Orangutan Foundation International’s Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) recently has been receiving about one orphaned infant orangutan per month. Some months more, other months less, but one orangutan per month has been the average for the last few years. Each infant has his/her own story. But these stories are often strangely similar. We are told that an orangutan mother “dropped” her infant in front of a local person. We know these stories are most likely untrue. Orangutan mothers do not “drop” their infants. Orangutan mothers never leave their infants behind. Sometimes people will admit that the infant was sold or passed from one person to another. Very occasionally a rustic Dayak will admit to have actually killed the mother and taken the infant off her body.

Visiting Medical student helping care for Cempaka Baru during the early days of her arrival at the OCCQ
Visiting Medical student helping care for Cempaka Baru during the early days of her arrival at the OCCQ

In the aftermath of the fires this year, OFI has been receiving an unprecedented number of communications from local people about “troublesome” orangutans. Recently, our rescue team has been out several times a week. As orangutans are slowly returning to areas they remember as lush forest to find nothing there but charred remains, we suspect that their starving stomachs will continue to lead them to what food resources remain: local farms, gardens, and plantations. OFI responds to emergency calls and sends teams to rescue and translocate wild orangutans in the field as quickly as possible. At-risk orangutans are moved from inhabited areas to safer locations. Desperate orangutans, starving after their forest habitat has been destroyed, resort to foraging in people’s gardens or in the ever-spreading palm oil plantations that now cover much of the Bornean landscape. Healthy, wild adult orangutans are micro-chipped and immediately moved to a protected forest. The injured or weak, whether flanged adult males or mother and infant/juvenile pairs, are brought to the Care Center for a short period of treatment before their release.

It is rare to find an adult female alone, without an infant or juvenile. Such a rare case came to the Care Center this November. Her name was Cempaka Baru, named after the small village from which she was rescued. The village of Cempaka Baru is far from the Care Center on the opposite side of the National Park. OFI’s Care Center manager received a call late at night about a female orangutan that had been invading peoples’ gardens. The villagers were requesting her immediate evacuation. Since venturing off to a far-away village late at night can be dangerous, our manager sent a call out to the closest OFI facility to Cempaka Baru and asked staff there to go find the orangutan first thing in the morning, with the intention that the rescue team would meet field staff in the morning.

Early in the morning, the field staff sent word that the villagers had captured the female orangutan. The field staff found her tied to the beam of a person’s house, secured around her waist and throat. When OFI is told of orangutans in need of rescue, OFI staff always caution those reporting to keep the orangutan in sight but not to try to capture them. Orangutans are not aggressive except, of course, when frightened or when humans attempt to hold them against their will. Orangutans are strong. It often takes six male staff members to safely handle some juvenile orphans in our care. When OFI received word that the wild orangutan female had been captured by local people, we knew that it was unlikely to have been without a fight. The fear that the orangutan would have been injured during her capture gave the rescue team a sense of elevated concern and urgency as they set out.

Upon the rescue team’s arrival, it was clear that they had walked into a very dangerous situation. There were many local men with machetes crowded around and several of them were very agitated. Our manager immediately recognized that the usual course of polite discussions and diplomatic discourse was not going to work. The female orangutan had indeed been captured and tied to several pieces of wood. Our field staff informed us that the local village men had untied her just before the arrival of the rest of the rescue team. She was weak and simply lay on the ground giving out weak “kiss squeak” vocalizations typical of agitated wild orangutans. That call sadly was all she could muster. She was unable to even sit upright. After a quick conference with our rescue team, the veterinary team decided a swift return to the OCCQ was best for her. OFI’s rescue team was, as always, accompanied by a local forestry police officer. As he took the story of the local men, our team gently removed the orangutan from below the house where she had been lying and placed her into a transport cage which was carefully loaded into a truck for the journey to the OCCQ.

The story given about her capture was short. She had reportedly “fallen” from a nearby tree and the men had tied her up for their safety as she had been aggressive and angry. The local men then immediately asked to be reimbursed for the cost of the fruit and plants that she had eaten in their gardens. It was clear they did not really care about this orangutan or that it was clear to the OFI rescue team that their story was utterly unbelievable. Reimbursement for damage caused by a wild orangutan occasionally is considered but, in this case, it was not even thought about because the villagers had clearly harmed the wild orangutan.

Despite the decades of work put in by Dr. Galdikas and the entire OFI team, a few isolated rural areas still exist where people have little or no knowledge or respect of local wildlife. The historical inhabitants, the Dayak people of Borneo, have a deep understanding of their forest home. The people of Cempaka Baru are not Dayak. It was painfully clear to our rescue team that their story was fabricated. Our experienced field staff knew that the orangutan had been captured in the most brutal manner.

Our suspicions about this brutal handling were vindicated. The female orangutan, who was officially named Cempaka Baru for record-keeping purposes, was severely injured. Wounds were identified on both of her hands and her left arm was massively swollen and obviously broken. She had blood seeping from her left ear and the area around that ear was swollen and bruised. During the examination it became clear that Cempaka Baru was unable to move either of her legs. It was more than exhaustion that kept her from being able to sit up. A distended abdomen gave signs of blunt force trauma. Without getting too close to her still potentially dangerous mouth it was observed that her two canine and front upper and lower teeth had been filed down.

