I’m struggling to make friends here. Miriam, a 9-month-old orangutan orphan who’s learning how to climb a tree, almost scales past her trainer when I approach. For good measure, she starts to cry. Another orangutan signals displeasure by emulating the sound of a Harley barreling toward me. In fact, the only one who tolerates me is 11-year-old Leuser, and not because the 42 air-rifle pellets lodged in his body have mellowed him. He’s also blind.
At any zoo, these surly apes would bomb the aw-isn’t-he-cute exam, but here at the world’s most successful school for rescued orangutans, they’re taught to get back in touch with their wild side. Even playtime is serious business. Passing, say, the test of recognizing a friend (another orangutan) versus a foe (a human logger) could spell life or death for these critically endangered icons of the old world jungle.
Everything happens here with one goal in mind: graduation day, when the shaggy students are set loose into the harsh Sumatran rain forest. But for the students to have a shot at survival, handlers must teach them to avoid humans at all costs, a tough task considering they need to be fed by humans.
And teaching them about the dangers of Homo sapiens means no lines of gawky tourists dangling bananas and posing for pictures. That’s why this center at the far north of Sumatra – one of the main islands of Indonesia – is closed to the public and barely known to outsiders. Even if you made it to the nearby village – where the specialty dish is fruit-bat soup and the humid air is clouded with mosquitoes – this part of Sumatra is definitely not for the faint of heart.
Palm trees line the one-lane road to this village, and in the distance, various plantations – chocolate, banana, papaya – dot the endless green of the hills.
The locals don’t seem to understand why the special training and care given at this school. For instance, keepers will offer the apes a hollowed-out block of wood with honey inside to play with, rather than just chicken and rice, the customary diet of pet orangutans. Turns out, it’s a useful skill for wild orangutans to learn how to scrape honey out of a tree hole.
Another trick to keep the students sharp is to tie up rice sacks with the food inside (they like any sweet fruit). The dim ones will rip the bag open, but the smart ones? They will untie the bag.
But you could say those are elective classes. Most of the orangutans come here either completely spoiled by their former owners – almost all military officers who keep them as illegal pets – or with injuries from clashes with farmers and illegal loggers. The injured receive medical attention, and former pets are quarantined for a few weeks and then transferred into a sprawling system of socialization cages. For the young ones, it may be the first time they’ve seen another of their kind.
During the socialization stage, the residents make friends – and sometimes enemies. Two 30-pound toddlers, Kevin and Irwin, are rolling around some blue oil drums when they decide to fight (it looks more like tickling). Just as quickly, they become bored and begin swinging from ropes attached to the ceiling of their metal cage. The playground bully, Prince, who’s bigger by at least 25 pounds, glares at them, ready to steal their milk when the handlers bring the twice-daily bowls.
Though wild orangutans are usually solitary animals, a landmark 2003 Duke University study revealed that they have culture, the only primates besides chimps with this human characteristic. Even more surprising, they’ve been observed using all sorts of tools to dig for termites, scrounge for honey, and get at the seeds inside the razor-sharp neesia fruit – knowledge passed from ape to ape. After all, it’s unlikely a whole troupe of orangutans simultaneously realized leaves could double as gloves or umbrellas.
If all goes well, the students will soon leave this garden paradise – with its freshwater springs, wood gazebos, and hanging orchids – for the tiger-infested rain forest of Jambi Province. It’ll be a 36-hour drive down the spine of Sumatra to a place even more hidden away.
There, they must pass their final test. Handlers will bring them into the jungle each day and teach them everything else they need to survive: what fruits to eat and where to find them, how to eat ants and build nests, and perhaps how to use a tool or two. The wilder ones may graduate in a couple weeks. Tamer ones could take months or years. And the tamest ones? Well, like human students, they don’t want to get out of bed until noon and will expect food to be handed to them on a plate (and don’t even ask them to build a nest anywhere off the ground).
Regardless of their survival know-how, these orangutans face poor odds. Only 6,500 remain in Sumatra and 50,000 in Borneo, down by half from two decades ago.
Indeed it takes stellar teaching to assure an orangutan takes to the wild. More than 90 orangutans have been released since 2003, when the reintroduction began. And it’s not goodbye after graduation. Field observation of the animals suggests the survival rate may be as high as 80 percent.
As it stands, wild orangutans need all the help they can get. At current rates of growth, illegal logging, mining, and oil palm plantations, could destroy 98 percent of the orangutan’s habitat by 2022, a UN report warned last year. Many conservationists predict the extinction of the orangutan within a decade or two.