Samboja Lestari Orangutan Release Day-1: A Beautiful Goodbye

The sun had not arisen yet and the fog was still lingering. But the Orangutan Release Team at Samboja Lestari were already preparing for the release event today. At 5 in the morning, we gathered at the fruit storage area for an early breakfast together. Thereafter the team headed to the release candidates’ enclosures.

The Veterinarians and technicians getting ready for today’s Orangutan Release

Today, three orangutans were going to be released: Emerson, Sarmi and Mona. Six other candidates, Acong, Agus, Noel, Mayang, Inge and Siwie will be released tomorrow. The Samboja Lestari veterinarian team, which consisted of Vets Agus, Agnes, and Putra, prepared the sedation doses. Technician Imam Gozali was appointed to administer the anesthetic darts for the first three orangutans.

Three of our team members – Ahmat (the Helicopter Landing Officer or HLO whom we seconded from the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Reintroduction Program), Monica (Adoption Coordinator and part of our Communications Team) and Vet Anin – were already on the way to Sepinggan Airport in Balikpapan. They flew by helicopter from Balikpapan, transited in Uyang Lahai Airport in Miau Baru Village for a quick refueling, and headed straight to the Kehje Sewen Forest. They arrived safely in the forest at around 10 am.

Last Day in Captivity

Back in Samboja Lestari, it was the last day in captivity for Emerson, Mona and Sarmi. Mona was the first to be sedated at 6 am. She was the first because she is infamous for being quite resistant to anesthetic. It would take sometime until the sedation took effect on her. The first attempt failed because Mona pulled the dart out immediately as it hit her. The second attempt, however, seemed to work.

Waiting for Mona to fall asleep

While waiting for Mona to fall asleep, the technicians started the sedation process for the giant male, Emerson. Like Mona, it took two attempts to successfully sedate Emerson. Meanwhile, Mona still had not fallen asleep, thus the vet decided to give her an extra dose. As soon as she was asleep, she was immediately moved to her travel cage.

Sarmi was the last to be sedated. Despite her kiss-squeaking, protesting the presence of so many humans around her, she was finally sedated at 6.30 am. Meanwhile, it took 15 people to move and transfer Emerson to his transport cage because of his weight and size. Finally, all orangutans were safe inside their travel cages and they were all loaded onto a truck that would take them to Sepinggan Airport in Balikpapan.

It took 15 people to transfer Emerson to his travel cage

Flight to Freedom

It was 7.30 am when the team and orangutans departed to Sepinggan Airport where the Premiair Grand Caravan aircraft was waiting. The orangutans would be accompanied by Vet Agnes and technician Ferdy to the new Uyang Lahai Airport in Miau Baru Village, a village located around 15-20 minutes from Muara Wahau.

We arrived at Sepinggan Airport at 8.30 am. Mechanics from Premiair were conducting the necessary final preparations for the flight. This flight would also carry the logistical supplies for the team at Camp 103 in the Kehje Sewen Forest and also the sling net. This sling net was a vital piece of equipment as these orangutans would be transported by a helicopter from Miau to Camp 103 using the sling load method. A representative of BCA Bank, one of our donors for this orangutan release event, also attended and witnessed the whole process at the airport.

Emerson’s travel cage barely fits into the airplane door

After the airplane was ready, Mona, Sarmi and Emerson were unloaded from the truck and transferred onto the airplane.  And not long after, our three orangutan friends took off on their first leg of the journey to freedom. At Sepinggan Airport, there was a mixed feeling of relief, joy and sadness as we bid our goodbyes to beloved Emerson, Sarmi and Mona. It was a beautiful goodbye.

To Borneo’s Fertile Heart

Meanwhile at Uyang Lahai Airport, the Release Team was also on standby since morning. The helicopter that transported Ahmat, Monica and Vet Anin arrived back at Uyang Lahai at around 10.40 am. Twenty minutes later, the Grand Caravan aircraft also landed safely. Emerson, Sarmi and Mona were immediately unloaded.

