Indonesian orangutans airlifted back to the wild

JAKARTA: Ten orangutans have been airlifted back to their natural habitat on Indonesia’s Borneo island, in the first release of the apes into the wild for a year due to the dangers of COVID-19 infection.

The animals were flown by helicopter across the island’s dense jungle earlier this month to keep them away from days-long land and sea routes that could expose them to the coronavirus.

Orangutans share 97 per cent of humans’ DNA so conservationists have been on high alert for signs of infection. The pandemic has thrown up unprecedented challenges for conservation efforts.

“For an entire year, we have not been able to release orangutans due to the global pandemic,” said Jamartin Sihite, chief executive of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF).

An orangutan in a cage is delivered by helicopter in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia

An orangutan in a cage is delivered by helicopter in Central Kalimantan, Borneo, Indonesia. (Photo: AFP/Handout)

“We have implemented strict health protocols, and introduced mitigation plans to be enacted in the event of an orangutan contracting the virus. The use of a helicopter … helps reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.”

The fuzzy-haired creatures were sedated with tranquillisers before their flight and were shuttled inside transport cages encased in netting.

At least one of the moon-faced animals banged on its cage’s metal walls as it tried to make sense of the airborne mission.

The apes took a short boat trip after touching down, before arriving at the Bukit Batikap Protection Forest in Central Kalimantan – part of Indonesia’s section of Borneo – where they took to swinging on vines.

Several apes were also released into another forest in East Kalimantan.

Staff at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation have stepped up their efforts to prevent infection

Staff at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation have stepped up their efforts to prevent infection among the apes. (Photo: AFP/Handout)

Poaching and habitat loss decimated the Southeast Asian nation’s orangutan population before the coronavirus emerged as another potential threat to the critically endangered species.

“If an orangutan shows symptoms of respiratory problems, it’s possible that it has been infected with COVID-19,” said Vivi Dwi Santi, a veterinarian with BOSF.

“Also, if one of the staff tests positive … we will conduct tracing on an orangutan that’s been in contact with them.”

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Two smuggled Sumatran orangutans flown home from Thailand

BANGKOK: Two critically endangered orangutans smuggled into Thailand three years ago were returned to Indonesia on Thursday (Dec 17), where they will undergo rehabilitation before being released into the wild.

Ung Aing and Natalee, both four-year-old Sumatran orangutans, were taken from a wildlife rescue centre in Ratchaburi province to Bangkok’s airport, before being put on a flight to Indonesia where they will initially stay at a rehabilitation centre in Jambi Province on Sumatra island.

Before being put on the flight, the pair were fed with bananas and green apples, and cleared of having COVID-19 after taking a test, said Suraphong Chaweepak, a director at the Thai division to protect wild fauna and flora.

“This is the fifth repatriation of orangutans back to Indonesia since 2006,” Prakit Vongsrivattanakul, an official at Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation said at the airport. A total of 71 orangutans have now been repatriated to Indonesia from Thailand.

The two great apes were seized on the Thai-Malaysian border in 2017 and after the smugglers were prosecuted, Thailand agreed to send them back to Indonesia, according to a joint statement from Thailand’s wildlife and conservation ministry and Indonesia’s embassy in Bangkok.

Orangutans are poached illegally from forests for food, to obtain infants for the domestic and international pet trade, or for traditional medicine.

There are only estimated to be around 100,000 Bornean orangutans left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, while only about 7,500 Sumatran orangutans are thought to remain.

In addition to illegal poaching, populations have crashed because of habitat destruction due to large-scale logging and replacement of forests with cash crops such as palm oil.

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