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10 orangutans released into the wild in Borneo

A family of Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) in Tanjung Puting National Park, Borneo. The mother was rescued from a palm oil development and re-released as a juvenile here, but unable to survive in the wild because she lacked the careful upbringing required to find food throughout the year. Photo by Matthew Luskin / NGS.

A family of Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) in Tanjung Puting National Park, Borneo. The mother was rescued from a palm oil development and re-released as a juvenile here, but unable to survive in the wild because she lacked the careful upbringing required to find food throughout the year. Photo by Matthew Luskin / NGS.

  • The orangutans were freed in Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, which forms part of the Heart of Borneo conservation project.
  • It was the first time orangutans were released in the national park. Conservationists hope to eventually free 300 captive orangutans there.
  • A 2007 government action plan called for all captive orangutans to be released by now, but more than 1,500 still live in rehabilitation centers across Sumatra and Kalimantan.
  • Rapid loss of the creatures’ forest habitats is one reason why it’s hard to find release sites for the animals.

The effort to rescue and rehabilitate Indonesia’s captive orangutans received a boost last week when 10 of the primates were released in a national park in Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo island.

The six females and four males, including three mother-infant pairs, were the first contingent of Bornean orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) to be freed in Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park, a spectacular hotbed of biodiversity which conservationists hope can serve as a release site for hundreds more. 

At present, suitable locations are scarce, and the country’s rescue centers are well above capacity. The central government’s 2007 orangutan conservation plan called for all of the captive primates to be reintroduced into the wild by 2015. But an estimated 1,500 still remain in rehabilitation centers across Kalimantan and Indonesia’s main western island of Sumatra. Both the Bornean and Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) have been declared as “critically endangered” by the IUCN.

The 10 orangutans had lived at the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Reintroduction Center in Central Kalimantan province. Since 2012, the center’s management has released 167 orangutans in the nearby Batikap Forest Preserve. But Batikap’s carrying capacity is only 200 individuals. Meanwhile the center is home to almost 500 orangutans.

That’s why the Bornean Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF), which runs the Nyaru Menteng center, has been working with the government to find a new location for reintroduction. They needed a place that was under 900 meters above sea level, filled with abundant food plants, not already crowded with orangutans and not in danger of being destroyed by humans. From 2000 to 2012, Indonesia lost 6 million hectares of primary forest, an area nearly as large as Sri Lanka or West Virginia. The rapid expansion of oil palm and timber plantations to feed global markets has been the main driver of deforestation.

Authorities and conservationists hope 300 orangutans can eventually be released in the national park.

“Their habitat was drastically diminishing due to land-use change and humans irresponsible actions of capturing, domesticating or conflicting with this species,” said Tachrir Fathoni, the Environment and Forestry Ministry’s director of ecosystem conservation.

“We need to put deeper attention towards forests in particular, and environment in general. We owe a well-preserved environment and forests to future generations,” added Fathoni, who traveled to Central Kalimantan for the creatures’ release.

These 10 orangutans were released into the wild in Borneo last week. Image courtesy of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

Only 54,000 Bornean orangutans are thought to remain. The Sumatran orangutan is faring worse, with only 16,400 believed to still exist. Habitat loss and poaching — the creatures are a popular pet in some areas — are the main reasons for their decline.

Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park forms part of the Heart of Borneo conservation project. The park is home to a number of rare animals, such as the clouded leopards (Neofelis nebulosa), sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) and slow lorises (Nycticebus).

An orangutan is carried up a hill in a crate attached to a long pole. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation
One of the orangutans is released into the forest. Photo courtesy of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation

Ahmad Yantenglie, the head of Katingan district, where part of the park is located, said he was “very proud to have this opportunity to support the conservation of such unique and unmatched habitat and biodiversity.”

“Orangutan release into our district is an extraordinary achievement in preserving the nature of Katingan,” he added. “It is our honor to help sustain the effort.”