OCCQ OOTM Orangutan of the Month

The sun shines fiercely as I stand in the forest, head craned towards the treetops. Moments before I had an orangutan in my sights but now she has seemingly disappeared. I know she has gone in the direction where I am looking, but I seem to have lost track of her. High in the canopy, all the leaves appear to merge into one mass of green. Suddenly there is a slight movement of leaves. Could it just be the wind? Then, a flash of orange appears in the sunlight, brief but distinguishable against the forest green: an orangutan. Orangutans are so well camouflaged that in a moment they can disappear in the forest without ever actually going anywhere. An orange body emerges from the treetops and Anna swings down, graceful and deliberate in her movements. Stopping to hang from a branch and stare around with her large, inquisitive eyes, she surveys her forest domain. Right now I am standing in Orangutan Foundation International’s (OFI) Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) forest in Kalimantan (Indonesia Borneo), following the daily forest release of some of the juvenile orangutan female orphans with their local caregivers. I have been tracking Anna to profile her as “Orangutan Of The Month”. I am very glad that I have been able to relocate her in the treetops to once again observe her forest movements.

It was Anna’s strikingly beautiful eyes that initially caught my attention. With so many orangutans at the OCCQ it can be hard to find a favorite. All the orangutans are beautiful in their own way, but Anna has something about her. With big brown eyes, surrounded by soft white circles on her face, she stands apart from the crowd. The lower edges of her eyes are rimmed in black, almost as if she is wearing eyeliner. Her face is much rounder than her friends Morrison, Sinta, and Nicole, with whom she shares a sleeping enclosure and forest release time. With lush orange hair that turns to a darker red on her head, Anna is undeniably striking and beautiful. Physically larger than her three friends, she might be queen of the group, but she is by no means a bully. For instance, Anna always shares her food with her friends. If she had to choose a best friend, it would undoubtedly be Morrison, as they always curl up together in their sleeping enclosure. Even in the forest during daily release Anna will investigate nests that Morrison has made. I have even watched Anna try to hop into the same nest with Morrison. Unfortunately, as these two have grown much bigger since they first began exploring the forest together, there wasn’t room for them both!

Anna first arrived at the OCCQ as a one year old infant. Like many orangutans who arrive soon after their mother’s death, she was initially scared and wary of humans. In time, she learned to feel comfortable with her caregivers. These days, Anna is an older juvenile and is no longer scared of new “friends”. This is fortunate for me, as over the last two months we have formed a close friendship. Whenever I pass by her sleeping enclosure Anna is always there waiting for me (unless she has been released for her day in the forest), ready for a game of hand slapping or a back rub. She will sidle up to the side of her sleeping enclosure presenting her back to be rubbed. She loves this so much that Anna will sometimes push her best friend Morrison out of the way to make sure that all of my attention goes to her, and her alone! However, more often than not both Anna and Morrison will greet me at the edge of their sleeping enclosure with their faces close together and an arm around each other. In this moment, they are the picture of best friends. Hands outstretched, I will spend time patting and shaking each of their hands. Anna never pulls my hand or arm like some of the other more assertive orangutans do. She is simply content just to pat hands gently and stare into my eyes.

Anna’s forest release activities change with the seasons. In the wet season she loves playing in the pools of water that form on the forest floor with each rain shower. Once the ground turns into a swamp, Anna becomes so intrigued with the puddles she finds that it becomes hard to coax her away. To Anna, it must seem like having access to her own forest spa! She relishes giving herself a mud bath and mud mask, becoming completely covered in mud. Yet during the dry season the rains stop and the intense heat of each day causes the water to evaporate from the forest. No longer able to bath in cool puddles of water, Anna now turns her attention skywards with one idea in mind: nest making. Anna becomes a tree top explorer, climbing high into the canopy picking leaves as she climbs looking for the ideal spot to make a nest. During her forest release time she prefers to climb and explore alone. After all she does share sleeping quarters with three other juvenile orangutans! That being said, Anna likes to stay up to date with any activities happening around her. She always seems to know what her friends Morrison and Nicole are up to and if she thinks there is a chance she is missing out on the action then she will make her way over to investigate. All three friends stay in close proximity to each other during their forest release time. Slowly and surely, they will eventually meet up in the same tree for a bit of ‘group shopping’ if you will, for the best and tastiest leaves they can find. Soon they wander off, going their separate ways but always staying in close proximity to each other the way that good friends seem to do.

Anna’s climbing movements are slow and she doesn’t crash through the forest like other orangutans. She forages for leaves as she goes, hanging from a branch with one arm as she thoughtfully chews on some tasty leaves. I love watching Anna when she is in the forest because she will often climb and then take a moment for reflection. Hanging from a branch with one arm, chewing leaves she is holding in the other hand, Anna thoughtfully observes her surroundings with those big brown eyes, simply taking it all in. As a juvenile, she is still learning how best to judge a branch to make sure it can take her weight. On more than one occasion, I have seen her caught unawares when a branch cracked under her weight. Not to worry, as Anna quickly changed tactics and made sure to find a new branch to hang onto. She is still growing and learning about the forest. Anna spends most of her forest release time either foraging or nest making. These two skills are essential for all orangutans at the OCCQ to master and refine during their daily forest release time. Anna’s fixation with these two activities means that she is mirroring natural orangutan behavior in the wild. This is an important step in her rehabilitation process towards her eventual release back into the wild.

Anna may stay close to her caregivers during her forest release time but once she has made a nest and started to rest she suddenly seems to acquire selective hearing. She will decide when it is time to go back to her sleeping enclosure and she is in no hurry to leave the comfortable nest she made that allows her to survey the forest below. Who can blame her for not wanting to leave? Although her stubbornness only lasts so long, as she knows there is a yummy lunch of fruit waiting for her back at her sleeping enclosure. When her favorite caregiver, Ibu Dididk, is below in the forest imploring her to climb down and hitch a ride on Ibu Dididk’s back, Anna gives in. Once safely on the ground, Anna immediately sets her mind to the next task at hand: devouring her lunch of papaya.

Graceful, beautiful and with a queen’s bearing, Anna has quickly made her mark on me. For my part, I cannot wait for the day when Anna is permanently released back into the wild, the home where she belongs. I can already imagine her graceful figure moving through the trees back in her ancestral home-ground. In this place, she can take all the time she needs to lay back in her nest, take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest with no need to be anywhere else.

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