Airplane carrying Emerson, Sarmi and Mona arriving at Uyang Lahai Airport

The first orangutan to fly to the heart of Borneo’s rainforests was Emerson. He was going solo since the helicopter could only take him alone due to his enormous size and heavy weight. Sarmi and Mona had to wait at Uyang Lahai Airport for the next flight. After Emerson’s travel cage was secured within the sling load, the helicopter took off to the final destination, Kehje Sewen.

Emerson on sling load ready to take off

Emerson was joyfully welcomed by the Release Team in Kehje Sewen 45 minutes later. The helicopter then went back to Uyang Lahai to pick up the two orangutan ladies who patiently waited for their turn.

While waiting for Mona and Sarmi, the team in Kehje Sewen transported Emerson to the pre-designated release site in the Lembu River area, around 3.75 km from Camp 103. To get there, Emerson’s travel cage must be loaded onto a pickup truck and transported across the Lesik River, a large rapid-water river that lies behind our camp. Then the journey continued on foot. The team had to carry Emerson’s travel cage all the way to his release site.

Transporting Emerson across the Lesik River

Arriving at the release site, Emerson’s travel cage was not opened right away. Accompanied by a couple of technicians from Samboja Lestari, he had to wait for Sarmi and Mona. The ladies would be released first, then Emerson last. The rest of the team hurried back to the helipad at Camp 103 to welcome the two females.

Mona and Sarmi finally departed to the forest from Uyang Lahai at around 1.30 PM and arrived in Kehje Sewen at 2.15 PM. Like Emerson, they too were transported by a pickup truck across the river and carried by foot to the same release sites as Emerson’s. Three release points had been prepared and the moments of freedom were finally in sight.

Sarmi and Mona arriving in Kehje Sewen

Home Sweet Home

Mona was the first to be released. Technician Yadi from Samboja Lestari opened her travel cage and instead of immediately climbing the nearest tree, Mona decided to strike a pose first by her cage. Maybe she knew that we had planted cameras everywhere to take her photographs. It was comical. But soon enough, she started climbing, and climbing higher and higher. Mona was finally free!

Mona posing for a moment by her travel cage before climbing a tree

Sarmi was next. RHOI Post-Release Monitoring (PRM) Coordinator, Wulan, opened the door to her travel cage. Unlike Mona, Sarmi didn’t waste any time. She chose a tree and climbed right away. Then she stopped at a nice sturdy branch in the canopy and she, too, posed for the camera!

Spotting Mona on a nearby tree, Sarmi decided to approach her long-time friend. She poked Mona on the elbow to ask her to play. But Mona, still tired from the effects of sedation and the long journey to the forest, looked a bit irritated and ignored Sarmi’s request to hang out. The drama in the forest has started.

Sarmi asking Mona to hang out with her

Last but not least, Emerson’s travel cage was opened by Samboja Lestari’s Technician, Agus. The big guy did not look happy. He must have been very tired and grumpy at having to wait for Sarmi and Mona. So he was a bit angry seeing Agus approaching his cage. He probably thought he was going to be transported somewhere else again. He shook his cage forcefully and attempted to damage the locks of the cage.

Another technician, Sam, tried to divert his attention by waving a leafy branch at him. It worked. Agus successfully opened his cage and Emerson hurtled out to the nearest tree and quickly climbed it. He finally calmed down and rested on a branch. Looking down at us, he didn’t look so angry anymore. He looked happy. In fact, the latest report received from the PRM Team this afternoon said that Emerson had made his first long call just before dusk telling everyone in the forest that the big guy had arrived!


Emerson’s first moments of freedom

Emerson, Sarmi and Mona are settling into a new life in the forest. A life they deserve, a life of freedom. The Kehje Sewen Forest is their new home sweet home.

The first day has concluded successfully. The emotion of the entire team is indescribable. We are filled with joy for these magnificent three and tomorrow, six more orangutans will claim this beautiful forest as their home. Let’s hope for another day of great weather and smooth journey for Acong, Agus, Noel, Mayang, Inge and Siwie.

One of these six is our 100th orangutan to be released by the BOS Foundation since 2012. Find out who it is tomorrow!

Text by: BOS Foundation and RHOI Communications Team

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