Following confiscation by the Indonesian Wildlife Authority BKSDA, the team at FOUR PAWS ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL in Borneo has taken another defenseless orangutan baby into its care and thus saved it from certain death. Restrained in a sack tied to a motorcycle the approximately two-year old male orangutan was destined to be abandoned. Supposedly, his owner wanted to get abandon him due to fears around COVID-19. The illicit trade in apes is worth several million dollars per year, and the illegal market for baby orangutans is thriving with around 150 orangutan offspring sold each year, mostly to Asian buyers. However, the global coronavirus pandemic could further exacerbate the situation of the apes at the mercy of traders. This little orangutan orphan was lucky. Rescued in the last minute on the very day the second world war was ended 75 years ago, he was named Damai – Indonesian for peace.
Just a few days after his rescue little Damai is forming a bond to his human surrogate mother, a vet at the quarantine station of the FOUR PAWS ORANGUTAN FOREST SCHOOL at Samboja, East Kalimantan. He has been through traumatic upheavals in his short life. On May 8th, Damai was officially handed over to the FOUR PAWS orangutan forest school team after the dramatic rescue. Chatting with a client, a gas station owner in Bengalon saw a sack on the client’s motorbike moving. The client explained that inside was a small orangutan whom he intended to dump in the forest. The compassionate gas station owner managed to convince his customer that the orangutan baby was doomed to die alone in the forest, and that it would be better to leave the animal to him. Knowing that it is illegal to keep orangutans as pets, the gas station owner handed the baby over to the local police. Lacking a cage, the police put the baby in a free cell next to several incarcerated humans until staff of the Indonesian Wildlife Authority BKSDA and the FOUR PAWS team came to pick Damai up.
“In times of COVID-19 this rescue is no small feat”, says Dr Signe Preuschoft, head primatologist at the global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS. “We made it clear that during intake and the re-homing of the orphan we all needed to stick to strict health precautions. When our team arrived, the little orangutan was terrified and tried to bite and escape. A superficial health check showed no obvious health problems – in particular, no symptoms of flu and no injuries. The orphan drank milk greedily from a bottle, and this familiarity suggests that he had been under human control for a while.“
When the rescue team arrived at the forest school’s quarantine station, the baby quickly settled himself into a suspended basket furnished with leaves like an orangutan night nest that had been prepared for him. The next morning he already appeared brighter: Damai had boiled sweet potatoes, drank more milk, isotonic water and received a full body check. “It is quite possible”, says Dr Preuschoft, “that his illegal owners wanted to abandon him because they were scared they may contract COVID-19 from him. We know that people are now concerned that animals make them sick, especially wild animals. We had to soothe fears in the local community and explain that in our forest school it is the orangutans who are at risk to get infected by humans, not vice versa.”
Damai needs to undergo a series of health tests and at least 60 days in quarantine before he can be allowed to socialise with the other orangutans at the forest school. It is likely that the psychological scars will take time to heal. The little orphan escaped by a hair’s breadth, he may have ended up, as many others of his kind do, in a Thai boxing show, as a photo prop for tourists or as a pet in a wealthy family before being incarcerated for a lifetime due to his indomitable nature.
At the forest school he will be immersed in an environment that is natural for orangutans. He will attend school at least until the age of six-seven years when he would be weaned if he were raised by his own mother. During this time he will be able to acquire the skills needed for a successful life once he has returned to freedom.
FOUR PAWS and the orangutan project
FOUR PAWS has been working to rehabilitate traumatised orangutan orphans for later reintroduction into natural habitat in Borneo for over a decade. Following a re-organisation of local activities, the FOUR PAWS-funded FOREST SCHOOL is a cooperation project between FOUR PAWS, its local partner Jejak Pulang, and the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry.