International Animal Rescue returns macaques to the wild in Indonesia
At the end of April our team in Indonesia released sixteen macaques back into the wild. All these animals had been born in the wild but taken away from their natural environment when they were very young to be sold as pets. They had been carefully rehabilitated and socialised at our centre in Ciapus, with a view to giving them back their freedom when the time was right and we were confident they could fend for themselves.
By 23 April the time had come: after much preparation and waiting, the two groups of macaques were ready for release. Below is an account of activity leading up to that exciting event.
The release site for the macaques is a National Park on the south-western tip of Java, called Ujung Kulon. Two months earlier, a research team from IAR Indonesia surveyed this area to establish the suitability of the site for the release of one or more groups of long-tailed macaques. In consultation with the management of Ujung Kulon National Park, Panaitan Island had been chosen as the target area for the survey. This island comprises no less than 17,500 hectares of undisturbed forest and has a rich flora and fauna, many of the species being rare and endemic.
Many aspects need to be considered when choosing a release site. For one thing, it is important to establish whether there is enough natural food for the animals to survive. Also, protection of the forest is essential: logging and poaching are major threats to animals in unprotected areas in Indonesia. Furthermore, it is important to estimate the interaction that the released animals will have with the current inhabitants of the island. The survey team comes back with positive results and so we decide to go ahead!
Then, it is time for the necessary paperwork. The approval of the Ujung Kulon National Park management has been secured, but still it takes almost two months before all the documents have been finalised. When confirmation finally comes, we are ecstatic: this means renewed freedom for 16 monkeys!
A long journey...
As soon as approval is final, the first team leaves for Panaitan Island. The plan is to set up the habituation cages before the animals themselves are transported. However, huge waves make it impossible to reach the island. The trip is delayed for a few days.
On Thursday, 23 April, the animals start their day in confinement as usual. Little do they know of our plans ... At 1600 hrs, while the rain pours down, the keepers start catching the animals. Some of them are sedated briefly, just long enough to weigh them, place an identification microchip and put them in their transport crates. Others are handled without sedation. Within the hour, all 16 animals are ready for the trip. We wait until 2200 hrs to load the crates into the car and start the long journey.
We drive through the night to the coastal village of Sumur. Here, we wait for some hours for the representatives from the Ujung Kulon administrative office, who will accompany us to the site. The animals eat and drink a little. Local people gather at a distance, peering curiously at the cages. Some dare to take a closer look ... hopefully, they can see the beauty of the animals, and realise they should not be in captivity.
After some formalities, the animals are carried to the boat for the final stretch of the journey. Three hours by boat will take us to the release site. On the water the animals become restless: they try to reach through the bars of the cages and grasp everything they can, from peanuts to trousers. Luckily for us, they cannot reach far. We are happy for them when we finally bring them to shore by a small boat. Here, on the beach, their journey ends.
As soon as we can, we start to put up the habituation pens, made out of bamboo and nets. In these enclosures the animals will get used to the sounds, smells and food of their new environment. We work until late, but unfortunately, we don't manage to build both of them that evening. At around 2300 hrs, the group of eleven macaques is being released into the habituation cage. They are very happy to leave the small confinement of their transportation cage. Unfortunately, the group of five males has to stay in their transportation cages; they will have to wait for the morning.
On Saturday, we leave as early as the tide permits for the release site and quickly build the habituation cage for the other group, a short distance from the first one. The two groups cannot see each other: we hope they will interact as one group after release, but this should not be forced while they are in confinement! Once ready, the males shoot out of their transportation cages and gather on a branch at the top of the habituation cage. They sit closely together and look around. Of course, they must get used to the smells and sounds around them. We leave so that they can get used to their new home without disruption from us.
On Sunday morning, we arrive at the release site and find that the animals are relaxed and well. They seem to have adjusted well to the new world around them. We decide it is time for the release! In both cages, a large branch is put through a small hole in the upper side of the cage. We first release the larger group. We widen the opening in the top of the cage a little. Immediately, the animals run up the branch to investigate it. They exit the cage one by one and start exploring the tree. Initially, they stay close together in the tree, as if they don't realize there is more to their new home. We watch them from a distance. Then Simon, a macaque who is very focused on people, runs towards us. We ignore him, even though he climbs on people and tries to get their attention. His group of mates follows him, but they are not even looking at us: they realise that they have a new world to explore!
The males are less interested in the branch that will lead them to freedom, but eventually one of them mounts it and shoots up the tree. Within seconds the other four follow. Freedom at last! It is wonderful to see the animals climbing, jumping and running. We can only try to imagine how they feel.
As we leave the release site by boat, the monkeys sit in a tree on the beach. During the first few weeks they will be monitored to make sure they get back their natural instincts back. This is currently ongoing: the first reports, however, are very promising and once again we are strengthened in our conviction that, even after years of captivity, natural instincts survive.
We hope that the animals will soon forget us and the experiences from their past. We hope that they will take their freedom for granted once again - just as it should be.