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: ‘Ganteng’ – Jess McKelson, SOCP
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.
Photo: ‘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: ‘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: ‘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
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: ‘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: ‘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!
Photo: ‘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!
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.