Born to be Wild 3d is an amazingly cute IMAX film about how two exceptional people (with the help of their teams) rescue orphaned baby elephants and orangutans and raise them. They help the animals overcome their loss and prepare them to one day be re-released into the wild. Today’s blog post is about Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, and the orphaned orangutans she raises at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine in Borneo.
Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ)
Orangutan means person of the forest in the Malay language. “They are one of our closet living relatives in the animal kingdom,” Dr. Galdikas states. “They share 97% of our genetic material, are benign beings and very intelligent.” They live exclusively in the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and are the only great ape living in Asia.
The OCCQ employs over 130 local staff who care for over 300 orangutan orphans, with the intention that all will ultimately be released into the wild. The facilities include an operating and X-ray room, medical laboratory, library, living quarters, as well as a separate quarantine complex.
The orphan orangutans living at the OCCQ are separated into age groups. The youngest ones are infants who live in the center’s nursery. These orphans require constant attention and coddling. A baby orangutan will physically not leave its mother’s body for the first year of life. So the human caretakers are tasked with caring for infants even more demanding than human babies.
In the wild, orangutans will naturally leave their mothers around eight years old, so that is the typical age when OFI’s orangutans are released back into the jungle. At a younger age, they’re still immature and small enough to become prey to clouded leopards. But once they’re older, as their natural instincts kick in, additional time spent under human care can impede their ability to thrive in the wild.
The relationship between the caretakers and the orangutans is significant. The young ones are so fragile during their formative years that the humans who commit to caring for them become, in fact, surrogate mothers. “If you put a baby orangutan on the ground it will not stop screaming,” Dr. Galdikas details. “They are literally pulled off their dead mother’s body when they are captured. They know no other place than in her arms or on her back.”
In a peat swamp forest near the OCCQ the orangutan orphans enjoy a kind of supervised release, learning invaluable nest-building skills as well as foraging techniques. Small wooden facilities allow the orangutans and their caregivers to sleep in the forest at night. The halfway house this forest represents to the orphans is of dire importance in their journey back to surviving in the wild. When the orangutans reach the age of eight years, they are usually ready to be released into the wild.
Several scenes in the film Born to be Wild were shot at the OCCQ and in the surrounding jungle, including interaction with Tom, the dominant male orangutan now living in the area outside the camp. Tom is a totally wild orangutan, but Dr. Galdikas has known him ever since he was born. Thirty-five years ago, she helped raise his mother, Tut, who was one of the original rehabilitated orangutans released at OCCQ in the 1970s.
“We spent a lot of time with the larger orangutans that have been rehabilitated by Biruté,” comments Drew Fellman, producer of the film. “They might be 30 years old, having lived wild now for over 20 years, but they’ll come back to Camp Leakey to visit. They might just come up and sit down next to you, or as you hike through the forest, one will take your hand and walk with you awhile. Many of those that Biruté raised now have offspring who are completely wild, and don’t interact with humans at all, which is a great thing. That’s the whole point of her project. Sometimes the first generation that returns to the wild is transitional and still leans on humans for support, but success is about the future generations.”
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