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BORN TO BE WILD

Borneo
They are the gardeners, the ones who scatter the seeds to maintain the vast biological diversity you find in the tropical rainforest, which is our Garden of Eden. -Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas, OC

Orangutan means person of the forest in the Malay language. "They are one of our closet living relatives in the animal kingdom,” Dr. Galdikas states. "They share 97% of our genetic material, are benign beings and very intelligent.”

They live exclusively in the tropical rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra, and are the only great ape living in Asia.

Tanjung Puting, originally declared as a game reserve in 1935, before becoming a national park in 1982, is a hothouse of eco-diversity that sits on a peninsula jutting out into the Java Sea on the island of Borneo. It encompasses almost 1200 square miles, comprised of different terrain composed of swamps, black water rivers, and tropical rain forest with a 100-foot high tree canopy.

Highly important for the well-being of the surrounding local human population, its wetlands provide vital ecological services such as flood and erosion control, and a natural biological filtration system, as well as products including honey, medicinal plants and natural pesticides. The vegetation supports a large array of animals, making this one of the most important areas in Southeast Asia for the preservation of every type of species which share this habitat with orangutans, such as clouded leopards, proboscis monkeys and gibbons.

Getting there was a challenge in itself. The production team flew into Jakarta in March of 2010. From there they flew to the town of Pangkalan Bun in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan Tengah just a few miles from where the OFI's Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ) is located.

The equipment was another matter. Fellman recalls, "It was a massive undertaking. Just getting in and out of Borneo took an enormous amount of time and coordination. 30,000 pounds of gear had to be shipped to Bali, then transported to Borneo via Java on three different ferries. To film sequences in Tanjung Puting, all the gear had to be loaded onto small traditional boats and sent up a narrow river full of crocodiles. Then, every single piece of gear had to be carried into the jungle by hand.”

The Orangutan Care Center

The crew set up base for two weeks at the Orangutan Care Center and Quarantine (OCCQ), a joint effort of the Orangutan Foundation International (OFI) and the Indonesian Forestry Department, which is currently staffed by full-time veterinarians. It employs over 130 local staff who care for over 300 orangutan orphans, with the intention that all will ultimately be released into the wild. The facilities include an operating and X-ray room, medical laboratory, library, living quarters, as well as a separate quarantine complex.

"Many years ago it became obvious that the problems facing orangutans in the tropical rainforests were so severe that concerned individuals alone would not be able to make a dent in the problem,” Dr. Galdikas expounds. "So a small group of us co-established OFI to raise funds and find solutions. Apart from the Center, we run education programs in the local schools, work with communities and staff 14 guard posts to help the national park service patrol the reserve. Additionally, we actually buy the land and also persuade the Indonesian government to establish protective forests, and wildlife reserves, including over 100,000 acres in this region—that's 100,000 acres of forest that will not go under the chainsaw.”

It is in this peat swamp forest near the OCCQ where the filmmakers captured footage of the orangutan orphans enjoying a kind of supervised release, learning invaluable nest-building skills as well as foraging techniques. Small wooden facilities allow the orangutans and their caregivers to sleep in the forest at night. The halfway house this forest represents to the orphans is of dire importance in their journey back to surviving in the wild.

The orphan orangutans living at the OCCQ are separated into age groups. The youngest ones are infants who live in the center's nursery. These orphans require constant attention and coddling. A baby orangutan will physically not leave its mother's body for the first year of life. So the human caretakers are tasked with caring for infants even more demanding than human babies.

In the wild, orangutans will naturally leave their mothers around eight years old, so that is the typical age when OFI's orangutans are released back into the jungle. At a younger age, they're still immature and small enough to become prey to clouded leopards. But once they're older, as their natural instincts kick in, additional time spent under human care can impede their ability to thrive in the wild.

The relationship between the caretakers and the orangutans is significant. The young ones are so fragile during their formative years that the humans who commit to caring for them become, in fact, surrogate mothers. "If you put a baby orangutan on the ground it will not stop screaming,” Dr. Galdikas details. "They are literally pulled off their dead mother's body when they are captured. They know no other place than in her arms or on her back.”

Fellman shares, "When you watch the keepers with these little babies and see their genuine affection for each other, then you really start to understand the extraordinary bond that's developed.”

During production, a rescued orangutan was named after the film's cinematographer, David Douglas. "On this particular day, a vehicle pulled in with a new orphan and I think basically Biruté just turned around, saw me and decided that was it,” Douglas laughs. "I think I'm one of the few Scottish names represented in the orangutan population there.”

He enjoyed the orangutans' innate sense of adventure and humor and says that capturing their spirit and ability to have fun was as important as shedding light on their predicament. "They'll climb up on you and steal your glasses and pick your pocket all at the same time,” Douglas remembers. "You're completely outgunned. They are also fast learners. They became like members of the crew. A number of times the gaffer would be holding one end of the reflector—and we'd look over and see an orangutan holding it on the other end. We even caught them trying to start the generators.”

Seruyan Forest

A high point for everyone was the release of two eight-year-old orangutans, Sinaga and Pushka, filmed in the Seruyan Forest, which overlaps with Tanjung Puting. There, the crew crammed into a shelter constructed out of fallen trees.

The production team followed Sinaga and Pushka as they were carried deep into the forest in a metal transporter before being let go into the wild. "It was astounding to watch,” Fellman recalls. "Both orangutans immediately seemed to understand the gravity of what was happening.”

Lickley adds, "This is where they were meant to be, and it was a privilege to witness the culmination of all the work of Biruté and her team.”

Dr. Galdikas is as optimistic as she can be, knowing the dangers that all wild orangutans face. "When I used to release them in the early days it was with unabashed pride and hope. Now, there's almost a sense of foreboding, because the forests are disappearing, palm oil plantations are everywhere and, even though they are a protected species, the orangutans are still viewed as pests. They're trapped between a rock and a hard place: once they become adolescents, they want to roam, so you have to give them that freedom, but it's like going to the Wild West. There are all sorts o

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