Cempaka Baru was immediately placed in intensive care at the OCCQ. Several staff stayed with her the entire night. It was uncertain if she would survive the night. Despite her injuries, she had an encouraging wild spark in her eye. Her fiery spirit was evident when she lashed out with her only good limb, her right arm, when staff attempted to reposition her.

X-Ray of Cempaka Baru's left arm clearly showing a severe fracture
X-Ray of Cempaka Baru’s left arm clearly showing a severe fracture

It was a great relief to the OCCQ staff when Cempaka Baru survived that first night. The next day, our medical team set about assessing her major injuries and diagnosing her medical state. The biggest worry was internal organ damage. During the next week, the OCCQ medical team did a series of X-ray scans and ultrasounds. Her left arm was indeed broken clean through, just above the elbow. The veterinarians found several pellets imbedded in her head and legs, most likely inflicted by air rifles. Local medical doctors confirmed the ultrasounds indicated internal abdominal injuries, which required surgery. Although our medical team has extensive experience with orangutans, they consult with local surgeons when internal injuries are suspected. The local surgeon advised that surgery could only be performed if Cempaka Baru’s liver function improved, and blood transfusions would be necessary to increase her chances of surviving surgery.

Cempaka Baru was put on an IV and was kept on a diet of blended juices made from local fruits. She slept on and off inside an examination room and was moved every day to an outside covered area where she would often gaze into the nearby trees. Cempaka Baru slowly came to accept that our OCCQ caregivers were there to help. She accepted food and drink more readily. She began to sit upright with the help of the caregivers who looked after her around the clock. Yet, the spark in her wild eyes shone bright and she used the considerable strength in her good arm to show her displeasure when she was startled or an unfamiliar caregiver got too close.

The following days of blood transfusions were demanding ones. Extra precautions were taken to ensure
Cempaka Baru didn’t pull at the tubing or IV line. All the effort began to pay off. Her hemoglobin levels rose to a point where surgery could be performed. The prospect of this surgery was exciting for the medical team as they knew that it would finally allow them to pinpoint Cempaka Baru’s exact injuries and repair what damage had been done.

It was just one day too late. She passed only a few minutes before the medical team planned to perform the surgery. That afternoon, the wild spark in Cempaka Baru’s eyes had begun to fade and her breathing was becoming laborious. It was clear that, despite her small improvements, the extent of her injuries had become too much for her body to bear. Later that evening, as the entire medical team was hurrying to make the final preparations for the surgery, she sadly gave up her last breath.

With heavy hearts, the OFI medical team performed surgery. It was not the life-saving operation that had been planned, but was instead a post-mortem. From the moment the team began the autopsy it was obvious that she had massive internal organ damage, much worse than had been suspected. The most compelling evidence was a twist in her lower intestines that could only have occurred if she was rolling and twisting to get away from being held or hit. Bruising on her organs and the internal walls of her stomach indicated trauma from being beaten. Cempaka Baru had fluid in her lungs as a result of blunt force trauma. It was not only clear that she been handled in a brutal way, but she had put up a fight. Cempaka Baru was captured only after she was beaten into submission.

Cempaka Baru being examined by doctor
Cempaka Baru being examined by doctor

Cempaka Baru was a typical wild orangutan. Many local people are afraid of wild orangutans like her. They do not realize, as she nears their homes, that she does so only her own home, the forest, has been obliterated. They do not realize she is searching for food, that she is desperate, and that she is afraid. They do not realize that she will fight for her life rather than be captured.

This unusually close encounter with a severely injured wild female orangutan hit close to home for us at Care Center. As OFI often receives traumatized and injured orphan infants we know deep down that their mothers would have died protecting them. Cempaka Baru gave us an intimate look at the spirit of a wild female orangutan. We know that each of the infants in our care had a mother like her, a mother that would have met a tragic fate similar to that of Cempaka Baru. The number of orangutan mothers who have died protecting their infants from cruel ignorant humans is unfathomable. We know that for each and every infant that Dr. Galdikas and OFI have cared for in the last forty years, there was a mother who perished. We know that for each and every infant at every care facility across Indonesia and Malaysia, there is a mother who was killed. We know that those we can count are only the beginning of the count, as there are many other infants who died along with their mothers.
This devastating fact must not discourage us. It must not discourage you. As Dr. Galdikas said through tears at the passing of Cempaka Baru: “We must redouble our efforts. We will find the funds for outreach in that area and the villages around it. We must work harder”.

With the continued support of our donors, we will indeed redouble our efforts. Just as we have come out of months of non-stop firefighting, our rescue team will be on-call 24/7. Planning for the inevitable 2016 fire season has already begun and a reforestation project has been launched. Outreach efforts to educate the inhabitants of remote villages, like Cempaka Baru, are being increased. OFI will not let Cempaka Baru’s death be in vain.

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