Sad, Scared, and Alone: The Baby Orangutan Orphaned by Palm Oil

by Zamzami Arlinus

November 18, 2015

For half an hour Otan wouldn't let go. Only eight months old, he already had a vice-like grip. If there were trees, Otan would be swinging freely from branch to branch, his strong grip lifting him in high arcs through the forest canopy. But there were no more trees left for Otan.

Orangutan Rescued in West Kalimantan

Eight-month-old Otan lost his mother and his home to deforestation.

© Galih Nofrio Nanda / Greenpea

This article was originally published by Greenpeace International

I was with a Greenpeace team in fire-ravaged West Kalimantan last month when I heard some news from Linga Village, about 30 minutes by road from the capital, where locals were nurturing a wild orangutan — Otan. His home had been razed to make way for a palm oil plantation. Only small patches of forest were left, but in time those areas would be razed too.

Workers at a plantation had first spotted the baby primate peeking at their camp in August. Their forest habitat dwindling, hunger-struck orangutans were being forced towards villages in search of food. At first, Otan was too scared to approach the workers’ camp, but eventually he came forward and the workers fed him rice and water. After eating he would return to the forest, but each morning without fail he would always reappear. This continued for weeks.

Orangutan Rescued in West Kalimantan

Otan is fed milk from a spoon.

“It’s very rare to see a baby orangutan alone,” said local villager Ivan Nurisaputra. “Usually, they’re accompanied by their mother until a certain age.”

Ivan confirmed that the nearby peat forests were the orangutans’ home.

“We’ve seen orangutan nests in the peatlands, but they’re empty. Otan can’t find his mother. There’s no forest left,” he said.

Ivan and his wife Ayu assumed responsibility for the hungry and listless Otan and nursed him for about a week, but despite their best intentions, they were at a loss trying to properly care for him.

“We would give him three or four glasses of milk a day. When he was hungry we’d give him rice with stir-fried vegetables. But sometimes he’d fall sick with diarrhea and fever,” said Ivan. “We were afraid he would die, so that’s why we decided to give him up.”

They contacted the National Conservation Agency (NCA) of West Kalimantan, whose staff are trained in looking after these endangered creatures. But when the officials came to take Otan, he clung tight to Ayu. He’d lost his mother, his home and now he was going to lose everything again.

For half an hour, he wouldn’t let go.

The Guardian estimates that one-third of the world’s remaining orangutans are threatened by Indonesia’s fires. During a boat ride down the Rungai River in Central Kalimantan, passing through an orangutan habitat near the Nyaru Menteng sanctuary, I saw first-hand how sick the animals had become. Just like us, tiny particles of toxic smoke penetrate deep into their lungs, causing them to cough and suffer flu-like symptoms. What’s worse, we recently discovered that an area once covered by peat forest just five minutes away from the sanctuary had been completely burnt, and freshly re-planted with palm oil saplings.

It seems like there is no end to this senseless destruction. For more than a decade, Greenpeace has been exposing the rampant deforestation of Indonesia’s forests and peatlands. In that time, an area of forest the size of Germany has been destroyed, led by the rapid expansion of the pulp and palm oil sectors.

A few days ago, an image of an emaciated mother orangutan and her daughter made waves online. In the mother’s eyes, you can see her desperation and trauma as her child tries to bury herself into her bosom. I feel that same pain when I think of Otan and what he must have gone through. How many more forests need to be razed and burned just to make products we buy? How many more orangutans like Otan must lose their mothers and homes because of greedy palm oil companies?

Half a million people have been sickened by toxic smoke. We need government action and company transparency to stop the fires for good.

Otan is now safe and sound in an orangutan sanctuary in West Kalimantan, but others like him are still suffering. Will you take action and save the homes of endangered wildlife like Otan?

By Zamzami Arlinus

Zamzami Arlinus is a media campaigner in Indonesia for Greenpeace Southeast Asia.

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