Watch These Orphaned Orangutans Learn the Ropes at Forest School

Orphaned Orangutan in a tree

Nanang Sujana / Jejak Pulang /

This is a very, very special place.

Borneo’s orangutans are in trouble. More than 100,000 have been lost since 1999. The destruction of their habitat has been devastating, and each year, some 2,000 to 3,000 orangutans are killed because they are considered “harvest thieves” in palm oil plantations – plantations that consume the forests that orangutans once called home. They are also killed for their meat.

"Only about 50,000 Bornean orangutans are left, indicating a population decline of roughly 80% since 1950," says Robert T. Ware, Country Director of Four Paws USA. "In the same period, approximately three-quarters of Borneo’s rain forests have been converted for human purposes, mainly into industrial agriculture or coal mining areas, leaving orangutans little choice other than starvation or eating from human plantations."

When moms are killed, poor orphaned juveniles end up in the pet trade and/or confiscated by the government – and without the skills that would normally be taught to them by their mothers, they can never return to the wild.

Thank heavens, then, there's forest school. A new one of which has started taking students in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan province, funded by the animal welfare organization Four Paws and run by the local organization Jejak Pulang.

Keeper carries a baby Orangutan
James Mepham/Jejak Pulang/Four Paws

Enrollment has started with eight students, who will learn the fine art of things like foraging and tree climbing. The "faculty" includes 15 orangutan caretakers, a biologist, two veterinarians, and the center’s director, primatologist Dr. Signe Preuschoft (pictured above), all working together to prepare the orphaned orangutans for independence.

The first eight orangutan students to attend the 250-acre forest school range in age from eleven months to nine years.

Keeper helps orangutan on a tree
Nanang Sujana / Jejak Pulang /

Here's the curriculum:

• Babies: live in the close care of their human surrogate mothers in the baby house and visit the kindergarten.

• Toddlers: From the age of two, toddlers attend the Forest School. As their competence increases, the orangutans become more adventurous and independent.

• When they reach puberty, it is time for them to graduate to the Forest Academy! When they're ready, the orangutans are released into the wild on a case by case basis.

forest school
Nanang Sujana / Jejak Pulang /

One of the challenges of humans teaching arboreal creatures how to live in the trees is the small sticking point that humans, alas, are not arboreal. And that's where the Tree Monkey Project comes in. They are technical tree climbers who work with nonprofits and indigenous peoples to preserve forests and protect endangered ecosystems. And teach orangutan professors how to navigate the canopy as well.

Nanang Sujana / Jejak Pulang /

How amazing this is. All of this effort to help eight orangutans – and worth every single minute of that work.

In a video interview by the Tree Monkey Project, you can see Preuschoft talking about the school and how the humans learned to climb trees. And in the video below, you can see the first day of school for four of the babes. It's amazing ... and so endearing, if not achingly poignant.

Saving the world, one orangutan orphan at a time.