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.

The TV Guide - - CONTENTS -

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

un­folds.”

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