Sunday, 19 April 2009

Orangutan Diary

The final episode of Orangutan Diary will be shown on BBC2 today at 5.30pm and shows highlights from the past series. Even if you can’t tune in or view the episodes online, I would suggest you get the wonderful DVD of the whole second series. Not only are the baby orang-utans adorable (and disconcertingly like human babies, even laughing when tickled) even to those unsuspecting folks who would not expect to be moved by such things, but the people who look after them are amazing:-
• the Danish former flight attendant who started it all, staying up all night with orphan baby orang-utans in her home and turning that into the world’s biggest ape rescue centre;
• the English GP who acts as chief medic to the orang-utan orphans and also treats the staff when they are ill, balancing his time between an A&E in Scotland and the Borneo jungle
• the impressive babysitters who wander into the forest with numerous young nappy-wearing, dewy eyed orphaned orang-utans draped around them whilst pushing groups of others sitting in wheelbarrows back after a long day
• the delightful groups of technicians (Teknisi) who are sometimes shown wandering into the wilds of Borneo to climb to dangerous heights and to dart adult orang-utans who are in danger of being killed and catch them safely in a net when they fall hundreds of feet to the ground below; and
• the bold souls who stop at nothing to venture to wherever they have heard there is a baby orang-utan illegally being kept as a pet, never knowing what hostility they might encounter.

On my father’s birthday recently, which since his death I have taken as leave from work to avoid bursting into tears under pressure on such a sensitive day, I chose to cheer myself up by watching the entire second series on my recently arrived DVD of Orangutan Diary. It was gripping stuff.

Orang-utan means “man of the forest”, but unfortunately the forest is rapidly disappearing. A Danish flight attendant, Lone Droscher-Nielsen, years ago decided she must do something about the plight of the orang-utans being orphaned through this heartless destruction of their habitat, and she did.

She started the Nyaru Menteng Orang-utan Rehabilitation Project in Indonesian Borneo in 1999, working with the Borneo Orang-utan Survival Foundation (BOS), and it is now the largest primate rescue project in the world, with more than 600 orangutans in its care. I often look at her wandering around the sanctuary in casual khakis and no make-up and can still easily picture her dolled up in the ‘glamour’ expected by that profession, all make-up, uniform and smiles. Yet she could hardly be further from that life now. She is tremendously hands on, meeting and caring in her heart for every ape and every member of staff, training and managing the latter, which includes dozens of local Indonesian Dayak.

Lone is quite amazing. In itself, seeing the problem of Borneo’s forest destruction and the devastating effect on orang-utans and wanting to fix it is impressive, but whereas in my case, that means sending a small donation, in her case, it was an astonishing life change, moving to the jungle in Borneo and starting up the rescue centre, with a whole system of rehabilitation and progression for these apes.

The centre is looking after six times its intended capacity of red apes, which have tragically lost their homes in the wild principally because of the demand for palm oil, which is destroying rainforests at an alarming rate so the land can be used for palm oil plantations. Not only do the orang-utans then lose their habitat and starve, but a shocking number are killed by humans, who often slaughter a mother in front of its traumatised baby and either leave the baby to die or take it as a pet, although it’s illegal and the only home they seem to offer tends to be a tiny wooden box.

Baby orang-utans in the wild would stay with their mums until they were nine years old, and the youngest need constant care and lots of love, like human babies. At BOS, the orphaned babies attend nursery during the day—complete with baby bottles and coconut milk “juice boxes”-- and have 24/7 care from the "babysitters". The youngest babies at night sleep together in a room full of snores with loads of orang-utan orphans in laundry basket cribs, with babysitters present. The slightly older ones are taken out into the jungle each day by their babysitters to learn skills an orang-utan will need to survive in the forest, such as using tools to find food, building nests and climbing trees. The much older ones are taken to a safe island (orang-utans can’t swim) where they have almost no contact with humans, although it is still a false environment as there is not enough space or food to sustain a large population of apes that would normally be spread out, so the humans drop off a food supply each day. I understand there is even a fruit plantation somewhere on the BOS grounds.

A very few orangs are fortunate enough to be released in a safe place in the wild, but of course these safe places are rapidly diminishing. Here again is where Lone is amazing. In addition to keeping an eye on her wonderful orang-utan village and practically acting as the foreman for building works on top of her other duties there, she also scouts out places deep in the remaining forest near a mining outpost, chartering an aeroplane and helicopter, navigating through piles of paperwork and red tape, and arranging an intricate web of schedules that eventually enable some of the orang-utans who more recently joined BOS, and thus are wilder with the necessary skills to survive, to be taken there. This involves a dizzying scurry of activity where orangs are sedated, crated along with food, loaded onto planes and automobiles until they are delivered, dangling in their crates from a harness below the helicopter. The team also need to be dropped in what seems to be remote jungle and camp out until they can release the orang-utans.

