Releasing an orangutan into the wild

Story highlights

  • Jenni Watts produced Expedition: Sumatra, CNN's new environment special
  • The team traveled round Indonesia charting some of the biggest issues affecting the country
  • They visited an orangutan conservation group trying to protect the endangered species

Few people in the world have the chance to see a former pet orangutan released back into the wild and it was about to happen right in front of me. We were with the Frankfurt Zoological Society orangutan team deep in the Sumatran jungle at the site where Bobo the endangered Sumatran orangutan was to be released.

I was standing with the CNN team about 10 feet from the orangutan's crate, watching in anticipation as an Indonesian man was standing on top about to open it.

He lifted one wall of the crate and Bobo slowly walked out. The orangutan was very calm as he exited the crate. The first thing he did was look over to where we were standing. That also happened to be the direction where our tech expert John had placed our gopro camera just a few feet away. It was an incredible sight and a great shot.

CNN producer Jenni Watts.

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I was actually a bit nervous seeing Bobo look at us. FZS Indonesia Director Peter Pratje warned us not to get too close to the 11-year-old male orangutan. Sumatran orangutans can be very strong and unpredictable. We had no idea what to expect. Did we make him feel threatened? Would he charge a group of onlookers with cameras?

Luckily for us, the answer was no. He turned away from us and walked into the jungle.

The islands of Sumatra and Borneo are the only two places on earth where wild orangutans roam free. It's illegal to have one as a pet because it's an endangered species, but they're sold on the black market for thousands of dollars.

Pet orangutans are hunted and captured as very small babies from remote areas of the rainforest. It's a brutal process. Mother orangutans often fight to protect their babies, like any mother would, so the mother is often killed in the process. It's a cruel way to get a cute pet for only a few years.

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Most orangutans are too much for people to handle as they grow into adolescence, so the owners seldom keep their pets. That's exactly what happened to Bobo. He was five years old when his owner gave him up. Bobo was then brought to Peter Pratje and his team at the Frankfurt Zoological Society.

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When the FZS obtains a former pet orangutan like Bobo, the only life these animals have ever known is captivity. So the FZS team has to erase all the captive behavior the orangutan learned as a pet and replace it with wild orangutan behavior.

It takes many years to individually model this behavior to these orangutans to replicate the lessons that a mother orangutan would've taught her baby. Each orangutan has to learn everything from finding food to climbing a tree.

Climbing is very important for Sumatran orangutans. They share the same habitat as Sumatran tigers, so to keep from becoming a tiger's dinner, orangutans must live most of their lives in trees. After Bobo left his crate, he was supposed to climb the tree in front of him to a platform Peter and his team had constructed.

But he didn't. Frustratingly, Bobo wasn't using his training. He remained on the ground, walking around, as we followed him for more than half an hour.

Read more: Orangutans stressed by eco-tourists

After a release, members of the FZS orangutan team usually follow the newly wild orangutan for several weeks during the day for until they're sure the orangutan can survive on its own. Several members of the team were following Bobo that day trying to coax him into the trees with fruit. Nothing worked. Minutes ticked by.

Finally, Peter theorized that Bobo was staying on the ground because there were so many people around him walking on the ground. Bobo has been modeling the behavior of human trainers for years, so maybe he wanted to be like us and stay on the ground. We didn't want to hurt Bobo's chances of survival, so we decided to leave him and the FZS trackers to go about their day.

It was too early to tell how Bobo will be able to survive in the rainforest by himself. We would have to wait and get an update from Peter later.

Walking back to the camp, we were all feeling a sense of awe and hope for the future of Sumatran orangutans and for endangered species worldwide. If this species can be brought back from the brink of extinction, could this be a model for other species?

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