Bring them back where they belong

Willie Smits, April 2018

Sitting here back in the office in Jakarta waiting for the upcoming wildlife coordination meeting I look at the wounds on my arm, oozing yellow liquid. Somehow, I managed during the release of another group of orangutans in the Betung Kerihun National Park to run into a seedling of the extremely poisonous Rengas tree. Just a single leaf briefly touched my arm but that is enough to cause weeks of itch and discomfort when the skin slowly dissolves until the last bit of poisonous oil disappears with the peeling skin. But the ugly sight of my wounded arm just makes me smile because it also brings back beautiful memories of seeing our orangutans confidently moving through the canopy of the virgin jungle after we opened the transport cages on Thursday April 19th, 2018. 

Originally when we built the first orangutan forest school in the village of Tembak, some 60 kilometres south of Sintang, it was with the goal of releasing the orangutans in our care in the forest of the Saran Mountain. This steep mountain is still covered in virgin jungle where once many orangutans roamed but now they have almost been hunted to extinction here. Together with the Masarang Foundation and the Sintang Orangutan Centre we set up various programs to help the tribes around the 1758-meter-high Saran Mountain to protect the forest while empowering the local people with jobs from sugar palms and the production of Illipe butter from jungle trees. But unfortunately, the oil palm companies employ lots of specially hired infiltrators, including anthropologists, that are successfully sowing discord amongst the tribes, which is why we are still losing parts of this valuable forest and it is therefore not yet safe to release orangutans there. We are now talking to the Bupati, the district head of the more than 10-million-acre area of Sintang, to protect the Saran Forest to secure the long term clean water supply of the city of Sintang. A meeting is to take place on July 6th2018 to discuss the protection with the local people of Tembak and other villages around the mountain. 


Sintang city is located at the convergence of the Melawi and Kapuas rivers, two of the world’s most polluted rivers because of illegal gold mining, oil palm plantations and deforestation. The city, a former Chinese trading outpost, is also itself directly surrounded by oil palms and gold mines, so has no secure source of drinking water anymore. Once the government effectively protects the Saran Forest for their clean water supply we will start releasing orangutans there. But for now we had to find another more secure area which we did find in the National Park of Betung Kerihun.


Dudung, our project manager, set up all the official agreements with the Ministry of Forestry and last week we could bring the second group of orangutans to the release site in the middle of prime orangutan habitat. The director general of Nature Conservation, my long-time friend Wiratno, who I have known for more than 20 years, came over himself to attend the official ceremony for the release that we combined with a workshop on what to do with unreleasable orangutans. Here are some pictures of the event at the Kobus longhouse in Sintang.


The orangutans to be released were first brought over very bad roads from the forest school in Tembak to the Sintang orangutan clinic where they spend two nights and were carefully observed by the medical staff. On Tuesday April 17th, Joy, Molly and Bembi, with a clear bill of health, were guided in their transport cages and another six-hour long journey, albeit over better roads than the road from Tembak to Sintang, was undertaken to the National Park office in Putusibau, where the orangutans spent another night, this time in the transport cages.


Then on Wednesday morning we loaded the cages on the boats to start our journey to the upper reaches of the Kapuas River, Indonesia’s longest, into the heart of Borneo. There were five boats and many forestry officials and scientists and some foreign guests, amongst which the Belgian television, joined us for the adventure. We passed by many sand banks and rapids that were skilfully dodged by the local boat operators. Finally, after the last human settlement of Nanga Hovat, a small Dayak village of just 46 families, we entered the completely undisturbed rainforest of the national park. No more patches of seconduary forest once used under traditional slash and burn agriculture. Just majestic trees hanging over the clear and fast flowing water, covered with ferns and orchids and giant pandan plants. The whiffs of jungle scents brought me back to my first forest adventures, almost 40 years ago, in East Kalimantan, on the other side of Borneo. And when the outboard motors of the boats stopped the now audible chorus of cicadas and birds completed the mental picture.


After more than 6 hours of travel upstream, avoiding sand banks and manoeuvring through many rapids, we arrived at the basecamp where the orangutans entered larger holding cages and where they could interact with each other again. Inside were already lots of leaves and food awaiting them that quickly helped them to forget the stressful transport in the boats. Joy, the oldest of the three, had been clasping herself almost the complete journey and showed the same stress behaviour that she showed when we just rescued her from that chain, whilst sitting on a garbage heap in the hot sun. Now, just like during that first encounter, she had been rocking again, bumping her back against the sides of the transport cage and sometimes raising her body up with her arms completely around her to fall backwards on the bottom of the cage. A terrible sight. But today in the big holding cage close to the basecamp amongst the jungle trees she was a completely different and very happy orangutan! 


