When we first heard about a school for orphan orangutans in Borneo, admittedly a Disney-fied, great apes version of Annie was the initial vision in our mind’s eye. However, the reality of the FOUR PAWS Forest School, a new animal rehabilitation project in partnership with local agency Jejak Pulang and the Indonesian government’s forest ministry is, at once, more tragic but also more inspiring than any Broadway musical.
The 590-acre school, launched in 2017 and led by primatologist Dr. Signe Preuschoft and her Indonesian team of 19 staff members, including animal caretakers, behavior experts and veterinarians, is located in East Kalimantan, right in the middle of Borneo’s rainforest. Since the 1950s, these animals have faced habitat loss (and the loss of their mothers) due to oil palm farming, tropical timber, coal mining and forest fires.
Beyond those causes for population decline, other threats such as hunting, the illegal pet trade and human-wildlife conflicts over resources (i.e. farmers killing the orangutans to “protect” their crops) have all contributed to the dire circumstances faced by these youngsters. Although the babies are usually spared when their mothers are killed — often right in front of their eyes — they are left without natural, genetic caregivers and teachers to show them the ropes of how to succeed as adult orangutans in the wild.
Robert T. Ware, Country Director of FOUR PAWS USA, tells PEOPLE the Forest School program currently hosts eight orangutans, ranging in age from 11 months to nine years. The project rescues the illegally caught orphan apes and rehabilitates them, introducing the vulnerable and impressionable animals to a curriculum featuring lessons in climbing, foraging for food and building their own sleeping nest in the trees. These are all skills normally taught by their birth mothers, but the Forest School’s well-trained staffers serve as human surrogate moms to aid in the orphans’ development. The goal is to protect, teach and safely release the graduates back into their natural rainforest habitat as fully free and independent adults when they reach maturity (about nine years old).
Ware told PEOPLE the Forest School‘s unique program currently plans to take in about 30 more orangutans in the near future. “Only about 50,000 Bornean orangutans are left, indicating a population decline of roughly 80% since 1950. In the same period, approximately three quarters of Borneo’s rain forests have been converted for human purposes, mainly into industrial agriculture or coal mining areas, leaving orangutans little choice other than starvation or eating from human plantations. This exposes them to orangutan-human conflict with the danger of being killed as crop raiders and pests. As long as their habitat continues to be threatened and encounters with humans increase, sadly we will continue to see orphaned orangutans who need to be taken in to our care,” explains Ware.
Caring for the orphans can be a 24/7 job for the FOUR PAWS Forest School staff. Because the babies and youngsters are not yet able to care for and defend themselves, they return to a quarantine area each night. “We are currently developing infrastructure and building specialized night houses where the orangutans can sleep, protected from humans and other wildlife,” says Ware. Depending on their ages, individual experiences and psychological condition, some orangutans require constant care from the human surrogates.
Ware tells PEOPLE that the FOUR PAWS Forest School’s rehabilitation process is aligned with the natural development of immature orangutans and follows a science-based curriculum. “Depending on their age, psychological condition and prior knowledge, the orangutans start their education … at different levels; kindergarten, forest school, or orangutan academy. Importantly, every orangutan will pass through the successive training steps according to his/her individual speed and level of competence.”
These steps are as follows:
1. Intense Care: Normal baby orangutans rely on their mothers for transportation, clinging to the adult female’s body until they’re about 2 years old. Ware says that likewise, these baby orphans need intense care from their human surrogates 24 hours a day in the nursery and kindergarten stages.
2. Essential Learning: From the age of 2 years, wild orangutans start to travel more independently from but still stay within a ten-meter radius of their mother. This is a period of intense learning when young orangutans acquire essential survival skills by observing and sharing the life of their mothers. Likewise, orphans of this age still need protection and guidance from human caregivers, but they will begin to roam the forest more widely, and the company of other orangutans becomes more and more important. In the forest, orphans learn what to eat, where to find it, what other animals they share the forest with, how to climb and move about in the trees, to cope with weather, to not get lost in the forest, and how to make nests to rest and sleep in trees.
3. Orangutan Academy at the Release Site: When reaching puberty at 6-8 years, normal orangutans will begin to become increasingly independent from their mothers, but full independence is not reached before 8-10 years (in Bornean orangutans). Adolescent orangutans will be transferred, together with their caretakers, to the orangutan academy at the release forest to become familiar with the specific biodiversity of the area.
Ware also shared the backstory of one particular orphan, Gerhana, who is only about one year old. “He has truly defied the odds and survived some truly horrific challenges. The condition of Gerhana when he arrived was critical. He was on the brink of death, completely starved, seriously underweight and had no hair,” the FOUR PAWS country director tells PEOPLE. But, now that the baby has been cared for by staff, he’s begun to recover quickly.
“During the health examination we found an air rifle bullet embedded in his left shoulder at the x-ray. This injury had already healed. Luckily the bullet is not impacting his health and since he is still very small the vet team cannot remove the bullet yet. We are surmising that his mother lost her homeland due to habitat destruction and was starving and hunted in human-made areas. But now Gerhana is very active and agile in the trees at the forest, he is able to climb up and down trees and move from one tree to another easily and he loves the forest food. And he is growing his hair again – right now he is sporting a nice reddish crew-cut,” Ware happily reports.
Another little one, Baby Gonda, was about eight months old when he arrived at the Forest School. He was already completely dependent on humans and his psychological scars were visible in his behavior. If humans held onto him, he would try new activities. But once he could no longer feel bodily contact, he’d stop and hug himself or a cuddly toy. He really needed to build muscle in order to cling and hold on his own. Dr. Preuschoft reports that since his arrival, Gonda has learned to climb trees. “He can hang upside down and hold onto a branch with only his legs. His friend, Tegar, who is four months older, is already more agile. He bends small branches together, grabs the next branch, shifts his center of gravity and then slides over like normal orangutan behavior. Gonda still has a lot of practice to do until he can manage that,” says Dr. Preuschoft.
PEOPLE wondered if once the animals are released, whether they’re reluctant to leave the school or their human caregivers. Ware explained that much like in the wild, the transition from childhood to adulthood is gradual, and a timetable of independence is not strictly enforced.
“Only orangutans who are really competent to take the step are released to the wild. A key point in our work is assuring that the orangutans will be able to care for themselves, this means they need to learn to avoid humans. As we begin to release animals who are ready, there will be no further contact with their caregivers, similar to the way they will move away from their mothers naturally and become independent,” says Ware.
Similar to human teenagers and young adults, an orangutan’s competence increases as it becomes more adventurous and independent. And much like regular parents, we have a feeling the formerly helpless orphans’ human surrogates are proud to watch their babies set out into the world with all the tools and confidence they need to succeed. It’s a bittersweet, but joyful goodbye to these high honors students of the Bornean rainforest.