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Wednesday, 14 January 2015 10:31

Blind orangutan from palm plantation area gains sight & freedom

A formerly blind Sumatran orangutan from a degraded forest surrounded by inhospitable palm oil plantations has just been returned to the wild after undergoing surgery, and giving birth to twins from a shotgun victim blind father at an orangutan care centre.

orang gober blind copyGober was returned to a life in the wild in Aceh, Sumatra Indonesia as part of the work of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP). The release of Gober was only possible due to groundbreaking cataract surgery in 2012 that restored her eyesight.

Twin orangutan births are rare, but Gober's twins are totally unique as they were born to parents who were BOTH blind. Their father Leuser, lost his eyesight when shot at least 62 times with an air rifle. He still has two pellets in one eye and one in the other.

Gober was originally rescued by the SOCP from an isolated patch of forest surrounded by palm oil plantations in 2008. As she was blind, she was raiding farmer's crops to survive, and some people were concerned she would surely have been killed if left where she was. She was then cared for at the SOCP orangutan quarantine centre near Medan, North Sumatra.

Normally, females at the centre are kept separated from males to prevent pregnancies, thus avoiding further orangutans in captivity. However, Gober was allowed to conceive despite being unable to see, as it was considered that rearing an infant would dramatically improve her welfare, giving her something to do. Her twins are Ginting, female and Ganteng, male and they will be 4 years old on January 21st.

The release took place in the conservation forest of Jantho, in Aceh, Indonesia in the new year. Aceh has been in the news recently due to the 10th anniversary of the devastating 2004 tsunami.

Sadly, the plan to release Gober and both of her twin infants together did not work out as hoped. All three were released at the same time, but the young Ganteng did not take well to the forest environment and Gober struggled in the trees with two infants to watch out for. It was not long before she seemed to give up trying, and poor little Ganteng was left behind.

Whilst Gober and Ginting subsequently coped perfectly well, travelling through the canopy, finding food and building a huge nest for the night, little Ganteng spent his first night in the forest alone and afraid, cold and wet.

Orang gober cage open copyThe following day, after seeing that his mother and sister where not coming back for him, SOCP staff were able to give Ganteng food and managed to usher him back to the safety of the onsite cages later that afternoon.

Speaking from Jantho, Dr Ian Singleton said: "The last couple of days have been an emotional roller coaster ride, for all of us but especially for Ganteng, and presumably for Gober and Ginting too. No one believed she would leave one of her twins behind, at least not so soon after release. We're all a bit stunned at just how quickly it happened."

He went on to add: "Gober and Ginting are doing fine and it remains to be seen if they will try looking for Ganteng again or not. In the meantime the most important thing is that all of them are safe. If she doesn't come back for him, he will still get his chance of a life free in the forest in the not too distant future."

Mr John Kenedie, MM, Head of the Government's Conservation Agency for North Sumatra, where Gober and the twins spent the last several years, commented: "Gober's story is a welcome ray of hope for her species. All being well, Gober and Ginting will be fine in the forest and Ganteng will get his chance later. Gober's release is part of an ongoing reintroduction project for orangutans in Aceh. More than 50 orangutans have now been released in Jantho. They are the founders of an entirely new orangutan population being established there.

Orang Gober in tree"Sadly though, there are still many much less fortunate orangutans out there, being killed and captured as the forests are destroyed. We must do all we can to prevent this and prevent orangutans coming into captivity in the first place. Anyone found illegally capturing, killing, keeping or trading orangutans and other protected species is clearly breaking the law and will be prosecuted," he stressed.

Dr Singleton concluded: "In hindsight, we may have been a bit too optimistic expecting Gober to take care of both twins whilst she, herself, had to readapt to the forest after all these years. It was still a genuine shock though, that she left Ganteng behind so readily. But she knows life in the forest better than any of us, and has probably made the best decision for all three of them, whether she realised it or not.

"By leaving him behind early there's still every chance of all three of them living side by side in the same forest in a year or two. If we'd done this when the kids were smaller and more dependent, if anything had happened to Gober after release, she is quite elderly after all, we would probably have lost all three of them. If we'd waited till they were older, there's no guarantee it would have gone any better and Gober would have had to endure even more years in a cage, where she has never settled and has always been stressed.

"I've been racking my brains since Gober left her son to think of a way we could have done this better, but I really can't think of one. Despite obvious disappointment that it didn't go as planned, I still think we can consider Gober and Ginting's release as a huge success, and we must now ensure Ganteng gets out there with them eventually as well."

A video of Gober's amazing story is below and information on the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme is at www.sumatranorangutan.org