SANDAKAN — Chiquita doesn’t want to work. But after Bella, her 25-year-old Australian teacher, gives her a gentle scolding, the orangutan finally lifts up her arms and grabs the cable stretched between the trees. She swings across it three times, advancing rapidly, and lets herself fall into the grass. The instructor bursts out laughing and gives up. The lesson is over. The worried look on the three-year-old orangutan’s face is irresistible.
“We share 97% of our genome with them,” says the biology student, who will be working as an intern on Malaysia’s Borneo Island for two months.
At the rehabilitation center in Sepilok, a few kilometers from the city of Sandakan, orangutans are monkeying around. “Our mission is to prepare them to return to the forest,” says Diana Ramirez, a veterinarian who has been working in Sepilok for three years. “Because they’re orphans, the youngest ones don’t know they can climb trees or swing from them. They’re scared. We found Chiquita as she was wandering about alone in a palm tree plantation. She was barely six months old.”
Her mother could have been killed by a reticulated python or a clouded leopard, or maybe she drowned because these great apes don’t know how to swim.
“The orangutan population is estimated at around 11,000 in Sabah, for a total of 60,000 on the Borneo Island,” ays Marc Ancrenaz, director of the Hutan (“forest” in Malaysian) organization, which works with Sepilok and the Rainforest Discovery Center, an area accessible to the public, to discover the tropical forest. “They are the survivors of a population that was 10 times the size two centuries ago.”
Wildfires, palm oil plantations and forest exploitations are among the causes for the primary forest’s decline. Not to mention urban development. “Today, 80% of Sabah’s orangutan population lives in the protected area of the forest,” Ancrenaz explains.
Around Chiquita, the rest of the class is having fun. Some of them, unwilling to exert too much effort, let themselves be dragged on the ground. Others, better pupils, swing joyfully from rope to rope. After the morning class, which lasts about 30 minutes, they end up together, with no human presence. “When it’s game time, the older ones teach the young. We have to keep human contact to a minimum. Visitors are forbidden from this part of the center, because the orangutans have to be ready to return to the forest,” says 31-year-old Mexican veterinarian Diana Ramirez.
Since 1964, when the center opened, some 700 orangutans have been educated. At the end of last September, the institute counted two babies under the age of six months, six young apes between one to four years old and seven “older ones” — up to seven years old, the age when monkeys must leave Sepilok for the forest. “In total, around 50 live in and around the center,” says Diana Ramirez. “Many don’t want to go too far because they know there is food here.”
Chiquita is not there yet. “She’s a very good student, but, like every resident, she has her moods and trusts only a handful of people,” Ramirez adds, all the while dragging the red ball of fur clinging to her boot.