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From the Zoo into the wild

Can you transfer an animal born in a zoo to its original habitat in the wild? Will it be able to adjust and support itself? Will it find food and generally be able to live an independent life? For orang-utans, the answer is yes. As part of FZS’ Sumatra Conservation Programme Perth Zoo in Australia has over the past 11 years released 3 zoo-born orang-utans in the Bukit Tigapuluh ecosystem in northern Sumatra, Temara, Semeru and Nyaru. Holly Thompson, Perth Zoo’s Supervisor of the Primate Section, accompanied 9 year old Nyaru to Sumatra after preparing him for most of his zoo-life for a life in the wild. Katharina Hensen met Holly Thompson in Sumatra.

Holly, thanks for taking the time. How long have you worked at Perth Zoo and do you like your job?

I’ve been working at Perth Zoo for 15 years. I started as a keeper, working with all exotic species and then I began specializing in primate species. In 2013, I became the supervisor of the primate section. I do like my job because it’s diverse and there’s a lot of problem solving. And I get to work with a variety of animals, I get to make a difference, within the zoo community for their husbandry and make a difference for conservation.

You trained and later transferred Nyaru from Perth to his wild home in Sumatra. Which of his characteristics and features made him a suitable candidate?

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Holly Thompson ©Perth Zoo

When Nyaru was born we knew that he would be our next orang-utan that we prepared for release. And especially the last 2 years before he came to Sumatra, we really assessed that he was a good candidate. We socialized him with other orang-utans, including adult males. He had access to a live tree and learnt how to nest build from his great grandmother.

Something else that was really important to us and that we talked about with Peter was a massive change of diet, so that it was blander and also very unripe to emulate what he would encounter once in Sumatra. A lot more browse and also jackpot seasons – those seasons when you have a lot more fruit and then also getting used to seasons of extreme blandness and just browse. We wanted to prepare him and also his gut. Nyaru adapted really well to that change of diet and the whole colony at the Zoo was moved onto it. 

For how long and how did you train him?

Nyaru was four and a half when we started, he was still with his mum. The real training started between the age of 6 and 8. We had a month by month plan, so each month we had certain goals we had to reach and certain components that he’d be learning. He was separated from mum for nearly two years prior to release. Probably some 8 months before Nyaru came here we were 100% happy to send him. And if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have. The logistics of the transfer then took some more time.

You accompanied him here. The flight from Perth is four hours, the flight from there to Jambi is one more hour. How did Nyaru experience the journey?

Nyaru getting prepared for his big journey

He was amazingly good. He was very quiet but also interested in his surroundings. He looked outside the crate, we talked to him, he wasn’t aggressive or angry at us and he took food well. He stayed in an air conditioned room at the airport over night while we waiting for the connecting flight to Jambi.  When we got to Jambi we drove straight out to the Open Orang-Utan Sanctuary (OOS). We got there during daylight and we let him out into the cage straight away. He was pretty shell-shocked and he came over to us and sought out reassurance. But we also didn’t want to give him too much attention, because it was time for Nyaru to settle with his new keepers. All in all he did very well.

How did he adjust in the tropics?

That very first night there was a massive storm and it was a tin roof, so it was really loud, but he just sat in his nest. His coat and skin were amazing, that was the first thing we noticed. It went ‘poof’ and he went all crimpy due to the humidity. After a while he also developed a good relationship with his new keepers. That was very important to us and we allowed the local staff to lead. They showed him how to eat spiky Rotan and break it open without piercing his lips, and how to eat termites. The termites that we prepared him with at Perth Zoo were a different species, so he had to really understand how to suck the termites out.

You have known Nyaru for years. Were you sad to leave him behind?

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Perth Zoo has been a reliable partner of FZS’ Sumatra Conservation Programme for moren than 10 years.

I was. It was probably especially hard after he’d been released. At the OOS he was in a similar situation to what he was at Perth Zoo, but after he was released that’s when the unknown took place. But I do feel that having the opportunity for Nyaru to experience wild life far outweighs the risks that happen here. And the risks that can happen in the wild are exactly the same for an animal like Nyaru or an animal that’s an ex-pet or even a wild born orang-utan. It was sad, because I was there when he was born. But mainly we were just really excited and knew we were doing the right thing. 

How long have you been working together with Peter and the Sumatran team?

I think since 2006. I met Peter very early on in Borneo and I think Peter came to the zoo that year or the year after. So I knew Nyaru would come into trusted hands. A lot has changed since Temara’s release 11 years ago, we’ve learnt a lot.   It was really important that Nyaru had time acclimatizing at the OOS before being released,  the climate, the sounds, the people, the language, the diet are all different, giving him additional time at OOS allowed him to adjust.   

How’s the cooperation with Peter and the FZS colleagues on site?

The cooperation between Perth Zoo and Peter and his team is really good. We are working hand in hand, Peter gave us a few ideas, we told him our ideas and I think that’s what has been so nice about the partnership that it’s always gone both ways, it’s a collaboration. In Nyaru’s case his care is handled by the FZS team in collaboration with us. We still have a responsibility for his welfare, all of us as a team. He is now with Peter and the Frankfurt Zoological Society staff. 

Are you planning on bringing another orang-utan?

At this stage we have no individuals planned to come here. But all of the orangutans at the Zoo learn the principals of Jungle School, equipping them with wild skills.  

What are your hopes for Nyaru’s future?

I hope he gets to adulthood. I want to come back and see him as a fully-flanged male. That would be my absolute dream for him. I really want to see him out of his awkward teens. We often get asked “Why Nyaru? “, when there are hundreds of orangutans in rescue centers that need to be released. I understand this question having worked in rescue centres with orangutans. However, with Nyaru we know his full mental and physical background, having been born in a zoo he’s had a nurturing upbringing from a mother, whereas we don’t know so much with orangutans that have been in the pet-trade. We don’t know the lasting mental effects from a life as a pet, having their mother killed, what it’s done to their health. I feel that Nyaru’s story and his journey does educate a lot of people. I think it’s worth it if people just learn a little more about Sumatran Orangutans and the threats they face. He is a flagship individual for his species.

And your hopes for the species’ future and for the FZS’ Sumatra Programmes future?

I really want to see more growth for the FZS Sumatra programme, more conservation concessions and the ability to rehabilitate and release more orangutans successfully and I guess get this ecosystem up to the number of orangutans that it requires to be sustainable. That would be the main hope. 

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