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Jungle School

Young rescued orangutans go through a stimulating and progressive series of lessons to learn the skills they will need to survive and thrive in the wild, skills their mothers, tragically, never got a chance to teach them.

Julius is one of the silliest orangutans we have helped through Jungle School. Similar to the class clown, he is full of character, bending and shaking tree branches to show off, testing the strength of each branch and hoping to catch the attention of the trainers. Like children, our orangutans each have their own personalities, learning styles and aptitude. Thus, the orangutan trainers must assess and monitor the mental and physical condition of each orangutan to create the best individual adaptation programme.

School starts early. When the first beams of sun pierce the dew on the canopy and fallen leaves, orangutan trainers set out to begin a day filled with a varied curriculum. The goal is to prepare the orangutans for the release into the wild.

Before setting out into the forest, all orangutans that arrive from the Batu Mbelin Quarantine Centre in North Sumatra spend at least one month at the Danau Alo Open Orangutan Sanctuary at Bukit Tigapuluh. Most transition from previous time spent kept illegally as pets, and thus must forget the sounds of bustling cities and become accustomed to birds chirping, rain falling and other noises of the rainforest. Likewise, their diets must adapt away from domesticated fruits to wild fruits. As their senses get used to the new environment, they learn the smells, sights and textures of their new home.

They must also develop immense trust with the trainers prior to being taken into the forest to build on additional skills. In the wild, orangutan mothers can be seen instructing their young how to find food, identify the most nutritious food, climb trees, hide from predators and engage in social interactions. These jungle survival skills were not passed on to most of the orangutans arriving at Bukit Tigapuluh. Several were traumatically separated from their mothers at a very young age. Orangutan youngsters spend years learning from their mothers, giving the trainers a considerable task to take on this teacher role.

While Julius climbs into the canopy on his own, the trainers work with each orangutan to build their confidence and comfort to set off alone. For some, this transition is only a matter of days, but for others it take years. When the forest trees begin bearing fruit each year, the trainers begin to see some of the orangutans taking preference in the rainforest over being in their cage. This is a positive beginning indicating that their release may not be far off. For the trainers, witnessing this transition is a magical moment that gives hope for the future of the orangutans.


Documentary: Life in the jungle school