We are so thrilled to share this story of orphaned orangutan Lear, one of the 13 orangutan recently released from the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine. Lear has been a beloved member of our OFI Canada foster program with many Canadians following along on his journey over the past 10 years.
Having passed his final health checks on the morning of his planned release, Lear was transferred from his sleeping enclosure at OFI’s Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) to a transport cage. Traveling by truck to the nearby port city Kumai, just across the wide Kumai River from the National Park, Lear’s transport cage was transferred to a boat for the long trip to his planned release site.
The team accompanying Lear consisted of an OFI veterinarian who monitored Lear’s health every step of the way, the two OFI rangers who were set to follow Lear for 10 days after his release, other members of OFI’s orangutan care and management team, officials from Indonesia’s Forestry Department, and National Park officials. Requiring multiple boats, the team set out across the Kumai River headed for the release site. This journey to a very remote, hard-to-reach area of the National Park actually requires traveling by sea for a stretch of time. Lear remained calm throughout the trip, taking it all in stride. Once Lear and the release team reached the river that would lead them to Lear’s new forest home, the journey became much more tranquil.
We knew ahead of time that one of the factors that might complicate or postpone Lear’s release was if another adult male orangutan was detected near the feeding platform where we planned to release Lear. When the moment finally came that Lear and the release team arrived by boat next to the stilted feeding platform, there were two orangutans waiting there.
On one side was Krikil, a wild adult male. On the other side was Rosemary, a previously released wild born ex-captive adult female. Had we attempted to release Lear at this feeding platform, Krikil would have most likely attacked him. Rosemary probably wouldn’t have let Lear get far either, but her attentions would have been sexual rather than hostile. As a mature female orangutan, there’s not much better than a handsome, young, cheek-padded adult male just showing up at your “doorstep”! While Lear might have welcomed Rosemary’s advances, a run-in between Krikil and Lear would have been dangerous for everyone. We could not release Lear at the originally planned location. Luckily, our release team had a backup plan. Significantly further upriver, in an even more remote location than the originally planned release site, there is another feeding platform managed by OFI. When the team arrived there with Lear, there was no indication of other orangutans nearby.
The team set fruits and vegetables out on the feeding platform and several men carried Lear’s transport cage from the boat up to the top of the platform. They tied a rope to the door handle at the top of Lear’s transport cage and headed back toward the boats with the other end of the rope.Once all the humans were a good distance from the feeding platform and everything was ready to go, the team pulled the rope to slide the door off the transport cage.
Without hesitation, Lear deftly hopped out of his transport cage. Some adult male orangutans are a bit agitated after being released and even sometimes aggressive towards the humans present. But Lear was very calm. He walked around the feeding platform, ignoring the fruits and vegetables set out for him and instead looking all around at his surroundings. He seemed curious more than anything else. After a few minutes, he pushed his transport cage off the feeding platform and it fell to the forest floor a few meters below. Lear climbed down to join it. He spent some time pushing the cage around, almost playing with it, and even climbing back inside the cage for a few moments. It was almost as if he was giving the cage one last examination to help him process the journey he had just been through.
When he was done investigating his transport cage, Lear ventured a short way into the forest and climbed into some low branches. He spent several minutes staring at the humans who had brought him here. He didn’t vocalize, shake branches, or otherwise show any hostility like many other adult male orangutans do. We wish we could know what Lear was thinking as he gazed upon the release team. On the precipice of leaving the human world behind and returning to his birthright as an adult male orangutan spending the majority of his time alone in the great forest, Lear seemed to be absorbing it all with the mindfulness of a buddha.
Lear climbed deeper into the vegetation, looked back at the humans one more time, and finally started to disappear into the trees. The two OFI rangers assigned to follow him for at least ten days made off after him. The rest of the team departed. At this time, we have not heard from the rangers following Lear. Their location is too remote to allow for communicating with our other staff. It is a good sign that we have not heard from them, as it means they are still with Lear, and nothing has gone terribly wrong that would force their early return. OFI staff who live and work downriver from Lear’s release site will deliver fruits and vegetables to the feeding platform he was released at every few days, in case Lear returns in search of sustenance. The area in which we released Lear is difficult terrain for someone walking on the forest floor. In the wet season, you would be up to your armpits in acidic water. In the dry season, you would have to stumble across protruding roots, mud you can lose your boots in, and spiny vegetation. While this makes things harder on the rangers currently monitoring Lear, it also helps keep out illegal poachers, loggers, or other people seeking to do harm. The threat of humans attacking orangutans in the area where Lear was released is unlikely both because of its remote, challenging location, but also because OFI and National Park rangers have established vigilant patrols over the decades that deter illegal intrusions into the area. There is still a possibility that Lear will shirk the rangers following him and travel far away to forge his own path. If he does this, he may return several months later to the areas where OFI works. Or we may never see him again. But as long as he is within our reach, we will always keep a loving eye on Lear. We will offer him food whenever we see him. If he ever appears to be sick or injured, we will give him medical attention. There are many dangers to a wild life, especially for adult male orangutans, but there are so many joys and experiences and choices as well. We will give Lear the space to live the wild life he deserves, but we will always be here if he needs our help. He will never be totally on his own if he doesn’t want to be. We have watched Lear transform from a tiny, orphaned infant to a rambunctious, mischievous juvenile, and now to a regal adult male making his way in the wilds of Borneo. Lear will spend his days foraging for food, traveling, resting, and announcing his presence to the forest with his magnificent long call. He will encounter other orangutans and witness the activities of gibbons, monkeys, wild pigs, and so much other wildlife along the way. He will likely pursue consortships with female orangutans and will eventually have descendants of his own all across the forest.
We wish we could tell Lear about the foster parents who have followed his story and cared for his well-being these many years. Lear’s mother was taken from him when he needed her most, but support in part from his Canadian Foster parents has enabled us to give Lear the nurturing he needed to become who he is today. It takes a village of humans to do the job of one orangutan mother. We are so grateful to those of you who chose to be a “citizen” in Lear’s “village.”
Now that Lear has been released, we will be retiring him from our foster program. If you would like to contribute to the rehabilitation process of another orphaned orangutan living at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ), you can read about the five other individuals in our foster program on our Foster page HERE.