by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas
The translocation of a wild orangutan is a complex undertaking and requires a specialist Orangutan Rescue Team led by the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) manager Pak Tumin backed up by one of the three veterinarians who work at the OCCQ. Most of the following photographs in this article have been taken by Pak Tumin with his small, digital pocket camera during rescue operations over the past few years. Since it is often difficult to obtain photos during rescue operations, I have combined photos from two rescue - translocations to illustrate the process as much as possible.
Bornean orangutans live in a feast or famine environment, eating ripe fruit when available and subsisting primarily on bark, vines, and young leaves when there are few fruits in the forest. When the forest is gone, orangutans are often in deep trouble.
The flanged adult male in Photo 1 is not doing too badly. His ribs are not visible and he has a fine coat of red hair which is just beginning to look a bit shaggy. However, he has started foraging in people's gardens and is eating the inner hearts of young oil palms which means he is regarded as an agricultural pest by palm oil workers. Orangutans are frequently killed in this situation. It is also difficult for orangutans to subsist and survive on this kind of diet.
Photo 2 represents another wild orangutan, a subadult male, in need of rescue and translocation. As palm oil plantations decimate the forests of Borneo, wild orangutans have "nowhere to run, nowhere to hide."
With palm oil plantations demolishing the virgin rainforests of Borneo, wild orangutans find they have nowhere to go. This sub adult male orangutan is perched in the top branches of a tree devoid of leaves or life. There are no other trees surrounding him and it is a stark and bleak contrast to the canopy of the lush forest where wild orangutans normally live.
The location of wild orangutan rescues is never predictable. Sometimes the OFI rescue team needs to travel deep into swamp or into difficult, degraded shrub habitat in order to locate the wild orangutan in need of rescue. Rescues often happen on fringes of forest fragments where the remaining rainforest stops and cleared land begins.
However, most rescues occur in palm oil plantations where orangutans are desperately searching for food. The most difficult part of a rescue operation often consists of simply locating the wild orangutan. Orangutans may quickly flee when they are first sighted by plantation workers or local people, long before the Rescue Team arrives.
Upon arriving at the rescue location, the rescue team first has to dart and sedate the wild orangutan in order to relocate him or her. One of OFI's Rescue Team members, a traditional Dayak blow pipe expert, has to get within range of the wild orangutan in order to safely dart him or her. Photo 3 depicts one such expert, Pak Ateng. Depending on the size of the orangutan, Pak Ateng sometimes has to dart the orangutan multiple times to ensure that there is enough sedative to keep the rescue staff and orangutan safe during medical checks and the relocation process. But it is also crucial not to overdose the orangutan.
The Dayak people are expert tree climbers and have a seemingly innate ability to move through the forest. The blow dart is a part of their traditional Dayak culture. Pak Ateng remarked, "When I was seven years old I began to learn about blow darting with my father. I would follow and watch my father using his blow pipe in the forest, hunting for pigeons, parrots, hornbills and woodpeckers not only for food but also for traditional medicine and rituals."
With an ability to climb trees with ease and skillfully using blow pipes with amazing accuracy OFI Dayak Rescue Team members are able to make the most of near impossible rescue situations. Even when the orangutan in need of rescue is positioned high up in the forest canopy, Pak Ateng is able to climb a tree and safely dart the orangutan.
Once sedated, the orangutan begins to feel sleepy. Sometimes the orangutan partially climbs down the tree himself or herself. However, usually the orangutan stays high up in the canopy. In this case, the Rescue Team has a tarp ready to safely catch the orangutan when he or she falls to the ground. Occasionally even when sedated, the orangutan's fingers clutch a tree so strongly that he (always a male in this case) will not fall down. In this situation a member of the Rescue Team will climb up and release the fingers to enable the orangutan to fall down into the carefully positioned tarp below.