The ‘outdoor’ nursery is the area where the four to seven year old OrangUtans live, play, and start venturing out into the forest on their own. Working there meant that our day started with filling a couple of baskets with bananas, papayas, oranges, watermelon, guava, carrots, green beans, sweet potato and sugar cane, and taking these down to where the OUs are housed overnight. When the smallest one is full of bananas it only weighs approximately 10 kg, but is really uncomfortable to carry as the shoulder straps really dig in, as does the bottom ridge of the basket.
Just outside the kitchen where we prepared the fruit there were often between 1 and 4 of the semi-wild OUs hanging around, watching and waiting for an opportunity to steal some fruit or milk. Sometimes they were on the ground and we could walk right past them depending on who it was, (I got to be able identify some of them and know their traits) and sometimes they were on one of the roofs, lying on their tummies with their heads hanging over the edge. It never failed to give me a thrill to look up and see them watching everything that was going on. These semi-wild OUs are the ones who have ‘graduated’ from the nurseries and are now living freely in the forest here at Sepilok. They are mostly fending for themselves but are so used to people that they are equally comfortable hanging around near us. When their fruit was prepared we walked down to the outdoor nursery where they sleep for the night. There are currently 5 OUs in outdoor nursery, but they don’t always come back in at lunchtime and nighttime, and if they choose not to come when called we leave them out there. Eventually they will get to a stage where they don’t want to come back in at all, and that’s a good thing and what’s known as a ‘soft release’. Often however if they had stayed out overnight, they were waiting for us in the morning and were very tired! They practically begged us to take them inside for a sleep by holding up their arms to us 🙂
Our duties entailed two of us going out to rake the feeding platforms and ground underneath and get rid of the banana skins, papaya & watermelon skins, and any other food or fruit skins that was left from the day before. We were sometimes watched from above by one of the OUs who is either semi-wild or who had chosen not to come in the night before.
The other two divided the fresh fruit & veg into four portions as they have two buckets full in the morning, and two in the afternoon. We all then opened their overnight enclosures to take them out, but we had to be careful as soon as we loosened the locks, as they know exactly how to finish unscrewing them, lift the latch and open the door. We had to be ready to take hold of their hand or wrist and walk them outside to the play area and up onto the ropes or feeding platforms. Volunteers aren’t allowed cameras ‘behind the scenes’ but there is a public viewing area, and these photos have been taken from there.
Our next task was to clean their enclosures just as we did in the indoor nursery, but as there are only 5 of them and these OUs are fed outside there was a lot less mess and the task was quicker.
The rest of the time was spent ‘policing’ them, and putting them back on the platforms, tyres or ropes when they were bored, wanted attention, and dropped down to the ground. Depending on who it was, they would either scamper up as soon as they saw us walking towards them, wrap their arms around themselves so that we couldn’t grab them, or make a run for it!
In the wild an Oranutan will spend its life up in the trees, and we are trying to teach them that being on the ground is a bad thing. Some of them are really good and well behaved, and others test us and were naughty very often. What complicated matters for us volunteers is that the semi-wild ones will often come to the outdoor nursery, and we sometimes struggled to identify ‘our’ OUs, as they are the only ones we had to grab and shove up onto the platforms. We gave the released ones a wide berth, and didn’t intervene. A couple of our naughty ones often did a series of somersaults to make a quick getaway from us, which amused the public no end. (The public viewing area is raised and behind tinted glass, so we couldn’t really see them but we could hear them laughing!)
A couple of times we bought coconuts to give them and these kept them occupied for a while as they have to break them open. Firstly they had to strip off all the outer husk as the nut is buried deep inside. Once they have done this, they then have to crack the nut, which they do by repeatedly banging the nut on the feeding platform or post. As soon as it’s cracked, they lift it up and pour the coconut milk into their mouths, and then when this is all gone they finish cracking the nut and eat the coconut itself.
After they had been outside for over an hour, we gave them their second feed, and 20 minutes after that we started calling them to come in. As mentioned above, if they don’t want to come, they can stay out, but the ones who did want to in came down from their platforms and we took a hand to lead them back in.
When they do this and offer their hand to us we can hear ‘Awwwww’ coming from the public. One afternoon myself and another volunteer were looking in one direction and Beryl (one of the OUs) suddenly appeared between us and held out both her hands. We hadn’t seen her coming but it was a very sweet moment and we took a hand each and led her back inside 🙂
Before they can go back inside we needed to wash their hands and feet, and we sat them on a low post which has a tap attached. We then took each hand and foot in turn and washed it under the running water. They usually don’t mind this at all, but we did end up getting soaked from the spray of water.
Once inside, we made up milk & electrolyte solutions for them, and gave them a bottle each. A couple of the younger ones threw tantrums, screaming and flailing about if they didn’t get their bottle quickly enough, and it was really funny to watch. They are perfectly capable of holding the bottles and drinking the milk themselves, but a couple of them stick their bottom lips right out and wanted us to pour the liquid into their mouths. The naughtiest girl, Chiquita, was swilling the milk around her mouth one day like a mouthwash, and I did wonder if she was going to spit it out at me as she’s done it to others!
Doing up Alagu’s cage was a challenge as she is very adept at grabbing and breaking a glove, which she promptly puts in her mouth. I lost two fingertips (of my gloves) to her, and the entire back of one hand, and I think she managed to get part of a glove from most of us! There is no chance of us retrieving it from her, but most of the time she does spit it out on command from the rangers.
Goman and Bidu often walk upright which makes it very easy for us, as opposed to hunching down as low as they can get which pulls our shoulders as they are very heavy. If they don’t want to walk they try lying down in the hope that we will drag them along the pathway! Goman is hilarious when he walks upright, as he will often raise the arm (that’s not being held) up in the air as if waving to everybody, and Bidu sometimes does the same.
Chiquita is definitely the naughtiest one when she’s out, and often tested us by dropping onto the ground. She often then went underneath the middle of the tyres, as going under there to grab her isn’t easy. She bit me hard on the shin one day when I was trying to stop her and despite wearing wellies and long trousers I did have a teeth shaped bruise there afterwards. She is staying out more and more now, and it won’t be long before the decision is made not to take her inside at all. Below are photos of her waiting for our reaction; if she decided to be good and not drop she would often swing and try to thump us if we were close enough!
When we weren’t busy chasing after ‘our’ 5, we were able to watch the semi-wild OUs who would come to play and eat. During our last week a beautiful OU called Wulan turned up who we hadn’t seen before. She had been in the clinic for a long time and only just given a clean bill of health. She has gorgeous long hair, all the male OUs fancied her, and the first fews days she was courted by Kalabatu who stuck by her side and gave her the confidence to integrate with the others again. It was so sweet to see them as they would hold hands everywhere as they walked(actually she held onto his foot, but still just as sweet!) It was rather a case of Beauty and the Beast though as you can see here.
I was watching them one day from the public area, and Wulan seemed to have something wrong with her hand as Kalabatu was inspecting it very tenderly.
I’ll publish just one more post about my time in Borneo with mostly photos that I haven’t included so far.