After This Orangutan Was Stolen From The Forest As A Baby, No One Knew If She’d Ever Taste Freedom

After being stolen as babies and kept as pets, Johnny and Desi forgot how to be orangutans. And when they were finally rescued, the pair had no idea how to fend for themselves. If they were ever to see the jungle again they would have to learn how to be wild once more.

In September 2011, male orangutan Johnny arrived at International Animal Rescue’s shelter in Pontianak, Indonesia. The young ape was one of two orangutans found and confiscated by the local forestry department. Curiously, Johnny was accustomed to humans – an indication that he was taken from the wild as a baby.

Although he was in good health, Johnny was quarantined before his rehabilitation began. And six months later, Johnny was joined by female orangutan, Desi. She too had been snatched from the wild as part of the illegal pet trade.

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International Animal Rescue discovered a caged Desi in the town of Pemangkat, where she had lived outside a property for two years. Her owners apparently bought her from a palm oil plantation worker.

Sadly, Desi was filthy and nervous around her rescuers. And although she had eaten relatively well, she had got used to a human diet of rice and chicken rather than fruit. Thankfully, though, she was in good health and sporting a thick fur coat.

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After completing their respective quarantines, Johnny and Desi were ready for rehab. However, it would be a long journey before they could play in the jungle again. As they’d both spent their formative years in captivity, both animals had to learn how to be wild.

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And so Johnny and Desi were sent to International Animal Rescue’s Orangutan Conservation Center in Ketapang. There, the animals learned how to climb, find food and build shelters. Once the basics were grasped, the pair could move to a pre-release area.

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“The rehabilitation process is a long one. It can take seven or eight years,” Karmele Llano Sanchez, International Animal Rescue’s program director in Indonesia explained in December 2016. “Being kept as pets for several years can have a very adverse effect on the orangutans’ mental and physical health.”

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But thankfully, Johnny and Desi progressed well. “Luckily Johnny and Desi were saved in time but there are several orangutans in our care for whom our help came too late,” Sanchez added. “We rescued them but it was too late for them to be rehabilitated. So sadly now they will have to stay in our rescue center for the rest of their lives.”

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After a few years, Johnny and Desi moved to a special pre-release island. Then, in May 2016 came Desi’s opportunity to return to the wild. She was scheduled for release with another female called Sushi after both proved that they could fend for themselves.

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But unfortunately the release didn’t go as planned. Monitoring teams noticed that Desi wasn’t looking well; they feared, in fact, that she may have caught malaria. There was little option but to recapture the orangutan and nurse her back to health.

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Luckily, Desi’s health improved with care and treatment. So, a second release date was planned – and this time Desi would take Johnny into the wild with her. In November 2016, the twosome would start their new lives in the jungle.

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“The two of them are in good condition and clearly able to fend for themselves. They are able to forage and find food for themselves and make a nest each night to sleep in,” International Animal Rescue vet Ayu Budi Handayani said. “We are sure they will do well in their new home in the forest.”

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So on November 23, the two orangutans began their epic journey back to the wild. In the four years since their arrival at the center, they had both come on leaps and bounds. Indeed, all their time at the rehabilitation center had built up to this remarkable moment.

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But Johnny and Desi had an arduous journey before seeing their new home. Indeed, they had a 40-hour car ride, a 90-minute boat trip and a six-hour trek to get through first. However, when they finally arrived, the orangutans showed no real signs of fatigue.

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Without a moment’s hesitation, Johnny and Desi leaped into the forest and began foraging. And although the animals got off to a good start, a team will continue to monitor their progress. Among other things, experts will check that the apes eat properly.

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Indeed, Johnny and Desi are being followed for 14 hours a day. “The monitoring team is doing an incredible job,” said Adi Irawan, International Animal Rescue’s local operations manager. “We believe their presence will ensure the success of this release and a happy future for Johnny and Desi.”

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Although the future looks rosy for Johnny and Desi, the same can’t be said for the orangutan population as a whole. Unfortunately, the critically endangered species is facing existential threats like habitat loss. In Borneo alone, orangutan numbers have declined by 80 percent in the last 75 years.

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“We can’t imagine a bright future for orangutans if their habitat continues to be lost at this rapid rate. They are threatened by the clearing of forests, fires and also the threat of being caught and sold as pets,” Sanchez added. “They will only survive when people start to take the problem seriously, although I fear it could be too late by then.”

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So with the long-term future of orangutans hanging in the balance, Johnny and Desi’s release is especially important. And with any luck, their long journey to freedom will have been worth it. After being snatched from the jungle and spending four years in rehab, the pair are finally back where they belong: the wild.

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