Update on the stars of ‘Orangutans: The Great Ape Escape’

Almost one year ago, Leonora, Emen and Menteng were part of our first group of ex-captive rehabilitant orangutans to be released into the Bukit Batikap Conservation Forest.  The early steps of their journey were filmed by a film crew for a documentary shown on October 4th on BBC Television in the UK.  So what has happened to these pioneer orangutans since those first few weeks in the forest?  Here is their story so far.

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Leonora and Lamar

Leonora was the first rehabilitant to be released.  Once her cage was opened she quickly climbed into the trees with 3 year old infant Lamar on her back.  On the islands Leonora was very inquisitive of people and had formed bonds with several of her technicians. Yet once in the forest Leonora was content to stay in the trees and explore her new surroundings, she seemed no longer bothered by people.  But as the weeks went on she seemed to enjoy the presence of people, often following the observers rather than the other way around.  She even came to the ground once to examine a hammock that had just been put up by one of the monitoring team.  She skilfully untied it before going on her way.  Perhaps she was a bit lonely, perhaps she still expected people to give her food like before on the islands – an expectation that must be getting less by the month.

Leonora and Lamar's first step into true freedom in 2012

Leonora and Lamar’s first step into true freedom in 2012

After four months she was already eating lots of different kinds of food, the inner pith of rattan climbers, the sweet inner bark of leguminous trees, termites sucked out of rotten logs.  She had never needed to eat these foods on Kaja island, because she was given enough fruit and vegetables there to keep her well-fed, and yet she had explored and tried everything on the island.  An orangutan’s inquisitive nature gives them a good chance of survival in the wild.  And here she was four months later teaching her young son how to access these fallback foods that will be needed when fruit stocks become low in the dry season.

She didn’t eat everything, however, indeed one of the best fruits, wild durian, is encased in a spiny shell and Leonora seemed unsure how to get inside it.  She resorted to picking up the cracked-open fruits from the forest floor instead!

After six months Leonora had lost a little excess weight, but was still healthy, and her hair had thinned – probably because long hair gets torn out in the dense and spiny rainforest.  Lamar meanwhile had become very independent, rarely suckling, moving freely and always quick to shake branches and kiss-squeak at the monitoring team if they come too close.  It is great to see that the infants of the tame adults are keeping their wild nature.  He has even thrown branches on occasion! At three and a half years old Lamar is trying out lots of fruits and has started practising making his own nests.  Sometimes these are very good, but he always sleeps with his mother.

Now one year on, Leonora and Lamar rarely seem to notice the monitoring team.  We only see them once a month now, whilst we focus on the new arrivals, and they are very content in the forest.  They are still learning, especially Lamar, but there are now plenty of other orangutans living near them to share experiences and knowledge with. We are delighted by the progress they have made.

Emen and Embong

Emen was released fourth on that November day almost one year ago.  Emen was a little older and slower than Leonora, and she had lost four fingers on her right hand making it harder for her to move around the forest.  She was perhaps not as ready for the sharp transition from island life to the vast jungle and this showed during her first month.  She started off by following Leonora around, and when Leonora wanted some space she stayed on her own, not moving too far.  After 10 days we found her lying ill on the ground, and the next day she climbed high into a tree where she stayed for the next three days.  As shown on the BBC documentary, we decided to intervene and send her some food on a pulley, to make sure her son Embong wasn’t becoming malnourished.  Although an adult orangutan can go many days without food, we were much more concerned about the infant.  Three days after the food supply, Emen left the tree and we saw her eating wild fruits again.  We think that she had eaten something a little poisonous, perhaps a wild nutmeg or some other fruit that doesn’t occur on Kaja island.  This trial and error method of learning about their new environment is going to be inevitable for all our orangutans.

Emen & Embong

Emen and her child Embong are now living independently in Batikap (photo by: Priadi)

Over the next few weeks it was Embong who seemed to take the lead and choose which trees to visit, maybe he was simply enthusiastic and didn’t want to wait for his slow mum!  Yet despite her handicap Emen has proved very capable in the wild, even using her body as a bridge to help Embong cross gaps.

Five months after her release Emen was still reacting to the sound of boats on the river, an inevitable link to her ten years on Kaja island where the sound of boats usually meant the arrival of food.  Emen has never travelled too far from the large Joloi river, even crossing it occasionally. During June and July she was frequently found on the opposite side of the river with Ebol, a young female rescued from the wild and released four months before Emen.  Forming good social bonds with their neighbours is vitally important for the well-being of the released orangutans.

Now one year on Emen and Embong are living quite independently.  They are starting to ignore and not care about the presence of human observers. They have gained a good understanding of their forest and travel routes, with special places to cross the river locked in their memory.  They are smart enough to find many kinds of fruit, and if that is diminished Emen can also switch her focus to find and eat the leaves and pith from lianas and trees.  Embong is very active and with the affection of his mother is learning about the forest and how to make a nest.  Like Lamar he is wild and energetic.  Hopefully Emen and Embong will be content in their new habitat forever.

Menteng

Menteng was the largest male released in this group.  Formerly a timid young orangutan on Kaja island, he was starting to develop his large cheek pads and grow into full adult size by the time of his release.  We had a lot of difficulties with Menteng at the start, as whenever we came near he descended and followed us.  Perhaps he was lonely, perhaps he just wanted to see where we were going, or more likely he wanted to search our bags for fruit! – but this made us cautious as a large tame adult male orangutan can be unpredictable and they are very strong.  So we always retreated and eventually moved into the boats.

Menteng (photo by: Anna Marzec)

Menteng happily lives his freedom by exploring his home forest (photo by: Anna Marzec)

Menteng continued this behaviour for the next four months.  He stayed close to the river and found a way to cross, so we were never sure which bank to moor up on.  We tried to keep monitoring him, although it was impossible on foot – so we don’t really know what he was eating or doing when we weren’t there.  On several occasions he chased our team into their boats.  Then we saw him with a new, shallow scar on his cheekpad, a sign he had been in a fight with another male, perhaps Tarzan who is dominant in the area near our camp.

About six months ago, things changed a little, and we could occasionally follow him.  Then the next day he would become aggressive again – we think he had chosen his favourites from the monitoring team!  But after May his radio-signal was picked up less often, a sign he had started to explore further away from the river, and since July we haven’t picked up his signal at all.  We don’t know where he has been during these two months, but hope he is happy exploring his forest home as he continues to mature.  Adult males travel very long distances and often return only months later.  We will keep tabs on where Menteng has decided to settle.

The other eight orangutans released at the same time – Sif and her daughter Sifa, Gadis and her daughter Garu, Chanel and her son Charlie, Jamiat and Terusan – are also occasionally followed to check how they are doing.  All are fine, some like Terusan have travelled far, others like Sif are still near their release point.  We are delighted with all their progress, and will keep you updated as we find out news.

The Monitoring Team, Bukit Batikap Conservation Forest

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