing her nest for the night, about 20 meters up in the bough of a large tree, within sight and earshot of the river. Sangir then found himself a suitable site nearby and did likewise. They both made two nests before finally settling down. You could almost hear their brains ticking over as they did what seemed natural, but then decided it wasn’t as comfy as it could be and that they could do better, selecting a new site and new tree for the final product.

We waited for about 45-minutes more before heading back to camp in the dark for some rest before the next morning, and another day following the pair. On the way back to camp I was deliriously happy. I had just spent the day following two orangutans that had been kept in someone’s backyard for several years, followed by a couple of years in the cages at the quarantine centre, some of which was in isolation, but most of which was with each other and with other orangutans. Today had been their first day in a tree, let alone in a forest, for many years, and the last time they did that was almost certainly the day their mothers were killed. Nevertheless, despite this, I had just followed what to all intents and purposes were two totally wild orangutans, behaving as if they had never ever left the forest! I was thrilled.

What struck me most was when I thought about what their life story would have looked like had they never been confiscated.

It’s highly likely they would be dead already, or gone within a year, the rest of their short lives being riddled with worms, baking under the hot sun or shivering in pouring rain, and seriously malnourished from a diet of rice or noodles. Now these two were out there in the trees, free from people (even wary of them already) and potentially with a life of 50 years or more in the wild ahead of them, with who knows how many babies, the founders of a new population of wild orangutans to the north of the existing wild population, and complementing the new population in Jambi. I really felt great that evening, and have ever since. Kis kis, Pibi and Mongki are also doing well and a number of others have now been released to join Coconut and Sangir. They regularly meet up and hang out before parting and exploring the forest further. But it will always be those two, that day, that I remember as the time I finally achieved something tangible for the orangutans here. All those years of work, long days and nights, endless meetings, workshops, emails, proposals and reports, etc., etc., etc.

That day was the cutting of the ribbon for me. If I achieve nothing else in life for the orangutans I will always know that for those two individuals in particular, but also for all those others that follow them, all that work and stress is worthwhile.

Now where’s the champagne?

Dr. Ian Singleton is the Director of Conservation
at the PanEco Foundation: Sumatran Orangutan
Conservation Programme


Orangutan Conservancy edit by Tom Mills

posted by: TOM

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38 Comments on: From the Forest: Jantho, Aceh Besar, Sumatra 2011


8:27 pm on November 21st, 2011

Loved reading about Dr. Singleton”s work with orangutans in Sumatra. Glad to see that they are being released back into the wild.
Hopefully they will be able to thrive in the forest.
Pearl Winston

2. TOM

9:00 pm on November 21st, 2011

Thank you Pearl for your nice comments. I’ll share them with Dr. Singleton.

3. UTE

12:10 am on November 22nd, 2011

What a lovely account. Amazing how they can adapt so quickly! May they live a long, healthy and contented life, may their offspring grow up in the wild, and may there be many more moments like this for Ian!


3:42 am on November 22nd, 2011

What a wonderful, inspirational story. Kudos to Ian. Since I know him personally this is even more meaningful. He has done so much for orangutans.


4:09 am on November 22nd, 2011

I just went to see orangutans in Bukit Lawang for the first time yesterday and fell in love with them. I knew nothing about them before I went, but I was so amazed by their individual personalities and how different each of them is, really beautiful, intelligent creatures! I saw this post this morning on Facebook and found it really fascinating…and sad (you had me in tears at points!), it’s such a shame that people treat orangutans so badly, but it was great to hear about everything you are doing for them. Maybe it feels like a drop in the oceans sometimes, but what an incredibly huge difference you’re making to each orangutan you save!! Really impressed, thanks for sharing ^_^


4:09 am on November 22nd, 2011

An amazing tale from an amazing man ! Love your work and you are an inspiration.


7:24 am on November 22nd, 2011

Hats off to Dr. Singleton for his amazing work with the orangutans. They have definitely found a good friend in him. I am really glad that the orangutans are released in the wild where they belong and wish them many more years. Was really moved by reading the part where they were chained. and thank Dr Singleton for releasing them. Truly an inspirational story. Orangutans are such amazing species. Thanx Tom for sharing this wunderful article :)

8. TOM

7:23 pm on November 28th, 2011

Thank you for reading and lettting us know how moved you were by Dr. Singleton’s amazing piece Bunny.


