Daily trips into the rehabilitation forest are a gentle introduction to the wild for the young orphaned orangutans being raised at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ), established by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas in 1998. The youngsters initially play on a human-made jungle gym in the forest but soon wander into the area of thick but relatively short trees directly around it, constantly within sight of the caregivers on whom they still depend.
But there are a few orangutans who stray from this norm, and their leader is a fearless girl named Silver.
Within seconds of arriving at the jungle gym, Silver races away for the densest bits of forest and the tallest trees, where she can spend hours exploring. I am always struck by the confidence shown by Silver as she embarks on these journeys. She knows this forest, and moves with such deliberation that you might think she spends her mornings planning where to go that day. After a short stop at a popular mud pit to get a little (or a lot) dirty and wrestle with some of the other orangutans, Silver starts her upward expedition. This girl can climb, and she does not let her talents go to waste!
It is really a marvel to watch Silver in the trees. She bravely flies from vine to vine, shimmies upside down along the thick vines connecting trees, and dangles from the thinnest branches if it helps her get to a particular fruit or bunch of leaves she covets. One of her favorite maneuvers is to climb to the tops of small, dead, dried-out trees that have lost all their branches. She then starts rocking back and forth until the whole tree is swaying in great sweeps from side to side. Her caregivers hold their breath as she does this, fearing that the tree might crack! But Silver always gets enough momentum to latch onto another tree before catastrophe strikes.
Silver is always looking for food. Even while she is being carried to and from “forest school,” she constantly reaches out at passing trees for small tidbits. She displays smarts beyond her age in her ability to find food, and is interested in eating absolutely everything! I have seen Silver enthusiastically munching on every kind of leaf and fruit, mud, and even bits of waterlogged wood! But, true to her age, Silver is most fond of the milk that her caregivers bring her several times every day.
When I follow Silver into the forest, every now and then she looks up into my eyes and softly squeezes my hand. Maybe she is looking for reassurance, but I like to think she is actually reassuring me, and inviting me to accompany her on her journey. Silver displays this same sort of gentle leadership amongst her orangutan friends. She is the example that many of them follow in summoning the courage to venture further into the forest, and she is always patiently accepting of followers. When she wrestles with others, she is never too rough. Indeed, Silver has both the personality and skills to make her an excellent mother far in the future, when she is grown and wild once again.
As I look up from the forest floor at the faraway hint of orange that I know to be Silver, everything seems so peaceful compared to the chaos of the jungle gym where most of Silver’s friends are engaged in raucous play. My ears are filled with the heavy drone of cicadas, the distant songs of birds, and the soft crash of leaves as Silver moves through the branches above me. When forest school is over and I finally convince Silver to come down from the trees (which takes a very long time), she sits in my arms with her eyes still looking toward the forest canopy. The expression on her face is so serene and content – a result of the hours of bliss spent up above. You can tell by looking into her wise eyes that Silver has been through a lot for one so young, but that she still has the drive to grow and explore. In these moments I smile, dreaming of the day years from now when Silver will be released to the wild. I don’t believe she’ll need any convincing. This girl is the definition of a free spirit; she won’t even look back.
With your support, we can keep Silver happy and healthy – and protect the forest that will one day be her home – until that day comes!