Meanwhile, the workers at BOS rescue and, where possible, quickly relocate adult orang-utans that are found near rubber plantations (they eat rubber sap that takes days to collect, so are at risk of being killed by the workers), too near schools or villages, and of course on the dreaded palm plantations, where they can be attacked with machetes if not reached in time. They also go to amazing lengths to find and confiscate babies that are illegally kept as pets.

One of these confiscations shows a waif of girl struggling for many hours in an attempt to reach a rumoured captive baby orang, trying to progress down impassable roads where vehicles become trapped in deep mud and bridges have collapsed, using mopeds that take them for miles until they have to turn back, borrowing a boat that is too weak to fight the river’s current, and finally arriving only to find the people keeping the orang-utans are not home. This young girl, fortunately with someone from the Forestry Commission and a camera crew, which I hope helped, waited until the people returned—carrying a gun—to convince these people illegally keeping two babies (perhaps after killing the mother) to hand them over to BOS without any payment even though each ape is worth a month’s wages if they were to sell them, and to teach them why they should not capture any more.

I missed much of the series when it first aired (I can’t usually watch wildlife programmes as I get upset when I see furry things run for their lives and then get eaten) but when I caught an earlier episode on BBC2, I was entranced—not just because of the adorable animals, so clearly our cousins, but also because of these extraordinary people who work with them.

One puzzle that really caught my eye was the presence of Dr David Irons, whom was referred to as a GP rather than a vet, but I since learned that he heads a medical team that also looks after the 200 staff, and he demonstrated his experience well in one episode by calmly rushing into the forest to administer pain relief to a babysitter who injured her chest in a fall, helping her cope as she was carried on a make-shift stretcher back to the BOS centre and driven to hospital. (It was very serious but also a bit surreal to see hairy orange arms right in there with all the human ones grappling at the patient).

“Dr David” points out that orang-utans have 97% the same DNA as humans and they get some of same illnesses, such as malaria and colds, and “The medicine’s as if I’m in a hospital in the UK but obviously with hairier patients.” And he is in a hospital in the UK fairly frequently, apparently spending a few months as A&E manager at the Galloway Community Hospital in Stranraer, Scotland, to fund his voluntary work at the orangutan centre, where he pays all his expenses. He got involved, following an earlier stint working at a small rescue centre in Borneo, when doing admirable work with impoverished children in Argentina and he saw a BOS appeal for £3,000 to buy a tract of forest and realised that, if he worked over the Christmas holidays, he could earn that amount and donate it himself. I understand he attended a BOS event in London (where have I been when those have come along? Must not be mentioned in Time Out), hit it off with Lone and now spends most of his time in Borneo as the BOS Medical Director at the centre. He and Lone are terrifically impressive; I never meet people like that, but then I’ll never be a person like that, which might have something to do with it. (I should say with some shame that I like my home comforts, my gadgets, PCs, books, music, movies, theatre, art galleries, Starbucks, cooler air and showers.)

Bizarrely, mobile phones seem to work in the Borneo jungle, and Dr Irons in a newspaper interview spoke of how he can’t keep his too near him or the hairy orange charges tend to pickpocket him.

It occurred to me that he would be fascinating to follow on Twitter, but alas, he is not yet with us. Just picture his tweets though: “Cuddling orang recovering from malaria” one day and then, a month later, “busy night in Stranraer A&E, another stabbing but we’ve patched him up”. I assume he’s publishing or at least preparing useful papers and studies on medicine whilst there. He would be fascinating to have a chat with if he ever stopped in London on his way back to Scotland or his family’s home in England.

Steve Leonard and Michaela Strachan present the BBC2 programmes but are hardly in-your-face; in fact, I almost completely forgot that they were involved. Most scenes are just the camera following those who work there daily, showing how it is with some warm narration.

I have heard the odd bit of criticism of this false environment, and some wonder how much it actually helps orang-utans. Indeed, even Lone is no doubt aware that she is unlikely to re-home them all, with only a comparatively few released on precious and rare safe land with rapidly increasing new arrivals, and the newly arrived adults keep pushing the babies they are raising further down the queue.

But what is the alternative? Leaving babies to die slowly in the wild or to go mad kept in boxes by the people who they saw machete their mother, sometimes injuring them, or be illegally sold as pets, and leaving the adults to be destroyed even when you have a chance to save them? That’s no answer, particularly not for an endangered species, and one that is such a close relative. Lone gives them a second chance. She even houses a blind orangutan and another with crippled arms after having been kept in too small a cage, so he cannot now climb trees. The younger ones have love and comfort, and it is important that there are people willing to rescue and rehabilitate the myriad orangutans who need our help because of what we, as humans, are doing to them.

