Daily Mail - Daily Mail Weekend Magazine


One woman’s desperate mission to save the much-loved species from extinction is revealed in a heartwarmi­ng new documentar­y

- Christophe­r Stevens

The only thing cuter than a baby orangutan is two baby orangutans. Lamar and Embong are toddler apes, born at a sanctuary in southern Borneo. Their mothers were rescued as babies themselves, orphaned when loggers or poachers killed their parents. But this year, in a unique scheme that has been years in the planning, both mothers and babies have been prepared for a return to the wild.

It’s a bold mission, and one that has tested the emotions of their saviour, the inspiratio­nal conservati­onist Lone Droscher Nielsen, to breaking point. Lone, a 48-yearold Dane (her name is pronounced Lonna), joined the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation in 1998 to help save the species from extinction. Now she and her rehabilita­tion team care for 600 apes, taking them out into the forest each day to practise basic survival skills such as foraging for food and climbing trees, before bringing them back to the safety of the centre’s dormitory cages at night.

For several years, Lone has been teaching around a dozen of the animals to be semi-independen­t, living on an island sanctuary. Every day she takes them stacks of fruit to support them while they learn to build their nightly nests and explore their world in preparatio­n for a return to the wild. Some of Lone’s favourite apes are graduates of this sanctuary, including best friends Leonora and Emen, the mothers of little Lamar and Embong. Leonora is named after Lone’s own grandmothe­r, because their eyes shared the same gentle kindness, she says.

But the bond between human and ape can be dangerous: an orangutan that’s too tame and docile can never learn to survive. By the time Leonora turned eight this year, Lone knew she could not delay any longer – the long-planned release of this group of semi-independen­t apes into the remote northern jungles had to go ahead, and the drama that unfolds is captured in a new BBC documentar­y. The project carries a double risk. Lone’s beloved orangutans might not survive in the wild – and if they die, the project to rehabilita­te 600 more apes could be set back years. The animals would continue to live in captivity, becoming institutio­nalised – while wild orangutan numbers could dwindle to nothing. To Lone, it almost felt as though the fate of the entire species rested on this group.

The mission is one that appeals to Lone’s deepest instincts. ‘When they reach their little hands up to you asking, “Please help”, how can you not?’ she asks. ‘How anyone can turn their back on that, I don’t know. They’re so human, to me it would be the same as turning away a child needing my help.’ But problems begin on day one, before the apes have even left their sanctu- them gone. It takes a morning of trekking through the undergrowt­h before they spot the two friends, high in the trees foraging for fruit.

There are no bananas or sweetcorn, so Leonora and Emen are trying anything they can find to eat. Lone discovers a wild mango one of the apes has nibbled and discarded – and when she tries a bite herself, she realises why. The mango is bitter enough to make her retch. This could be a huge problem for the mothers. They need to consume at least 2,000 calories a day, but orangutans in the wild spend years watching their elders, finding out what’s safe and what’s poisonous. Leonora and Emen must rely on instinct and guesswork.

Wary. Expecting to see a canoe brimming with sweetcorn and bananas, their favourite food, Leonora and Emen are not pleased to discover that cages have been brought instead and they refuse to get in. After hours of pleading in English, Danish and Malay, to no avail, Lone has to sedate both mothers with tranquilli­sers – and then catch the babies by hand. Even at a year old, an angry orangutan knows how to defend itself. ‘They can give you a nasty bite,’ Lone warns.

The apes are taken across country by river, road and plane, before being ferried to a remote and secret region of the Borneo rainforest by helicopter. Their steel containers, perforated with hundreds of holes for light and air, are transporte­d just above the jungle canopy, with miniature cameras inside the boxes to capture the apes’ expression­s while they are airborne. Orangutans, it turns out, enjoy flying. Inquisitiv­e as children, they spend a large part of t he f l ight peeping through the holes with their fur blowing in the wind.

Once on the ground, the apes lose no time in scurrying up into the trees. Lone is in tears as she watches them. ‘I can’t really describe it in words. I feel like a proud mother,’ she sobs. But this is not goodbye forever. The animals have been fitted with radio transmitte­rs, and Lone’s team return to the release site the next morning – to find ithin days, Leonora is proving herself a born survivor. She’s invented a way of catching ants, a rich source of protein: she lets them crawl up onto her hairy arms and then picks them off. Lamar copies her, though he soon finds that ants tickle. But for Emen, jungle life is proving much tougher. After eating something unripe or poisonous, she suffers for days with stomach ache and squats miserably on a branch, refusing to move. Lone becomes concerned: if Emen doesn’t eat, her breast milk will dry up and little Embong would starve.

When Emen crawls down the tree and lies on the ground, Lone stands beside her to protect her from leopards and snakes. But Emen still refuses to eat, and it seems certain she’ll starve. In desperatio­n the team give her bananas, to reassure her that not all food is dangerous. The ploy works, and slowly Emen begins foraging again.

Four months later, mothers and babies are now thriving – the release project has been a total success. ‘I am as proud as any mother would be who has seen her kids not just go off to university but graduate as well!’ Lone declares. ‘They’re going out in the big world and succeeding. This is their home, where they are going to put down roots and have their babies.’ And thanks to this group of intrepid pioneers, dozens more orangutans will soon be reintroduc­ed to the wild – and a species threatened with extinction has gained fresh hope. Orangutans: The Great Ape Escape will be shown on Friday at 9pm on BBC2.

 ??  ?? Leonora with Lamar
Leonora with Lamar
 ??  ?? Lone with a new baby
Lone with a new baby

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom