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Into the wild, once again

Rescuer plans to release tame orangutans

Lone Droscher-Nielsen, founder and director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Project, said returning orangutans to the wild “is our ultimate objective.’’ She plans to release 75 rehabilitated orangutans into the wild early next year. Lone Droscher-Nielsen, founder and director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Project, said returning orangutans to the wild “is our ultimate objective.’’ She plans to release 75 rehabilitated orangutans into the wild early next year. (Washington Post Photo By Linda Davidson)
By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post / November 27, 2009

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PALANGKA RAYA, Indonesia - Over the past decade, Lone Droscher-Nielsen, a former flight attendant, has saved nearly 600 orphaned orangutans in Borneo from almost certain death. Funded by donations from abroad, she’s given the apes food, shelter, and better health care than many humans in these parts get.

Now, the 46-year-old Dane is preparing for a more difficult - and controversial - task: returning tame orangutans to the wild. “They were born wild and they deserve to go back in the wild again,’’ said Droscher-Nielsen, founder and director of the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Project. “That is our ultimate objective.’’

Early next year, if all goes according to plan, she’ll release a first batch of about 75 rehabilitated orangutans into a remote forest in Central Kalimantan, an Indonesian province on the island of Borneo. Tiny radio transmitters placed under the skin will monitor their movements - and also help answer a big question: Can they survive?

Some experts wonder whether orangutans raised by humans will be able to hack life in the forest and worry that diseases they might have caught in captivity will harm kin that never left the jungle.

Droscher-Nielsen, whose 10-year-old project has grown into the world’s largest rescue effort for primates, expects most to make it. “The ones we set free are not going to be wild, but they can manage,’’ she said.

It will take a couple of generations for bad habits picked up in captivity to be completely purged. Disease, she added, shouldn’t be a problem because the area selected for the trial release doesn’t have a viable orangutan community.

The orangutan - which in the Bahasa Indonesian language means “man of the forest’’ - is one of humanity’s closest cousins in the animal kingdom. But it has suffered catastrophically from contact with man.

A century ago, Borneo had more than 300,000 wild orangutans. Today, the number has fallen to about 50,000, most of which live in Central Kalimantan. They could vanish if forests keep getting chopped down; Indonesian environmentalists say the current rate of deforestation equals six football fields every minute. Palm oil plantations, which have expanded rapidly, have led to an even bigger influx of baby apes at the rescue center.

Droscher-Nielsen, who previously worked for Scandinavian Airlines, initially hoped to start returning orangutans to the wild years ago but, as forests kept retreating, it became increasingly difficult to find a safe place to put them. The task was further complicated because rehabilitated apes don’t fear humans - a big problem when many humans see them as a menace and want them dead.

Keeping orangutans fed and sheltered is expensive. The Nyaru Menteng project has a staff of about 200 people. Salaries, food, medicines, and other expenses mean that it costs about $2,000 a year for each of the nearly 600 apes in residence. That is more than twice the average annual income for humans in the area. Another 400 or so are being cared for in other rehabilitation centers in Borneo.

“I’d like to be an orangutan,’’ joked Nordin, a local environmental activist, who like many Indonesians uses just one name. “They get given meals and when they get sick they get sent to hospital.’’

Droscher-Nielsen’s center has a well-equipped clinic. Adult orangutans spend much of the day in a nearby peat land forest that is off-limits to loggers and oil palm growers. Each afternoon, dozens come out of the trees for a “social hour’’ in the main compound. They munch fruit, climb on a jungle gym, and play on swings. At night, adults are escorted to a cluster of cages while younger ones are piled into wheelbarrows and taken to a separate sleeping area.

To survive back in the wild, orangutans will have to forget their pampered lifestyle. Droscher-Nielsen’s staff has devised a number of techniques to help prepare them for life on their own. About 125 apes, for example, have now been moved onto islands in a nearby river, where they have little contact with humans. They still get most of their food provided but have to work much harder to get it.

Some of her center’s orangutans, said Droscher-Nielsen, have scant chance of ever surviving in the wild, so they will have to stay put until they die. This could mean decades, as the average life expectancy is 40 to 45 years.