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December 01, 2016
After eight months in East Kalimantan, my final week on patrol in the Kehje Sewen Forest as a post-release monitor revealed several updates on the whereabouts and activities of some of the forest’s resident orangutans. Earlier in the month, I was lucky enough to observe Sayang, a 7-year-old female who was travelling alone. Although this is normal for an orangutan of Sayang’s age, we were certain that Sayang’s baby sister (Louise) and mother (Yayang) were close by, as our past observations of Sayang had taught us that after some days of independence, she usually reunited with her family briefly before heading into the forest on her own again.
As a post-release monitoring (PRM) volunteer, I have spent hours observing orangutans in the forest and reflecting on what leads them to go off and explore the forest alone after travelling and spending time with others. Likewise, what makes orangutans who previously travelled alone to start spending their days in the company of others. While these scenarios are normal among wild orangutans, when you become familiar with the individual personalities of the Kehje Sewen orangutans, changes in their behaviour trigger one’s curiosity. This week, the forest provided some insights.
Returning from my second-last patrol in Kehje Sewen, the team noticed the canopy shaking vigorously, close to where we were walking. After several years of monitoring each orangutan, the PRM team is often able to identify an orangutan from a distance, simply by the way the trees are moving. On this day, we knew we had come across Sayang. Just as I wondered whether she was still travelling alone, a Casey popped up from the branches just below Sayang. It appeared that since she left her mother and sister, Sayang had found company with Casey, and it was fantastic to observe the two eating, resting, and even hanging upside down from the branches playing together. We returned to camp wondering whether this was the start of Sayang’s solo adventures, as she moves farther away from her mother to live life independently; only days earlier, I had encountered her mother and sister in the forest, without Sayang following close behind.
Sayang and Casey
As a volunteer, it has been extraordinary to witness the ever-changing relationships among the orangutans sharing the Kehje Sewen forest home, particularly between the females. When the PRM team encounters an orangutan deep in the forest, it can be days, weeks, or even months before that particular orangutan is spotted again. Therefore, it is always a surprise to see who is ‘hanging out’ with whom. Several weeks ago, the PRM team were excited to encounter Casey travelling with Lesan and her baby, a pair that had not been seen for several months. The opportunity to observe a released mother with her baby is vital in monitoring their development and progress in the forest. My final month as a monitor has provided me with several opportunities to witness mothers thriving in their new forest home with their wild-born babies. What a privilege and unique experience!
The latest encounter occurred on the afternoon of my final patrol in the forest. Branches shaking and loud kiss squeaking alerted the team to Sayang, active in a tree, 100 metres away. Having met her only days before with Casey, as we approached, we were keen to see if she was alone or in company. It was late afternoon, and the forest canopy was heavily shaded, so it was proving difficult to locate Sayang. Before I had the chance to spot her, a pair of wide, bright eyes met mine. It was baby Louise, peeking over the shoulder of her mother, Yayang, who was hanging above me, foraging for fruit. And there, crouched on the bough of a neighbouring tree, was Sayang. The family of three were travelling together again, for now at least. And in the days following, Yayang, Louise and Sayang, were seen travelling in the forest, with Casey following. Throughout the day, Sayang could be seen swinging between trees, resting and eating with her mother and sister, and energetically playing with Casey.
The most exciting development for us to witness in my last week was observing baby Louise’s climbing skills. At just over one year old, Louise is now climbing higher than ever before, and is a confident climber and acrobat. Yayang displays great confidence in her daughter’s ability, giving Louise the freedom to climb out of arm’s reach, which is a new development for the mother-daughter pair.
In a few days, I will make my final trek out of the Kehje Sewen forest. It feels wonderful to know that after being given a second chance at freedom, I am saying farewell the next generation of wild orangutans.
Text and by: Penelope Coulter, PRM Volunteer at Camp Lesik, Kehje Sewen Forest
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