Kate on Conservation

Home-schooling with a difference: Orangutans learn life lessons

Timtom-and-Boy

It’s been over 100 days since the UK’s official lockdown began and parents all over the country have been desperately trying to juggle the demands of home-schooling their children.

However, while maths, English and science homework may have stumped some parents, international wildlife charity Born Free is putting the spotlight on a different ‘school’ – The Orangutan Foundation’s Camp in Lamandau Wildlife Reserve in Borneo.

With the world’s entire orangutan population on the brink of extinction, the staff there face one of the world’s quirkiest lesson plan – teaching orphaned orangutans how to survive in the wild.

Orangutans on the brink

There are thought to be fewer than 100,000 orangutans left in the wild. All three species – Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli – are classified as Critically Endangered, meaning they face an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild.

In fact, 100,000 Bornean orangutans were lost in just 15 years (1999-2015), reducing the population by more than half.

The Born Free-supported Orangutan Foundation is working in the rainforests of Indonesian Borneo to save and protect the world’s precious orangutans and their habitat. They rescue orangutans in need of help – either orphaned, injured or taken from the wild to be kept as pets – expertly rehabilitating them for eventual release back to the wild when they are ready, but it’s no easy feat. 

Learning to be wild

In the wild, infant orangutans rarely leave their mother’s side as they move through the forest and they learn all their basic survival skills from their immediate family.

At the Foundation though, it’s up to the dedicated team of 30 local staff to prepare the orphans for a future in the wild. The process involves the young apes being taken out into the forest every day to play and learn in a natural environment.

In the evening, they return to their enclosure to be fed, to rest, and to sleep – sharing 97% of our DNA it’s not surprising that it really isn’t much different to our human children’s evening regime!

Endut and Timtom

Just like children, each orangutan learns at their own pace, depending on their age, experiences, and background. For example, Shifa, a young female, was rescued by the Orangutan Foundation in September 2016, after being kept as a pet. She was only two years old. After three years of learning the necessary skills to survive in the wild, she was released last year.

However, Panglima, another orangutan who was rescued at the end of March 2019 from a community forest, displayed many wild behaviours and was released just a few months later.

Orangutan soft release programme

Born Free works closely with the Orangutan Foundation, financially supporting this ‘soft release’ programme at the Lamandau Wildlife Reserve, and their vital ongoing work engaging with the local government, private sector and communities to share knowledge about orangutans and emphasise the importance of preserving their tropical forest habitats.

Unfortunately, 80% of orangutans live outside protected areas which means there are thousands of orangutans at risk due to their habitat being encroached upon and lost.

Further to this, Born Free’s adoption programme supports orangutans like Timtom, the youngest orangutan to enter the Foundation’s soft-release programme, after she was rescued at just 9 months old following life as a pet. Now at around 5 years of age, Timtom is content playing with other young orangutans in soft-release or exploring the surrounding trees alone.

Timtom in 2017

Tending to stay in the lower level of the forest canopy, she still likes to climb down to the ground and play in the sand from time to time, often resulting with her needing a wash in the river which she also seems to enjoy.

Considering her challenging start to life, Timtom is progressing well and the hope is that this continues as she learns the necessary skills for an independent life before being released into the wild. 

This amazing youngster represents the plight of all wild orangutans and the hope is that, despite their perilous existence, we can ensure their survival.

To support Born Free’s ongoing work with the Organutan Foundation, or to adopt Timtom, visit www.bornfree.org.uk/orangutans-brink

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Learn more about orangutans

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