How to Be an Orangutan

Article excerpt

Biologists in Southeast Asia are attempting to school captive apes in the fine art of life in the wild

One of the world's oddest schools sits not far off the main road in eastern Borneo, roughly 30 kilometers (19 mi.) inland from the coastal oil fields north of Balikpapan, carved out of a hectare and a half (3.7 acres) of swampy rain forest. At first glance, the Wanariset forestry research station might be mistaken for a prison, with security guards on watch towers keeping a vigilant eye. There are cages, too--a total of nine scattered around the compound, some of them 50 meters (160 ft.) high, most divided into various-sized compartments--and all brimming with young orangutans.

The 200-plus red apes at Wanariset are victims of a poaching problem that persists throughout Borneo and Sumatra, their only remaining natural habitat. In the shrinking rain forest, orangutans are easy prey for smugglers and native Dayaks, who fancy them both as pets and as fresh meat. The lucky ones are confiscated by government officials and taken to a rehabilitation center such as Wanariset, where scientists and veterinarians face the difficult task of preparing the animals for return to the wild.

The rudiments of the Wanariset curriculum are obvious in the cages, where wheels and bars and swings build locomotory skills, or at the edge of the forest, where small groups of orangutans are taken daily for tree-climbing practice. Sometimes, staff members sit with the groups and show them how to peel and eat various fruits, a lesson the imitative apes learn quickly.

Inside the lab building and attached quarantine facilities, the costs of human contact and the complexities of rehabilitation come into sharper focus. Orangutans that test positive for communicable diseases such as tuberculosis or hepatitis are confined to solitary cages and allowed no more than eye contact with other animals until successfully treated.

For Wanariset graduates, even the best medical attention and survival training is no guarantee of success. Competition for dwindling resources in the jungle is intense, and orangutans face continuing human predation. Still, Wanariset is state-of-the-art, the culmination of a 30-year effort by a succession of primatologists, veterinarians and government officials throughout Southeast Asia to use rehabilitation as a means of saving orangutans from extinction.

Whether their endeavors have helped, hurt or failed to have any impact on the plight of the red ape is still an open question--and the subject of considerable controversy within the scientific community. "It would be wonderful if you could take captive orangutans, rehabilitate them, put them back in the wild, and everybody lived happily ever after," says Norm Rosen, an anthropologist at the University of Southern California. "But scientifically, we've found that it's not that simple."

Nothing about the reclusive red ape is simple. The laws of Indonesia and Malaysia, the two nations that encompass the animal's range, offer extensive protection to the apes, at least on paper. In reality, local attitudes, the ruggedness of the terrain and a lack of manpower make law enforcement difficult. Prior to a recent customs crackdown, Indonesia served in effect as a pet store to the entire region, supplying more orangutans to the illegal pet trade than are housed in zoos worldwide (currently about 1,000).

Orangutans live in the forests of Sumatra, which is part of Indonesia, and of Borneo, which is divided among Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. Virtually nothing was known of orangutan behavior and life cycles as recently as 1971, when Canadian biologist Birut Galdikas arrived in Borneo to study the red ape. Galdikas and other pioneers have done heroic work since, though an enormous amount remains unknown--particularly in regard to rehabilitation.

Orangutans live mostly in treetops 6 to 30 meters (20 to 100 ft.) above the forest floor. …