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As part of Mawas Conservation Program, Tuanan Orangutan Research Station was built by the BOS Foundation in 2002. Here we have collaborated with Carel P. van Schaik and Maria van Noordwijk of the University of Zurich, Erin R. Vogel of the Rutgers University, and Dr. Sri Suci Utami and Drs. Tatang Mitra-Setia of the National University in Jakarta since 2003.

Research focuses on wild orangutan behavior as well as the effects of habitat degradation on orangutans in particular and other biodiversity in general. The results are expected to deepen our understanding of orangutans and their natural habitat, which in turn give us the necessary knowledge to run our orangutan reintroduction programs and habitat restoration program.

Wild orangutans are orangutans who have never been taken out of their natural habitat, living freely and independently where they rightfully belong all their lives. Semi wilds are orangutans who were evicted from their natural habitat for various reasons, but at the time of rescue still retained their true nature and have consistently showed that they have learned adequate forest skills to be returned to natural habitat; while rehabilitants are orangutans who were rescued at a very young age and/or had been kept by humans as pets. Rehabilitants typically did not have or had lost most of the necessary skills to survive independently in the forest and thus must go through an intensive rehabilitation process, which can take up to seven years on average. Based on data of wild orangutan behavior, we learn to best educate the rehabilitants in our rehabilitation centers. Mawas is home to around 3,000 wild orangutans.

Learning from Orangutans
There are a lot of behavioral data that must be collected by researchers every day in Tuanan, including social behavior (peering/friendship), food selections (including medicinal plants that they eat when they are sick), personal care (grooming), playful behavior, exploration areas, sounds made by them at specific moments, and so on.

An orangutan mother with a child over 3 years old (3-7 years old) is usually observed by two researchers; one to watch the mother and the other to watch the child. This is because a young orangutan aged 3-7 years old no longer spends the days in his/her mother’s arms. At that age, the mother encourages him/her to learn to be independent by exploring on his/her own, although she still keeps an close eye from a safe distance.

The result of mother-child observations is very important to the BOS Foundation. Based on these data, we come to understand how orangutan mothers teach their children to be independent and at what age they are completely left on their own (usually around 7-8 years old). It becomes our guidelines to teach young orphaned orangutans now in our care at rehabilitation centers – both in Nyaru Menteng (Central Kalimantan) and in Samboja Lestari (East Kalimantan). We also use these guidelines to specify the minimum age of reintroduction of rehabilitated orangutans into their natural habitat.

In addition to observing orangutan behavior, the team also conducts a variety of habitat researches; one of them is plant phenology. Apart from studying plants for orangutan food, phenology also covers the study of life cycle event period and how these are influenced by seasonal and inter-annual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors (such as elevation). The results will provide knowledge on the impact of climate change on particular plants, and of course also on the behavior of orangutans in search of food.

Monitored orangutan photos are put on the Camp walls by Rini Sucahyo

Mawas is home to around 3,000 wild orangutans by Rini Sucahyo

Tuanan Orangutan Research Station by Rini Sucahyo

Staff returning from phenology monitoring by Rini Sucahyo

One of wild orangutans in Mawas, Mindy, with her child by Rini Sucahyo

To Be Wild
Observing wild orangutans is not easy. Wild orangutans are generally harder to find as they instinctively run away at the sight of humans, especially strangers whom they have never seen before. Despite clear signs that they are around (for example, through the presence of new nests), often they are nowhere to be seen. Researchers have to go into the forest many times, sometimes for weeks, until finally the wild orangutans recognize their faces and develop a sense of “trust” towards them. Only then they will be willing to let themselves be followed and observed.

We must therefore also teach this particular behavior to our rehabilitants at the centers. This is why the BOS Foundation has strict rules regarding visits to our rehabilitation centers – whether it is to just see orangutans, for educational reasons, for volunteering, for media coverage, as well as for other purposes. The more often orangutans see new people, the more familiar they become with this situation. Thus it will be difficult to teach them to regain their wild behavior. In turns, it will also be difficult to reintroduce them into their natural habitat, because they will not be able to keep themselves safe by always avoiding humans.

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