Wild orangutans in Borneo are threatened with extinction and the main cause of their dwindling numbers is anthropogenic. Intense illegal logging, coal plants, timber estates, and especially palm oil plantations are eradicating the tropical rainforests of the island, the habitat of hundreds of living organisms including Bornean orangutans. We are destroying the homes of these magnificent creatures and forcing them into extinction.
In the past four decades, between 3000-4000 orangutans were killed every year, meaning a loss of more than half of their population. Since 2016, Bornean orangutans are declared critically endangered by International Union for Conservation(IUN). At this rate, they might go extinct in less than 50 years.
Four Paws, an international animal welfare organisation, serves animals under direct human threat and Bornean orangutans are amongst those they’re helping. However, their approach to conservation is a little different than traditional efforts.
When I think of wildlife conservation I think research and education, I think restoration of the environment, and I think keeping guard on a beach so that baby sea turtles can make it into the ocean. Four Paws also focuses on education (and on babies) when it comes to preserving the Bornean orangutan but not in the sense that you and I might think of. They don’t focus on teaching humans, instead, they teach the orangutans.
Orangutans learn how to be orangutans from their mothers. They are perfectly suited to live in rainforests on top of the trees but they need to learn how to do so and they need to practice. In an ideal wild world, it is the mother orangutans who take up the teaching duty. They climb with their babies, eat together, forage and build nests together and get their babies used to the social aspect of being an orangutan. So when baby orangutans are left without anyone to learn from, they suffer in the wild, multiplying the horrible effects of their mothers dying.
Four Paws has developed an intervention just right to fill this ‘education’ gap: The Orangutan Forest School. In this school, orphaned babies are taught by surrogate mothers, honorary orangutans. The aim is to teach the orphaned babies everything they would learn from their mothers and rehabilitate them as fully capable wild animals.
The Orangutan Forest School is a project in partnership with the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry and is run by local organisation Jejak Pulang. It employs 15 local caregivers, two veterinarians and a biologist. This way, the school doesn’t only serve orangutan babies but it also strengthens the local community as well as their ties with their environment.
As primatologist Dr Signe Preuschoft says, Four Paws doesn’t “humanise the orangutans, but orangutanise the humans". This means most of the training needs to happen on treetops as that’s where orangutans spend the majority of their time in the wild. Thus, before teaching the babies, the surrogate ‘orangutan’ mothers need to be taught first.
So the surrogate mothers go through an extensive orangutan training that includes learning to safely climb trees (with harnesses). The American organisation Tree Monkey Project supervises these trainings and makes sure everyone is safe, including the trees. After learning how to be orangutans themselves, it is now the surrogate mothers’ turn to teach.
The Forest School has an extensive and multi-layered rehabilitation curriculum. The students go from kindergarten to forest school, and then the forest academy where they will go on to 'graduate' and be reintroduced to wildlife. For each orangutan, Four Paws makes the decision to move them onto the next level depending on their progression.
Currently, there are eight pupils in the project, going to school and learning everyday orangutan things. Four Paws aims to increase this number up to 30, a number they think will allow them to help as many babies while making sure every one of them gets the necessary care and attention.
As adorable as a forest school for orangutans sounds, the stark reality is that at the rate we're destroying the rainforests, soon there isn't going to be anywhere left for the pupils to go on to be wild orangutans after graduation. If we don't stop deforestation and protect the remaining rainforestsorangutans and millions of living organisms that rely on rainforests alike will disappear from the face of the planet.