8:22 am on November 22nd, 2011

YOu shared your experience perfectly with words. You projected that feeling of hope for these wonderful creatures through your own excitement. We know that they are getting a thrill out of it, so Iam glad that you did as well. Betsy


8:41 am on November 22nd, 2011

Waouhhhhh great article! Dr. Ian Singleton deserves champagne !!!!! He did a great job and can be proud of the result after all these years. Through persons like him, I sincerely hope we’ll have the chance to see for a long time, magnificent specimens such as orangutans ! Sincere congratulations and long and beautiful life to these orangutans in Jantho!!

11. TOM

7:26 pm on November 28th, 2011

I agree Veronique. Dr. Singleton and others like him deserve champagne and so much more. And the orangutans that he writes about deserve their free home in the forest.


9:22 am on November 22nd, 2011

What a heartwarming story! congratulations to all at such a successful project – the world needs more people like you! fantastic to see the orangutans where they truly belong…..


11:35 am on November 22nd, 2011

WOW!! I loved reading this, a glimmer of hope…. the pictures are amazing – i would love to sit in a tree with an orangutan!!! Keep up the amazing work!!!


1:30 pm on November 22nd, 2011

nicely written Pak Ian!! congratulation for the jantho site. wish you and your team all the best and more success to come!!


2:08 pm on November 22nd, 2011

This is a fabulous article that provides important information on the conservation of orangutans.

16. TOM

7:29 pm on November 28th, 2011

Thank you Elaine. Dr. Singleton’s work is exactly the type of thing that the Orangutan Conservancy supports, and we look forward to providing more stories like this in future installments of “From the Forest.”


2:38 pm on November 22nd, 2011

It truly touched my heart to read about your dedication and the wonderful results that have been achieved after all those years of never giving up. Thank you for caring.


2:58 pm on November 22nd, 2011

Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful news and in such great detail. I spend so much time reading of the terrible abuse suffered by the orangutans that this story was a real tonic. Every orangutan helped in this way is a step in the right direction. Well done indeed Ian. This story is so inspiring and so are all your efforts.


4:39 pm on November 22nd, 2011

What a wonderful story Ian, it brings tears to my eyes. Keep it up!!


6:53 pm on November 22nd, 2011

What a heart-warming story. The conclusion of a very long adventure for Ian Singleton and the beginning of another–the release of many, many more orangutans. Congratulations to the Governor of Aceh as well as Ian and all staff!


4:55 am on November 23rd, 2011

The full and relentless dedication , given by Dr Singleton to this Orangutan Conservation project, should give inspiration and motivation to others to follow in his footsteps. Everyone on my address list has by now received a copy of this article.

22. TOM

7:32 pm on November 28th, 2011

Thank you George for the kind words about Dr. Singleton’s work and for sharing his story with your friends.


5:06 am on November 23rd, 2011

Wonderful to read and thank goodness there are people like you in the world Dr. Singleton.

People tend to sit back and do nothing because they think the little they do will be ineffectual. But if we all do a little, collectively that’s huge!

I try in my own way to do my bit. I refuse to buy any product with palm oil and I let the owners/managers of the stores know why.

I volunteer at Auckland Zoo.



3:52 pm on November 23rd, 2011

Hi my daughter Gail is in the same line of work as you so i was very interested in your work,i enjoyed reading it.
Thanx for sharing.


9:02 pm on November 23rd, 2011

Well done Dr. Singleton, I am a Volunteer at Auckland Zoo and we are constantly trying to educate people about the situation in Sumatra and Borneo with Palm Oil plantations. Reading this article, which was circulated by Auckland Zoo, just makes all our efforts worth while. Orangutans are amazing and fascinating animals who deserve to be left to live their lives in peace by us humans, and your work is bringing that goal nearer to fruition.

Utilising this unique area of Sumatra may just save a whole species from extinction, even if it is a slow process.

Fantastic work!

Margaret Wright


9:15 pm on November 23rd, 2011

The previous correspondents have really said it all, but I must add my few words. It’s certainly one of the most inspiring wildlife stories I’ve ever read, and it was wonderful to be able to share Dr.Singleton’s enthusiasm. He is one of a small, but growing, band of dedicated people who are taking action to improve the lot of captive wild animals that suffer at the hands of humans. His success story is quite remarkable, and will give great hope to animal lovers everywhere.


10:26 pm on November 23rd, 2011

Thank you for sharing Dr. Singleton, well done to you for all your hard work all these years, you are amazing! It’s good to read something cheerful about orangutans in the midst of all the horror going on around us.


5:30 pm on November 24th, 2011

Congratulations to all of you! Thank you so much for all of your hard work over the years. It is a happy day to have such a tangible reward for all the humans and orangutans involved in this effort.


