Alba the albino orangutan is back in the wild

This article has been updated with news of Alba one month after her release.

A Bornean orangutan named Alba, who is believed to be the only albino orangutan alive in the world, has been released back into the wild by the Directorate General for Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation (KSDAE)¹ in collaboration with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF).

Alba was successfully released in the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park (TNBBBR) in the Katingan Regency of Central Kalimantan on Wednesday (December 19) along with another female orangutan, Kika, with whom she has forged a special bond.

The BOSF reports that both orangutans have shown natural behaviour such as climbing trees, foraging, and nest building.

A monitoring team will carry out intensive, dawn-to-dusk observation for the coming six months, and will evaluate the orangutans’ progress in the forest, and a team from the national park authority and the Central Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) will conduct security patrols.

“The first and second days of observation post-release have confirmed that Alba is actively moving in the forest canopy at more than 35 metres off the ground,” BOSF CEO Jamartin Sihite reported. “Observations, however, have yet to confirm that she has successfully adapted to forest life.

“The post-release monitoring team is prepared to intervene and rescue Alba in coordination with the BKSDA and the TNBBBR authority if they feel that her life is in danger at any point.”

The release team of about twenty people transported the two orangutans deep into the forest. The arduous trip took about 16 hours and included a four-hour boat ride up the Bemban River.

Sihite says Kika was the first to leave her cage when the team reached the release site. “She burst out of her cage the second it was opened and reached for a small tree close by. She then swung to a larger one, and quickly climbed higher and higher, embracing her freedom.”

Sihite then opened Alba’s cage. “She slowly exited her cage and took in her new surroundings, moving cautiously. However, once she realised that humans were present, she quickly moved away into the forest and climbed up a tree.

“She brachiated for a while, showing us her familiarity with a wild environment. She finally stopped to rest on a large branch, high up in the forest canopy.”

Alba was rescued in April last year by the BOSF in cooperation with the Central Kalimantan BKSDA.

She was five years old and had been held captive for two days by local residents in the village of Tanggirang in the Kapuas Hulu sub-district of the Kapuas Regency. She still displayed wild behaviour when confiscated.

“She was stressed, dehydrated, weak, suffering from a parasite infection, and displaying a poor appetite,” Jamartin Sihite  said at the time.

“During her first few days at our orangutan rehabilitation and reintroduction centre at Nyaru Menteng, she would only eat sugarcane.”

On arrival, Alba was cared for around the clock by a veterinary team. ”Because of her sensitivity to sunlight, she was kept in a dimly lit, enclosed quarantine facility,” Sihite explained.

Alba when she first arrived at Nyaru Menteng.

Alba gradually started to accept more varied foods, and milk, and her physical condition significantly improved.

There was an international campaign to choose a name for the orangutan, and the name Alba, which means white in Latin and dawn in Spanish, was chosen.

Kika was also five years old when she was rescued by a Central Kalimantan BKSDA team in February 2017 in Buntok in Indonesia’s South Barito Regency.

Kika when she arrived at Nyaru Menteng.

The BOSF had earlier considered creating a special forest island for Alba, but the goverment later decided that she should go to the national park and the BOSF says it fully supports that decision.

“Alba has consistently displayed sound climbing skills and now moves with ease around the branches of the trees at Nyaru Menteng and these are good indicators that she may be ready to live in the wild,” Sihite said before the release.

The director of biodiversity conservation at the KSDAE, Indra Exploitasia, said she welcomed the release of Alba and Kika, which she said corresponded with “the government’s commitment to increasing wildlife populations in their natural habitats”.

She explained that, according to current regulations, animals can be released back to their natural habitat provided they are in good physical health, the species has high genetic diversity, and the release location is part of the original distribution area of the species to be released.

Research conducted in the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park has shown that orangutans have historically ranged there.

The governor of Central Kalimantan, Sugianto Sabran, also welcomed the orangutans’ release, and the decision to keep Alba in Kalimantan.

“Everyone needs to work hard to support the conservation of Alba and other orangutans in Central Kalimantan,” the governor said.

The head of the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park Authority, Heru Raharjo, said that a joint study conducted with the BOSF identified seven potential zones for orangutan reintroduction in the park.

Two of the zones, which are located near the Bemban and Mahalat rivers, have large rainforest and lowland areas, making them very suitable orangutan release sites.

“The area is spacious with natural boundaries, is a suitable habitat for monitoring, and is able to support a decent wild population,” Heru Raharjo said.

“We estimate that the area can accommodate up to two hundred orangutans. We also highly appreciate the strong support shown by surrounding communities.”

Since 2012, and including Alba and Kika, the BOS Foundation has released 386 orangutans in three sites: 175 to the Bukit Batikap Conservation Forest in Central Kalimantan, 114 to the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, and 97 to the Kehje Sewen forest in East Kalimantan.

Critically endangered

In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) changed the classification of the Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) from endangered to critically endangered, citing the main causes of its population decline as habitat loss and fragmentation, primarily for logging and oil palm plantations, along with illegal hunting and fires.

There are estimated to be between 55,000 and 62,000 Bornean orangutans living in the wild, split into three distinct subspecies.

The Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) is also listed as critically endangered. There are now only about 14,600 left in the wild.

The IUCN says the population trend is a decrease for both species.

  1. Indonesia’s KSDAE comes under the country’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry. The BKSDA represents the ministry at provincial level. 

All photos of Alba, and the photo of Kika, are courtesy of the BOS Foundation and the headline photo was taken by Björn Vaughn.


Update 17/1/2019

The BOS Foundation says that, a month after her release, Alba is making great progress and is adapting well to her new home.

The BOSF post-release monitoring team, a veterinarian from the BOSF’s Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and staff from the national park authority have been conducting daily patrols in the area where Alba and Kika were released.

“We have observed Alba regularly foraging for, and feeding on, wild orangutan food, and building both day and night nests,” said Jamartin Sihite.

“She has been quite actively travelling in the forest canopy and rarely climbing down to the forest floor, but she has occasionally climbed down to forage for plant shoots. These are all signs that her wild instincts are well-developed. Thankfully, we have not yet had to intervene, supplement, or assist her in any way.”

Alba was spotted spending time with Kika and two other orangutans who were released in 2016, Sihite added.

Sihite said Alba appeared to be in good health and had travelled an impressive distance of four kilometres from the point where she was released.

“Alba’s adaptability is impressive, but not entirely surprising,” he added. “We estimate that she had four to five years in the wild before we rescued her, and it looks like she is remembering her mother’s lessons well. Nonetheless, we will continue to monitor her closely.”

The post-release monitoring of Alba takes place from sunrise to sunset.

“We plan to continue this process for the next five months, meaning that we will have data on Alba’s adaptability and progress for a full six months,” Sihite said.

“After this extended intensive monitoring period, we will continue to monitor her according to our standard protocol for monitoring our other reintroduced orangutans, checking her radio transmitter signal regularly and observing her periodically.”

Given that the size of the area where Alba was released is 128,000 hectares, intensively monitoring her for long periods of time would be quite difficult, Sihite explained. However, BOSF and the national park authority are confident that they will be able to provide the protection Alba needs, he says.

Alba’s first month in the national park was a social one, Sihite said, but she didn’t stay too long in the presence of any one individual orangutan.

She was often seen with Kika and with Miri and Winda, two adult females released in 2016.

“We hope that spending time with these experienced adult orangutans will facilitate learning and strengthen her chances of long-term survival in the wild,” Sihite said.

Photos courtesy of the BOS Foundation.