The Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine(OCCQ) is surrounded by several camps that consist of sleeping enclosures for the orangutans and basic facilities for staff. Pondok Medang is one of these camps, located within OFI’s rehabilitation forest and currently home to 25 adolescent orangutans who are preparing for permanent release into the wild.
When you visit Pondok Medang, one orangutan who will certainly catch your eye is Vanessa. Vanessa has a very pretty face and beautiful, dark-orange hair, but what is unique about her is her hairstyle: her hair is parted in the middle, falling down on both sides, but close to her forehead, her hair stands straight up! Vanessa’s outer appearance reflects her smart and gentle personality. Her caregivers describe her as “tidak pernah nakal” – she’s never been “naughty,” and has never shown aggression towards human caregivers at the OCCQ. When the door of her enclosure is opened in the morning in time for forest school, Vanessa usually can’t wait to get out. If I am there to accompany her to the forest, she will sometimes immediately climb onto my back to be carried further out into the forest, or she will take my hand and pull me towards the boardwalk. It seems as if she is eager to show me her world in the forest! From Vanessa’s behavior, it is clear that she knows the forest is where she belongs. On days when she can’t go out, or when she does not want to wait anymore for the door of her enclosure to open, she will show her disapproval by smacking her tongue and by making noise with whatever she can find. However, her anger disappears immediately as soon as the door to the sleeping enclosure is opened and Vanessa is free to explore her forest home!
In contrast to some of her peers who like to start the day playing with each other, Vanessa usually heads off by herself. She is a skilled and experienced climber who can scale even tall trees quickly. Her first stop is often one of the larger trees close to the boardwalk. Once she is up there, she starts eating young leaves, and calmly observes the hustle and bustle down below on the forest floor. She often continues eating in the same tree for a long time, carefully moving from branch to branch, picking the tastiest leaves. But once she decides that she’s done eating in that particular tree, she moves very quickly deeper into the forest. Her movements are very determined. She knows exactly where she wants to go next.
She sometimes turns around briefly to check if her human friends are still keeping up with her fast pace, but she only really stops once she has reached her destination: a tree bearing fruit or tasty young leaves. Right now, one of her favorites are the leaves and berries of the pampiing tree: when she finishes eating in one pampiing tree, she often moves on to another tree of the same species. Studies on wild orangutans have shown that they develop precise mental maps of the locations of the many different fruit trees they feed on, and they often return to these trees exactly at the right time to harvest ripe fruit. Over the last couple of years, Vanessa seems to have mastered this skill and now knows the rehabilitation forest inside out!
While Vanessa always appears very busy during the early hours of the day, moving through the forest to feed on her favorite trees, she seems to relax after she has been out for a while. Although she spends most of her time up in canopy, she sometimes climbs down to interact with other orangutans or to drink water provided by the caregivers. If it is a hot day, she walks over to the swampy part of the forest and cools herself down by immersing her feet and hands in the water and sometimes by splashing water on her body. While other orangutans get fairly muddy in the process, not so Vanessa: she will select some fairly clean water for her “mandi” and in her ladylike manner ensure that her pretty hair stays clean when she is taking her bath!
If Vanessa is in the forest when it rains, she climbs high up into a tree to construct a day nest. To keep herself dry, she sometimes holds a large leaf above her head! Every day, the caregivers will search for termite nests, which can be found close to the roots of trees. They will poke the soil with a stick and based on the sound decide whether it is worth digging for the nest. If Vanessa sees her caregivers doing this, she is always happy to come down to the forest floor, eager to help uncover the nest. Once she has removed it from the soil, she breaks it open and sucks out the termites as well as sucking those that crawl on her hands. Vanessa is a smart orangutan who has learned to supplement what she receives during the feedings with what she can find in the forest. Although we strive to provide all orangutans with a balanced diet, it is impossible to even come close to the huge variety orangutans sample in the wild. Therefore, the time that the orangutans spend in the forest is not only the most important part of the rehabilitation process, but also gives them an opportunity to access nutrients they might otherwise lack. Vanessa’s healthy hair is indeed a testament to her well-developed foraging skills!
With her pretty face and gentle personality, Vanessa is certainly a favorite with the caregivers. She has made a lot of progress during her time at the Care Center and acquired the skills she will need to survive by herself in the wild. Hopefully, the time will soon come when Vanessa won’t have to return to her sleeping enclosure in the afternoons anymore, but live permanently in the forest of Borneo that she so loves.