The jungle is being devastatingly bulldozed. Illegal logging is a dreadful problem but palm oil is the single biggest threat to the orang-utans’ survival, and we, consumers, keep feeding the demand for it. It is in everything—food, fuel, cosmetics. Our homes are truly littered with many dozens of products containing palm oil. I try to be aware of it and avoid it, but it is not often listed in the ingredients. Then I was horrified recently to read the box of Nairn’s Oat Biscuits that had been delivered with my grocery order, which I swore by as useful food following stomach bugs and the like, and now see that, like everyone else, I’ve contributed to the destruction of this tremendous world resource as it lists palm oil as an ingredient (though at least they do not hide it like others). We really need to be more aware of what contains palm oil and to campaign for less of it to be used. (There are websites and blogs who try to help educate us on the former.)

There is a BOS UK branch although the website is currently undergoing maintenance (seems fine now, go to: ), but you can adopt an orang-utan there or merely make a donation by visiting . With adoptions at BOS, you receive an official personalised certificate, a background story and an A4 colour photo of your orang-utan, with updates promised on your orang-utan at least every six months.
View the general BOS site at
On that site, you can view a video postcard by Lone from Borneo with some help on the camerawork from a curious Orang. It has also been posted on YouTube, I believe after the first series, at

So many would benefit if you made a contribution to either BOS or WWF, and even more if you did so through both. I adopted as a gift for my mother some years ago an orang-utan via WWF and continue to give a monthly donation for that purpose to the World Wildlife Fund by direct debit, but I also intend to send a small donation (I’m heavily in debt but hope every small bit helps) to BOS. I think it makes an excellent gift—generally, or if you’ve forgotten to order something for someone, and particularly for children who need to be made aware of the need to help the planet in this way.

Whatever you choose to do, please somehow help these lovely creatures who are some of our closest animal relatives, and do, if you can, catch the series. To whet your appetite, a snippet is on YouTube here, focusing on Dr David Irons but also showing the one horrible event seen on camera, when an orang-utan suffers a terrible fall from a tree and bounces off a concrete wall: YouTube - Sumanto Falls . There are also other short clips, including one showing the shocking state in which one nearly dead mother and her baby arrived, and then you see her so healthy after eight months at the centre, just before being released into the wild in a safe area: .

The DVD of the full second series is the best bet, available at Amazon here, and I can only hope some of the profit goes to BOS: .


savetheorangutan said...

An absolutley wonderful tribute to Lone, David and the team at BOS Nyaru Menteng. Having worked with Lone now for 15 years, I believe she is the most remarkable individual on earth. (She is also my best friend!) I shall be sending this story to her so that she can know that people care.
I will be back in Nyaru Menteng in a few weeks and will suggest to David that he use twitter, but Internet connections are intermittent at best, and Lone herself simply doesn't have the time. I am on twitter @orangutans, and will try to send out some messages.
BTW, David is English but works in Scotland, and his family is based in Bath.
I hope I can implore your blog followers to give whatever they can to this important organisation. Not only do they need money for everyday expenses such as food and medical care, but they also need funds for the acquisition of forest in which to release orangutans, and the release operations themselves. If you go to the BOS Intl website there are links to BOS partners in a number of countries. In America, the partner is Orangutan Outreach,
Thanks again for such a lovely account.

Brain Tracer said...

Michelle, thank you so much for your comments; it is lovely to hear from you (in addition to your welcome tweets!) I'm afraid, like most of my rambling posts, I did this in rather a hurry whilst half asleep, so thank you for pointing out some errors eg that I had David down as Scottish, when of course I know he's English but my brain clearly malfunctioned at that stage; I've since amended that point.

You must be a lovely person yourself to do what you do. I so admire you all as your work is impressive, as is the special something that drives you to do it. I also envy you all doing something so rewarding and working with such wonderful hairy creatures, when the most I can ever do is send a small donation and add you to my list of organisations who will get a bigger donation when that elusive lottery win comes in (well, one must have hope against all odds). I do hope anyone who reads this will feel compelled to donate, and I wish that my lowly blog was read by millions so you could benefit in that sense. But I will continue to spread the word where I can; it is such a worthy cause progressed by so many amazing people.

Have a safe journey to Nyaru Menteng and back (and Tweet from there if you can! And don't forget Twitpic if poss), please shake Lone and David's hands on my behalf as I'm unlikely to bump into them in London where I could do it myself, and if you can convince David to join us on Twitter, even if he rarely tweets as I do, I'm sure his future followers would be absolutely delighted. Take care, --BT