Documentary puts the spotlight on the plight of orangutans.
A new documentary series starting on Choice this week looks at a unique school where a pass means the inhabitants graduate to a life in the wild. Kerry Harvey reports.
Wildlife series have never really done it for me … until Orangutan Jungle School. By the end of the first episode, I was on the edge of my seat wanting to know if mum Clara will be happily reunited with kidnapped newborn Clarita.
“I know I am biased but once you start watching this you don’t want it to stop,” says producer Judith Curran, who also has a passion for the red apes.
We’re not alone. Orangutan Jungle School – which has already aired in Asia, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom – where one on-line clip received more than two million views in two weeks – has just been given a second season.
The antics of the show’s huge cast are such that Curran classifies the series as a docu-soap rather than any kind of wildlife documentary.
“When we’re working with them, we find ourselves calling them people, as in, ‘That person over there came in and did blah blah blah’,” she says. “It just becomes a natural thing. I would very rarely refer to them as animals.”
Curran, and her team from Kiwi production company Natural History New Zealand, was also behind Orangutan Island, an Animal Planet cult favourite from a decade ago.
Orangutan Jungle School returns to Borneo’s Nyaru Menteng – the setting for earlier series – a rehab centre like no other for orphan orangutans that have been displaced from their habitat because of forest destruction, separated from their mothers or kept illegally as pets, and teaches them the skills necessary to return to the wild.
In the jungle classroom, lessons range from cracking open a coconut to nest building, snake awareness and how to become an expert climber. The youngest students are less than one year old – and, just like their human counterparts, they wear nappies at night – and the oldest are the equivalent of human teenagers.
“It’s pure entertainment on one level – comedy, emotion, drama – but there’s a lot of interesting sides in there too and there is a lot of stuff that nobody has ever filmed before,” Curran says.
“Because of the access that we have and because of the time we spend with them, we see them creating tools and making plans and doing all those cultural things that scientists would spend years in the wild to see.”
However, like most good soaps, it’s the cast and their backstories that make the series so addictive.
Take Tessie, who Curran first met 11 years ago when she was a baby.
“Her mother was killed by villagers for stealing crops because she didn’t have any food because there was no jungle left,” Curran says. “The villagers attacked her with a machete and, in the process, they cut off one of Tessie’s hands but she is just this extraordinary character and everybody completely falls in love with her through the series.
“Then, there’s little Malika whose mother was burnt in the terrible fires that swept through Indonesia in 2014. She basically had all her hair burned off but survived and was rescued by a village woman who fell in love with this little orangutan and looked after her like a human child. She actually breastfed her but, as it is illegal to keep orangutans as pets, she eventually brought her into the sanctuary.”
And we can’t forget Alba, the only known albino orangutan in the world.
“Alba arrives and amongst all those red heads, this extraordinary, snow-white female with cornflower blue eyes and, oh my god, she’s amazing; but the politics surrounding her very existence are very difficult,” Curran says.
“She will never truly be able to go back into a true wilderness because of her albino condition. Plus, she will always be a massive prize for poachers. How she integrates into the group and how the others respond to her – talk about a profound storyline.”
Curran, who has a background in drama, says no scriptwriter could ever come up with the stories discovered while filming Orangutan Jungle School.
“I’ll never forget the first time I went out to Borneo to work on Orangutan Island. I’d pitched this great series about these orangutans that were all going to live on an island together and it was going to be like Lord Of The Flies in the reverse,” she says.
“It was going to be all these kids coming together and forming their own little society but I had no idea what would really happen. Every day it just