I woke up during the middle of the night to check on the orangutans and to enjoy the beautiful green luminescence of fungi in some of the leaves on the forest floor, bringing back a handful of them to serve as nightlight in the dark room of our wooden base camp. Joy was the only one twisting and turning in her sleep while Molly and Bembi were fast asleep, possibly also remembering the sounds of the shrieking cicadas in the night as they knew it from before their faithful encounter with humans that killed their mothers.


The next morning the three Dayak ladies that had come over specially to prepare food for such a big group of people somehow magically managed to work in a 2x2 meter kitchen in what seemed to me unbearable heat and come up with lots of great food for everyone. Then one by one the boats departed to the release location another 45 minutes upriver and deeper in the jungle. Dudung had briefed everyone the night before and arranged everything.

The team of monitors that will follow the orangutans for the next three months were the first to depart. They will be underneath the tree where the orangutans build their nest for the night before sunrise and only leave to go back to their simple tents after sunset. All day laong they are recording all movements and actions of the released orangutans. Every 30 minutes the location coordinates of the three orangutans are recorded and every 20 minutes their activities are recorded on the field data sheets. A heavy job, especially with the frequent rains and steep terrain, but the local Dayaks are used to the jungle and they take turns after each week.

Another team heading into a boat upriver was the group of scientists led by Dr. Suci Utami, who monitored the release and helped follow the orangutans right after the release. A third group comprised our sponsors from Orangutan Rescue from The Netherlands and from Masarang International, also from The Netherlands. Finally, there was a crew from the Belgian television filming the release that joined me in the boat that transported Bembi. I think I only once before had such a big group joining on an orangutan release before, and that was in the Meratus forest when we also released a group of 30 orangutans, the biggest ever in one release I believe. So, for sure per orangutan these three ladies had more than their share of attention. But having their favourite care takers there with them as well made the stress much more bearable.


Going up the river with Bembi in the boat and it was delightful to see her looking up so happy to the trees passing by, as if she knew something good was about to happen. Johannes Freije, the private donor who had sponsored the release including the camp and boats, joined me and the Belgian television crew in the boat to the release area. Arriving at the mooring point for the boats, a small side river where the stream was a little less, a group of strong young Dayaks waited to jointly carry the cages up the 40 degree slope to the top of the ridge covered by majestic jungle trees towering up to 50 meters above us. The path was very slippery and when we had climbed some 200 meters in altitude it felt as if we had run a marathon.


Then finally the moment that we all had been looking forward to, the time to open the cages and let Bembi, Molly and Joy finally enjoy the forest and put their lessons during the time with us at the rehabilitation centre into practice. Sun beams coming down from high above and producing shifting patterns on the understory vegetation gave it all a magical feel. First to go was Molly. She did not rush out and up into the trees. She actually came towards the guests as if she wanted to chase them away! But then she quickly discovered some fruits and was busy eating. Bembi took her time looking around at the trees and going straight for some rattan fruits. Joy was the last one to have the door slide upwards and she climbed straight away 40 meters up in the canopy. And there she started calling! Joyful cries of excitement! It lasted more than 30 minutes! So beautiful, but then she also came down and started gathering all kinds of food from the forest breakfast.


Within one hour I recorded more than 15 different foods being eaten by the three ladies. Rattan fruits, young leaves, various other fruits, palm heart that they skilfully pulled out with great expertise. They also broke off pieces of termite nest and you could hear Bembi and Joy suck out the nest pieces for the juicy termites. Joy also came down very low to collect and eat some clay soil. Orangutans often eat soil when, so I believe, have an upset stomach or have been eating special kinds of leaves. Perhaps Joy needed to get over the boat ride? Although with all the tumbling and climbing and hanging in all kinds of positions as they do it is hard for me to imagine orangutans could be sea sick!


After several hours of observing them and watching our field staff doing the monitoring it was time to go back to camp. More than 500 orangutans I watched entering the trees like this before but still every time these moments fill me with that lovely magic feeling of peace. The hard work of facing off with angry “owners” confiscating these beautiful beings, nursing them to good health, teaching them forest survival skills, seeing them develop friendships with compatriots and then finally this moment, watching them with the sun in their long red hair up there in the trees and knowing they will be fine and that we enabled them a second chance on a life in freedom, pure joy!