12:08 pm on November 29th, 2011

Hi all, and a HUGE thanks to everyone for the great words of support. They are indeed very encouraging, and yet another reason to get out of bed each morning! By way of an update, there are now 13 orangutans up there in Jantho and 11 of them are already out and about. Two others, Jeff and Arun, are still in the cages, but should be released sometime around mid December. There were briefly 14 of them there, but Marco accidentally fell out of a tree and landed on a large rock, breaking the humerus in his left arm in the process. Its not uncommon for newly released orangutans to fall out of trees on their first day out. They’re not use to moving branches after all, but fortunately most of them are lucky and get a soft landing. Marco didn’t, however, so she was taken back to the quarantine centre near Medan for treatment and a report on the surgery can be found on our website, somewhere! She’s doing great now though and will be back in Jantho early in 2012 I imagine. We’ll probably send another group of 4 or 5 to Jantho in January, but hope to send a group of 5 to Jambi as well before that, for eventual release at the edge of the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park down there in Jambi. So its all still go, as ever, and am actually jotting this down at Jakarta Airport waiting for a plane home. Didn’t get any sleep last night either, as was working on a presentation connected to efforts to save something of the forests and orangutans of the Tripa swamps, on the west coast of Aceh…….so hope I can doze off on the plane home. Anyway, better get going as they just called my flight! But thanks again everyone, your kind words and support are very much appreciated!!

30. TOM

6:54 pm on November 29th, 2011

Thank you Dr. Singleton for the update. I know our web viewers will like to read more in the future about this ongoing project. Please send us an update from time to time.


3:14 am on November 30th, 2011

Yes, please keep us updated Ian! Your work is that bright shining light at the end of the long dark tunnel that so many of us tread daily trying to help save the orangutans. Safe travels.

Respectfully yours,


6:28 pm on December 3rd, 2011

I saw his film on German TV. He is a wonderful person and does great work!!!!! Please keep up your wonderful work, Ian. The Orangs need you and your wonderful staff!!!!

[…] kennt und pflegt die Tiere seit Monaten, doch im entscheidenden Moment setzt Ian Singleton auf einen ausreichenden Sicherheitsabstand. Als das Orang-Utan-Männchen Dennis zum ersten Mal […]


5:04 am on December 21st, 2011

Hi again all, and thanks again for all the good wishes! As a quick update, the end of the year is turning out to be an incredibly busy one. Not only are there various initiatives in progress to save orangutan habitat, especially in Tripa on West coast of Aceh, from the ever present problem of palm oil, but there are quite a number of orangutans in need of rescue and evacuation this month too. Drh yenny is right now in Kutacane confiscating two orangutans, there is another one in Nagan Raya that needs confiscating and another in the hands of local police in Langkahan, on the east coast of Aceh. Last Saturday drh Rachmad had to capture a wild adult male orangutan (now named Puyul) from a rubber plantation in North Sumatra. He is severely malnourished and also appears quite old, as his teeth are a real mess. He also has quite a number of air rifle pellets in him and if he’d stayed where he was he’d have been dead pretty soon. At the same time, Yenny tried to capture and relocate another orangutan last week in Tapanuli (also in North Sumatra), who was being threatened by the local community for stealing a few durian fruits. Fortunately he has returned to nearby forest. but we are keeping an eye on him in case he comes back. It seems to be as bad as ever just lately, and unlikely to change unless the laws of indonesia start to be enforced. People don’t think twice about shooting an orangutan or capturing one, as they feel there are unlikely to be any serious consequences. This has got to change soon,….only if the laws are enforced will people think more seriously before acting. But anyway, sorry for depressing news but December has indeed turned out to be exceptionally busy on the orangutan front. But nevertheless, best wishes to all for the holidays and thanks once again for your support.

35. TOM

6:49 pm on December 21st, 2011

Thank you Dr. Singleton for the update. It sounds like the late part of 2011 is incredibly challenging, and your continuing good work on behalf of orangutans is obviously needed now more than ever before. We can nonly hope that the Indonesian laws ultimately have some teeth and that the future of the orangutan is brighter. Keep up the great mission, and Happy Holidays to you, your family and the entire team.

[…] in estates particularly in Aceh or North Sumatra border areas or asked to evacuate them,” said Ian Singleton, director of the […]

[…] Ian Singleton, Director of Conservation for the PanEco Foundation and the person in charge of the SOCP, added: “It’s absolutely fantastic to finally have a prosecution of an illegal orangutan ‘owner’ in Sumatra, but it’s also long overdue. With this sentence, as long as it is widely publicized in the region, anyone considering capturing, killing or keeping an orangutan illegally will certainly think twice about it, and hopefully the numbers being killed and kept in the coming years will begin to decline.” […]

[…] Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, also welcomed what seemed to be a step forward for the state. […]