Out of the 300+ orangutans who reside at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) in Kalimantan Tengah (Central Indonesian Borneo), Caroline doesn’t stand out in the crowd. She’s small for her age, rather sparsely haired, and – to put it bluntly – a bit scrawny. But what she lacks in physical beauty and brawn, she more than makes up for with unrestrained spunk, boundless enthusiasm, and charisma! She is a true beauty in every sense of the word, except perhaps the strictly physical.
Every other day at the OCCQ the older females get released into the forest. Caroline is a part of that large group. As the staff approaches the enclosure she shares with two other females, Caroline does somersaults and spins around on her back like a break dancer in anticipation of the day release. She’s always the first one out the door and launches herself into the arms of whoever is taking her out for the day. Heading into the forest along the boardwalks, most of the other orangutans walk beside their caregivers but Caroline always prefers to be carried as she likes to gaze up into the trees and into the sky. I sometimes think that perhaps she’s planning the strategy for her day in the forest!
Once an appropriate spot for release is reached, the orangutans are sent off into the forest to play, forage, and climb. Many times the staff brings fruit such as pineapples or coconuts for the orangutan mid-day snack in the forest. If this is the case, Caroline is usually the first in line! She grasps the fruit in her hands – easily hanging onto a large piece with her long fingers – and heads for the nearest tree, nimbly ascending to a high, stable perch where she can eat in peace. If she doesn’t happen to get any fruit, she has no qualms about approaching other orangutans and relieving them of their share. It is always interesting to watch her boldly approach females twice her size and snatch the desired fruit treat right out of their hands. Many times she will then brazenly sit right next to them, relishing the juicy fruit and suffering no apparent negative consequences for her thievery! Caroline is probably smart and perceptive enough to judge who, among her long-term orangutan friends and acquaintances, she can take fruit from and from whom she can’t.
Caroline is also an excellent forager in the wild. Because of her small size, she is able to utilize sections of the forest that larger, heavier orangutans can’t or don’t utilize. It is not at all unusual for her to separate from the rest of the group and head off in a completely different direction. If she has a specific destination in mind, she quickly propels herself through the forest to that location. As a volunteer who frequently takes her out on release, I can attest to the fact that this little lady can move! Because she is slender, lighter foliage – such as tree saplings, bushes, bamboo, and even some thick tree ferns – can support her weight. So while I battle my way through dense patches of nose-high ferns and weave my way in and around bamboo stands, Caroline’s lithe form effortlessly skims along the tops of these barriers (to humans!) and leaves me behind in the dust, figuratively speaking as it’s actually swamp.
Eventually, however, we are reunited. By listening for leaves rustling above me or seeing discarded fruit falling to the forest floor, it is relatively easy to hone in on her position. Then, peering up through the branches, I spot her comfortably reclined on a tree branch enjoying some of her favorite forest fruits or tender young leaves. Sometimes she appears just to be relaxing and living in the moment – gazing at everything around her, absorbing the warmth of the sunshine filtering through the forest canopy, and feeling the breeze stirring the treetops.
After a few hours in the forest, however, it’s time to head home. Caroline doesn’t always agree with what, I’m sure, she perceives as a unilateral decision so having a special treat in my backpack helps sway her not to stay in the forest much longer. Once lured down to the ground, she happily climbs onto my back for the free ride home. (It has been a busy and exhausting day in the forest after all!) And back in the enclosure with her friends, she is more than happy to chill out, eat some jackfruit, and make a little nest out of the tree branches that are daily given to her as nesting material.
Caroline’s independent nature and excellent foraging skills bode well for her eventual release. This ability to forage is one of the critical components in determining when an orangutan is ready for permanent release into the wild. However, it’s necessary to recognize that life in the forest can sometimes be “feast or famine” so it is important that orangutans have a good fat layer on their bodies before release. During seasonal periods of low food availability, this fat layer helps ensure orangutan survival.
By giving Caroline plenty of time in the forest to forage and by supplementing her diet with high-calorie foods while at the OCCQ, we hope that she will eventually gain enough weight to allow return to the wild.
Spending long hours in the forest with her every week and observing her behavior, I know Caroline will be happy and successful living as a wild orangutan permanently in the forest. Maybe, when she stares off into the trees, this is exactly what she’s contemplating, too!