Orphaned orangutans attend classes where they learn to crack open coconuts, avoid predators, climb trees and much more
School is still in session for groups of orphaned orangutans across Indonesia.
The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation runs several orangutan rehabilitation centers throughout the country that operate like schools for young primates.
Orangutans who don’t have parents to teach them survival skills, can learn what they need to know to live on their own from human caretakers. These helpful babysitters move the orangutans through classes, like Coconut Cracking 101 and Snake Awareness, until there are prepared to take on the world.
Many of the orangutans are able to “graduate” and move on to living in the wild, helping conserve the endangered Bornean orangutan population.
These special schools are featured in Orangutan Jungle School, a nature documentary series that will start streaming on Smithsonian Channel Plus on Aug. 2.
In anticipation of this adorable series, and to learn more about these amazing efforts, PEOPLE spoke with Dr. Jamartin Sihite, CEO of Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, about all things orangutan education.
How did these schools get started?
In the early days of BOS Foundation’s orangutan rehabilitation centers, there were playgrounds for the many orphaned orangutans, but it was quickly apparent that these would not be enough to foster wild behaviors in the young orangutans. The orphaned orangutans needed to return to the trees. Through research out of the Tuanan Orangutan Research Station in the Mawas Conservation Area on wild orangutan behavior, a curriculum was developed to help the orphans learn the same behaviors that wild orangutans use to survive in the forests of Borneo. The goal of forest school is simple: to help the orangutans in the rehabilitation centers be just like the ones in the wild. But like most objectives in life, this is easier said than done.
Why do orangutans come to these schools?
Once we have rescued the orphaned orangutans, we must teach them how to be “wild.” Usually, the young orphans have spent an extended period of time in human homes, and they can no longer recall their natural behaviors. Dependent on their age as well, there is a high probability that they never learned invaluable survival skills from their mothers. In the wild, a child can stay with their mother for over 8 years, during which they learn countless lessons on foraging, climbing, and jungle survival. Orangutans have the longest interbirth interval of any mammal on Earth, indicating just how vital this extended period of offspring dependence is to their survival. We have designed our forest schools to try and emulate this learning process. No one can ever replace the mothers that they have lost, but we use every tool at our disposal to ready them for a return to their true home in the forests of Borneo.
What do they learn?
In our forest school program, and throughout the entire rehabilitation process, these orangutans are learning to be “wild” once again. We have identified key behaviors and skills exhibited by wild orangutans in the Mawas Conservation Area that are key to their survival in the forest. Based on this research, the forest school students are taught vital behaviors, such as independence from and indifference towards humans, in addition to the more obvious survival skills.
In terms of tangible, skill-based learning, we start with the most vital skill for an orangutan, that is, how to climb. Once a baby orangutan can confidently move through the trees, they go on to learn general skills, such as nest building, how to interact with other orangutans, what animals to fear and avoid, and how to care for their own children. At the same time, every meal is an opportunity for the pupils to learn new foraging skills. They learn which jungle plants are edible and which are not. In addition, they hone skills in how to open the unique forest vegetation and which portions to eat. This includes lessons in husking coconuts, peeling rattan, opening thick-skinned fruits, sucking termites out of nests, using tools to obtain valuable honey, collecting swarming ants, opening beehives for the nutritious larvae within, and so much more.
Are you able to release most of the students?
Yes, most of the students are one day released. We have developed the forest school and rehabilitation process through extensive wild orangutan research and through internal assessment and revision. But even with our ever-improving program, some of the orangutans will, unfortunately, never be released.
We currently care for many orangutans who require specialized care due to physical disability and infectious disease, such as tuberculosis and chronic respiratory infections. Even if they are able to recover and reach a stable state, the release of individuals such as these, would present a disease risk for the healthy, previously released population. Other orangutans simply lack the survival skills necessary to live in the wild. Many of these unskilled orangutans have extremely traumatic pasts or were rescued too late in life to be taught in forest school. In both cases, we provide these animals with life-long sanctuary care. We try to cater the enclosures to the needs of the individuals, but the ultimate goal is to have enough specialized sanctuary islands where these individuals can live in semi-natural environments and enjoy a taste of freedom whilst still being offered the support they need to survive from our caregivers.
What does it take to graduate from these school?
Ideally, our pupils graduate once they have shown a clear aptitude for forest survival. Our surrogate mothers monitor and score their behavior to indicate when the orangutans have a clear grasp of climbing, foraging, nest building, predator avoidance, and healthy socialization. They also wait for the orangutans to show a clear sense of independence from humans. At this point, we can consider the orangutan for transfer to a pre-release island where they can put their skills to the test and prove they are ready for release into a wild forest.
In certain circumstances, graduation can be accelerated if the orangutan grows too big or too old. When the orphans are rescued later in life, the period of time during which it is safe for humans to have direct, regular contact, can be limited. In these cases, we teach them all we can, but once they are too old, they will be forced to graduate and move on to the pre-release islands.
How do these orangutans end up orphaned?
Every orphan that enters our facilities has a unique story, but most of their plights stem from deforestation. Rainforests in Indonesia continue to be converted into human settlements, oil palm plantations, logging concessions, pulp and paper plantations, mines, and other industries that require clearcutting. This habitat loss leads to starvation and increased human-orangutan conflict. Many orangutans are killed as agricultural pests, hunted for bushmeat or the illegal pet and performing animal trade. Forest fires, many of which stem from brutal forms of forest and land management, have also killed and displaced many orangutans.
How can animal lovers help these orangutans?
The easy answer for me is for animal lovers to donate to the BOS Foundation. It costs millions of US dollars every year to run our rescue operations, rehabilitation centers, conservation areas, and reintroduction sites. We have over 500 orangutans to feed and over 400 staff to support. As the largest great ape sanctuary in the world, our costs are practically endless.
I know however, that not everyone is in the position to contribute financially to charities. Animal lovers can still make changes in their daily life that benefit orangutans. In general, living a “greener” more environmentally conscientious life can help conserve natural habitats and, in turn, the orangutan. Even in the grocery store, purchasing products that are ethically sourced can have a resounding impact. Here, in Indonesia, oil palm plantations have been one of the largest drivers of deforestation in the last decade. We encourage people to buy products containing sustainable palm oil, that are RSPO-certified, rather than boycotting palm oil products all together. Oil palm is the most productive of all oil yielding crops so replacing it with another would only displace biodiversity loss. We instead call upon orangutan lovers to demand environmentally-friendly and ethically sourced palm oil in their products.