Still, we must be realistic and realize that yes, these orangutans got their freedom back but at the same time there are still mother orangutans being killed and eaten and more orangutan babies taken to the human world. To stop that and do more than treating the symptoms we have to come up with long term solutions for local people that will help them and leave the forest home of orangutans intact. And this is what we do with the Masarang Foundation and Orangutan Rescue. Showing that the natural forest can provide more and truly sustainably than any of those “modern” high input based production systems. I truly believe that we are showing these values and provide hope for these long term solution.


Thank you for your support, allowing us to put in these efforts!


Willie Smits


Vast areas of illegal gold mining along the Kapuas River close to Sintang. The long rows of ten thousands of polluting machines on the river complete the devastation. All that is left after the extraction of the gold dust are these vast white sands, devoid of any nutrients, where nothing grows back.

Millions of hectares of oil palm plantations on the lowlands of Borneo that once were covered with tropical rain forests harbouring the world’s highest biodiversity. The huge inputs of artificial fertilizer needed and a wide range of pesticides and total loss of biodiversity as well as the vast environmental impact on rivers and people make it a farce to even speak about “sustainable palm oil”.

We can do  better!

This is Joy hugging herself during the transport to the national park. Fortunately this stress symptom disappeared completely directly after opening the cages and with Joy exploring her new and now permanent forest home. Beneath the forest police car that transported Joy

It was night when we finally reached the national park headquarters where the orangutans spent the night. On the right the Belgian TV crew filming Molly, just before bringing them to the boats for the next leg of the long journey to freedom.

This is where we boarded the boats to take us deep into the jungle. Quite a logistically complex problem with so many people joining us on this special occasion. 

Bembi is looking back at me as the boat engines start roaring. Soon the river banks are no longer occupied except for the sparse Dayak villages where children curiously watch the water convoy and wave at us.

After more than four hours the river starts getting less wide and we pass the last Dayak village named Nanga Hovat. Several of the staff that will monitor the orangutans and that built the facilities deep in the jungle are from this nearest village.

After more than four hours the river starts getting less wide and we pass the last Dayak village named Nanga Hovat. Several of the staff that will monitor the orangutans and that built the facilities deep in the jungle are from this nearest village.

Along the river we saw sugar palms, sagu palms and rattan palms as well as valuable illipe nut trees. So much economic potential for the local people if we can provide them with a fair price for the precious products the jungle provides and that can be truly sustainably harvested without impacting biodiversity and environmental protection.

Finally we reach our base camp. Bembi is getting excited when we slow down. Here is the official border of the Betung Kerihun National Park. But it is already late afternoon and the orangutans will spend their last night with humans here in the specially built night cages.

The orangutans are in their cages with lots of leaves and food and then it is time to feed the crowd that has joined us for the release. Not too long after everyone goes to sleep to be fresh for the final and big day of witnessing Bembi, Molly and Joy getting their freedom back.

Bembi and Joy cannot wait to get out after waking up underneath the forest canopy the next morning.

Bembi is totally excited looking up at the giant trees we are passing while heading to the release site. Johannes Freije cannot imagine what he got himself involved with when he decided to sponsor this release and enjoys every bit of the adventure joining me in the boat.

The last rapids are passed skilfully and we reach the mooring point from where some heavy climbing awaits us to the final release spot. The rain has made the extremely steep slope very treacherous, even for the skilled Dayak forest people. The poles that were prepared are fitted to the cages and we go up 200 meters in altitude until we reach the ridge with giant trees from where the orangutans will start their free life again. The earlier surveys have shown that there is lots of primate food available in this area and the observations on the first group (Juvi, Jojo and Cemong) already proved that convincingly.

Dudung our project manager and the vet doctor Vicktor are relieved and hot when they finally make it to the top. Moments later the cages are opened and first Molly, then Bembi and finally Joy move into the trees. Here is Molly telling the onlookers to get away, as if she knows this is now her forest!

Within minutes Bembi was eating all kinds of fruits and leaves. Joy on the right found some grubs and ate some clay, perhaps for an upset stomach. It was just so good to see them do so well instantly with not the slightest indication of any stress suffered on the long road to this well-protected jungle habitat.

Then it was time to leave the jungle to the orangutans and for the next few months our observers that will be on standby if any of them might still need help. None of them so far needed it! We left the hanging tree in front of the camp’s bathing place behind and with a feeling of gratitude and reward we headed back to the so-called “civilized world”. Until the next time we will bring them back where they belong!

®All rights reserved (Masarang Foundation Int., Orangutan Rescue Netherlands, Hugo Wortel), and Sintang Orang Utan Center.

Original text: