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In the lush rain forests of central Borneo, a group of young orangutans, endangered refugees from human development, swung from branch to branch.
She was one of 13 adolescent orangutans recently transported to an unspoiled, 5,200-acre tract of Salat Island, acquired last year by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1991. When they reached the sanctuary, the auburn-maned apes clambered out of the cages they had arrived in and climbed up to freedom.
The release of the orangutans this month was the second installment in what may ultimately be the relocation of hundreds of orangutans currently housed in cages in a nearby rescue shelter.
As Borneo’s rain forests are rapidly destroyed by development, nonprofit organizations have struggled to find new habitat to relocate the rescued animals that are ready to return to the wild. The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation called Salat a “major breakthrough” in helping to save the species.
This is a massive push for liberation,” said Jacqueline Sunderland-Groves, the foundation’s deputy chief executive. As the group empties its cages, she said, “We’re hoping to go from being the world’s largest orangutan rehabilitation center to the smallest.”
A major Indonesian palm oil company, PT Sawit Sumbermas Sarana, has swooped in and purchased part of the island for orangutan rehabilitation. The company even agreed to pay some of the foundation’s costs for monitoring and maintaining the island.
But the foundation’s partnership with a palm oil company worries some environmentalists, who are concerned that it provides a flawed company an easy cloak of respectability. The huge expansion of palm oil plantations is widely acknowledged to be a key driver of rain-forest destruction in Indonesia, which deprives the orangutans of habitat.