A formerly blind orangutan, who is the mother of twins born in captivity, was returned to the wild in Sumatra, Indonesia, this week. The much-anticipated release worked well for the mother and one of the twins, but one of the infants had to be shepherded back to the nearby cage complex after his mother left him behind.
A team from the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP) released Gober and her twins, Ginting and Ganteng, in the Jantho conservation forest in the province of Aceh. They were stunned when Gober headed off into the jungle without one of her twins, who are now nearly four years old.
The director of the SOCP, Ian Singleton, said: “Sadly, the plan to release Gober and both of her twin infants together did not work out as hoped. All three were released at the same time, but Ganteng did not take well to the forest environment and Gober struggled in the trees with two infants to watch out for. It was not long before she seemed to give up trying, and poor little Ganteng was left behind.
“Whilst Gober and Ginting subsequently coped perfectly well, travelling through the canopy, finding food and building a huge nest for the night, little Ganteng spent his first night in the forest alone and afraid, cold and wet.”
The next day, after seeing that Ganteng’s mother and sister were not coming back for him, SOCP staff were able to give the infant food and managed to usher him back to the safety of the on-site cages.
Singleton was surprised that Gober – whose eyesight was restored in a cataract operation in 2012 – had left one of her twins behind, but said Ganteng would get his chance of a life of freedom in the forest in the not-too-distant future.
He has done much soul-searching about whether the three should have been released at another time. “If we’d done this when the kids were smaller and more dependent, if anything had happened to Gober after release … we would probably have lost all three of them.
“If we’d waited till they were older, there’s no guarantee it would have gone any better and Gober would have had to endure even more years in a cage, where she has never settled and has always been stressed.”
Gober was rescued by the SOCP from an isolated patch of forest surrounded by palm oil plantations in 2008. “As she was blind, she was raiding farmer’s crops to survive and would surely have been killed if left where she was,” Singleton said. The orangutan was then cared for at the SOCP orangutan quarantine centre near Medan, North Sumatra.
“Most orangutans that enter the SOCP’s Quarantine Centre and Reintroduction Programme are confiscated illegal pets, captured when their mothers were killed,” Singleton said.
It is illegal in Indonesia to kill or capture orangutans, but they are often deliberately killed in areas where forest is being cleared, for instance for oil palm plantations, or if they are in conflict with farmers because they are raiding crops at the forest edge.
Normally, females at the SOCP centre are separated from males to prevent pregnancies, but Gober was allowed to conceive despite being unable to see. It was considered that rearing an infant would dramatically improve her welfare, giving her something to do.
Gober was gradually introduced and eventually mixed with a young adult male orangutan at the quarantine centre named Leuser. Leuser was, and still is, also blind. He had been shot at least 62 times with an air rifle. Two pellets lodged in one eye and one in the other.
Despite both adults being blind, they soon mated successfully and Gober fell pregnant within just a matter of days. The pair were then separated again a few months before Gober was due to give birth, to ensure the safety of the infant.
Gober successfully gave birth on January 21, 2011, but no-one had expected twins. “Cases of twins are rare in orangutans,” Singleton said, “but twin orangutans born to parents who are both blind is totally unheard of. Being such an experienced mother, and despite her handicap, Gober proceeded to rear both infants in exemplary fashion.”
The SOCP had thought Gober would spend the rest of her life in captivity, but received an offer from a top Indonesian ophthalmologist, Arie Umboh, to carry out cataract surgery and try to restore Gober’s eyesight.
Arie and the SOCP veterinary team performed the surgery on August 27, 2012, and it was a complete success.
“Gober gradually regained her vision whilst kept in low light conditions for a few months and, since then, her eyesight has been restored almost 100 percent, as far as we can tell,” Singleton said.
The head of the Indonesian government’s Conservation Agency for North Sumatra, John Kenedie, said Gober’s story was a welcome ray of hope for her species. Her release was part of an ongoing reintroduction project for orangutans in Aceh and more than fifty orangutans had been released in Jantho so far, he said.
“They are the founders of an entirely new orangutan population being established there. Sadly, though, there are still many much less fortunate orangutans out there, being killed and captured as the forests are destroyed.
“We must do all we can to prevent this and prevent orangutans coming into captivity in the first place. Anyone found illegally capturing, killing, keeping, or trading orangutans and other protected species is clearly breaking the law and will be prosecuted.”
The head of the Aceh Conservation Agency, Genman Hasibuan, said Gober’s return to the wild was a highly unusual event. “The lessons we have learned and the experience gained will be invaluable in our efforts to conserve their species in the future.”
SOCP veterinarian Rachmad Wahyudi, said that if Gober hadn’t been captured by the SOCP, she would certainly have been killed. “At that time none of us thought she would ever be a wild orangutan again.”
Singleton added: “In hindsight, we may have been a bit too optimistic expecting Gober to take care of both twins whilst she, herself, had to readapt to the forest after all these years.
“Despite obvious disappointment that it didn’t go as planned, I still think we can consider Gober and Ginting’s release as a huge success, and we must now ensure Ganteng gets out there with them eventually as well.”
To date, the SOCP has returned to the wild more than 200 orangutans that were illegally held captive. It has also rescued several isolated orangutans who were living in small fragments of forest and has relocated them to safer forest areas.
Sumatran orangutans (pongo abelii) are a distinct species and are only found in the northern parts of Sumatra in the provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra, where their major stronghold is the forests of the Leuser Ecosystem. They are listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as critically endangered. They were also recently added to a list of the world’s top 25 most endangered primates, produced by the IUCN Species Survival Commission Primate Specialist Group.
Orangutans are also found on the island of Borneo, but are a different species: pongo pygmaeus.
According to figures from 2004, there are only 6,600 Sumatran orangutans left in North Sumatra and Aceh provinces.
One of the main threats to their survival is the expansion of oil palm plantations.
In a recent tragic case, an orangutan discovered on an oil palm plantation in Central Kalimantan, on Indonesian Borneo, with more than 40 shotgun pellets in her body died from her injuries.
The veterinary team at the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation in Nyaru Menteng tried to save the primate’s life, but she died on December 4.
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme is a collaborative programme involving the Swiss-based PanEco Foundation, Indonesia’s Yayasan Ecosistem Lestari and the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s Directorate General of Forest Protection and Nature Conservation.
All photos by the SOCP.
Link to video published in the Brisbane Times: Release video