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A day in the lives of three baby orangutans

Tracking orangutans is a tough business. But sometimes the observations are of such beauty, they reward all the efforts.

Andhani Widya, the FZS veterinarian. Photo in the Field station at Open Orangutan Sanctuary, near Bukit Tigapuluh, Sumatra, Indonesia. © Daniel Rosengren
Author Andhani Widya is the FZS veterinarian in Sumatra © Daniel Rosengren

By Andhani Widya, Sumatra

Shrubs are cracking and cold water is splashing as two orangutan trackers are crossing the Pengian river in mud-covered boots. The sun is still hiding in the east, yet, just like the early bird catches the worm, the early trackers will find the orangutans. The two trackers are shivering in the cold morning breeze as they make their way through the jungle.

A fallen tree and its dense branches block the track. One of the trackers swings his machete to clean the trail, while the other keeps an eye on his GPS to lead their way. A few moments later, they see bits and pieces of fruit falling out of a 30 metres Ficus tree. It seems like someone is enjoying breakfast. The trackers have found what they were looking for.

First, they meet Sule – Sam’s three year old baby – as he climbs down and sits on a branch. A closer look reveals a little head that’s peeping out from behind the trunk. It is Vanilla – Violet’s baby! The two youngsters stare at the trackers curiously while scratching their body. Suddenly, Chilli – Candy’s baby – enters the scene. He lunges at Sule and the two orangutans start wrestling.

The two boys are busy pushing each other around until suddenly a rotten branch breaks off the tree and crashes down. Vanilla hides quickly, whereas Chilli and Sule leap onto another branch. All of them run away and act as if they were pretending that this clearly wasn’t their fault.

Sometime later the three friends rest peacefully on another branch and eat fruits together. They happily spit out and scatter unripe fruits to the ground. It seems that they enjoy playing together despite their age difference.  Chilli is four, Sule is three, whereas Vanilla is only two years old now.

As the sun climbs higher, the trackers discover their mothers as well, slowly moving along the branches who also enjoy the fruits of the Ficus tree. The Ficus tree bears many fruits in January, thus attracting orangutans. While their babies happily play together, the adults keep their distance to each other. Sam and Violet tend to be submissive towards Candy who is the senior among them. However, they are nice to each other’s babies and don’t seem to mind them playing around them together.

Steep learning curve in the jungle

In the past few months, all three youngsters have shown great progress. Sule has become more independent and pretty good in food searching, including using tools to gain food. He loves to catch ants using a branch, just like his mother Sam. His learning curve is a steep one and ever since he used a stick to damage a bee hive he knows that angry bees don’t hesitate to sting playful orangutans.

Chilli is the best climber of the three babies and he travels with his mother to areas further away. He actively forages for food and Sule and Vanilla follows his example and learns from him. He avoids humans since he was born in the wild and rarely visit the area around our reintroduction station. Vanilla, who is the youngest of the three, has recently started building a nest by folding small branches. She still learns to climb and has fallen to the ground several times.

Mother care is still vital

At midday, the babies find their mothers for cuddling and suckling in the shade. Though they become more and more independent the babies still turn to their mothers a lot, especially when they get scared. Heavy rain with crackling thunder, a male orangutan or predators approaching are reasons for them to seek shelter. All three of them, Sule, Vanilla and Chilli, have a wonderful mother who loves and takes care of them very well.

A pair of hornbills are flying squawking through the forest, letting everyone know that the day is nearing its end. After a long day in the jungle the trackers pack their bags and wave the orangutans goodbye. They feel lucky today to observe three orangutan babies playing together. Candy and Violet swing to different treetops clinging their babies, leaving Sam and Sule on the tree. Sule crawls to his mother’s nest while his friends Vanilla and Chilli look back at him from their mothers’ arms. Good night my friends, thank you for a playfull day.

Orangutan Reintroduction Project

Frankfurt Zoological Society operates a orangutan reintroduction project in Sumatra, Indonesia since 1995. The aim of the Bukit Tigapuluh project is to establish an independent, viable orangutan population and safeguard the rainforest habitat. More than 170 orangutans have been released so far.  The orangutan population of Bukit Tigapuluh is growing, both through more releases and through reproduction. Regularly babies are being born in the forest and trackers observe mothers and babies carefully. They observe how the released females behave as mothers and how their babies develop and learn from each other.