Release Monitoring Research - Update


Since I last wrote to you all back in June, the pioneering Tabin three (Unkuyong, Atama & Eniro) have been progressing very well on their own for the last six months. One of the most encouraging aspects of doing this research is discovering just how resilient orangutans can be, even though they were deprived of the normal seven or so years of learning that they normally have with their mothers.

The three orangutans are now 6 years old.  After losing some weight initially all are now maintaining their body weights and I am pleased that they now resemble wild orangutans with wiry limbs and less body fat than their captive cousins. 

Unkuyong and Atama are doing particularly well, and even the lazier Eniro is finding all his own foods, including the very smelly, but equally tasty wild durian. One day Eniro got a little angry with us when a couple of the researchers who were following him refused to help him open up the tough spiky outer shell of the fruit, because it is really important to cut the dependence that these young orangutans have on humans.  Eniro was a very frustrated little orangutan for a few minutes before finally working out how to open the fruits himself!

When there is less fruit in the jungle during the rainy season, the orangutans resort to foraging for young leaves and shoots, and they sometimes eat bark and insects.  Nest-building is going well, although as with everything, Eniro is lacking behind the other two somewhat! 

On a serious note, the most important part of a reintroduction project for rehabilitated orangutans is making the right decisions for their long-term benefit. This means that we researchers take a back seat, merely recording and documenting their activities from a distance. Obviously if they have a fall from a high tree or they look very dehydrated then we will intervene by providing the necessary nutrition or medical care, but we would only do this in extreme circumstances as I think that remaining actively involved in their daily lives definitely limits their ability, and desire, to return to a wild life.

Some orangutans are just like us, and they become very lazy. When they see humans some juvenile orangutans still think of food and cuddles, even when they know how to find their own. While rehabilitated orangutans are very young they need regular care from human caregivers, but when they get older humans need to take a step back and allow the apes to do things for themselves. To be considered for release into somewhere like Tabin, a young orangutan needs to be fiercely independent with experience of foraging and nest-building. When humans and orangutans find it difficult to wean themselves away from each other it usually leads to an orangutan not developing the necessary survival skills to be considered for release.

The transponders which give off the signal for us to track the orangutans are still working very well for us, and are essential for anyone considering releasing orangutans in the future.  At some point we anticipate the orangutans will disperse deep into the forests of Tabin, far out of our range as they seek out their own territory.  This is of course a perfectly natural stage in their development and will mark the end of our involvement.  In the meantime we aim to collect as much data as we can throughout their initial transition to forest life.

Life in camp is fine, although it does sometimes get a little boring at night if I’m honest! We only run the generator for a few hours each night, mainly so we can see what we’re cooking! The wildlife around camp and in the forests is as interesting as ever, and I’m pleased to say the elephants have not been back to smash our truck again!  A couple of the guys and I were doing some gardening one day around camp when I rolled over a log to find a pretty big green scorpion underneath. I am not sure if it is actually deadly but it is definitely poisonous! Very well camouflaged for the jungle wouldn’t you agree?

Also, you can’t really go anywhere in Tabin without getting ‘leeched’ pretty much everywhere you go, especially because it rains almost every day – the photo included is of a very thirsty Tiger leech literally feasting on my leg!   Leeches are harmless although in order to get the blood flowing freely into their mouths they inject a blood thinning agent, which when you remove them from your body means the wound keeps bleeding for hours! 

I’ll be back with another update in the summer. 2011 will be a big year for this project, not least because we hope to be moving more young orangutans from Sepilok to join the ‘Tabin Three’. The scientific data we have been collecting since day one of this release project will also reveal some very interesting things about how orangutans are able to adapt to life on their own in the wild. I’m very excited to report these results and to crack on with what will be another very busy year for our team.