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S4G Indonesia Diaries - Part 1

‘The Great Orangutan Release’

In January 2024, Mathieu, Thijs, Max and Lisa of our Space4Good team made their way back to Indonesia on an important expedition to support our developments in deforestation detection and prediction with our partners Dr Willie Smits, Arsari Enviro Industri, Sintang Orangutan Center (SOC) and Masarang Foundation.

Figure 1. A view of the rainforest, January 2024.

To start, our team made their way to West Kalimantan. This 4-day journey was a long precursor to the pending orangutan release. Why share about Orangutans in our Space4Good journey? In our endeavours at S4G and in our relationship with Arsari Enviro Industri, Masarang Foundation and Dr Willie Smits, we have been monitoring the home and environment of these beings daily for the last three years. We are committed to protecting their habitat, preventing it from deforestation and forest fires. We usually get familiar with our partners and their needs in product methodologies. In many ways, the Orangutans are one of our partners. This trip allowed our development team the opportunity to get involved and understand them and the logistics around protecting them. This ensures that the remote sensing solutions we provide make a real-world difference in protecting dwindling forest environments. 

Figure 2. Members of Space4Good team disembarking, January 2024. From Left to right: Thijs Koop, Lisa Broekhuizen, Max Malynowsky, and Mathieu Aillerie.

After a very long and nauseating, ride, our team arrived at the Sekolah Hutan Jerora where they were welcomed by Greg Sinopa who introduced the team to the forest school and a 2 ha. enclosed area providing room for the orangutan students to play, nest, climb and learn. Greg studied in economics and education, he works in the orangutan centre and on public outreach in local human schools and universities to educate people around Sintang about the importance of protecting Orangutans. 


Forest schooling is an essential reintegration phase for these little orangutans. During forest school, an elder orangutan teaches them how to climb trees, make a home, and find food. There is no specific graduation date for the school. Orangutans who are bright and learn quickly may be ready to be released into the wild sooner than those who only want to climb to the top of a tree and sleep until it is time to eat. Nevertheless, all efforts are made to return them to the wild which happen usually between 8 to 12 years old. And our team was lucky enough to witness this outcome. 

SOC was preparing to release 2 juvenile orangutans, Mona (8 years and 11 months old) and Markus (Previously Aming and currently 9 years and 5 months old). They were rescued from 6 months and 1 year old from being kept as pets. This unfortunately is far too common a future for these majestic apes. Thanks to the work of SOC, orangutans like Mona and Markus can be saved, schooled and hopefully released back into the wild. 

Conservation teams load Markus and Mona from the isolation cages into their transport cages and give them lots of leaves to make their nest for the night - an important preparation, considering the long journey into the jungle of new graduates. 

Figure 3. A small refreshment as the team prepares. January 2024.

The release preparations were immense and factored in a 6-hour bumpy car drive followed by a transfer to boats preceded by a moving welcome ceremony by local people, government officials, and SOC members. Loaded onto the small boats, the release crew, Mona, Markus and Space4Gooders meandered through rapids and squinting through a rainstorm to get to the release site. Staying a night at a ranger camp on the border of the park, Mona and Markus were offered roomier establishments and treats, while our team connected with the release crew - partaking in dinner and an extensive briefing. Our team deeply appreciated this intimate insight into the goings on, the cultural specifics of meeting dynamics, and more evidently the Western-legged stiffness after needing to partake ‘Indonesian style’ - crosslegged on the wooden floor - for the duration of the meeting.

Figure 4. Dinner and preparation talks, January 2024.

Soon the 26th of January dawned and it was the final release day. Once again, the graduates were not about to allow a morning acrobatic trick to pass. Convincing them to get back into the transport cages one last time took some carrot-and-stick persuasion. Mona immediately took to the fruit and honey as a reward, but that didn’t impress Markus until someone took out the blowpipe used for sedation; that was all he needed to see.

Figure 5. Mona and Markus are on the move to their final destination. January 2024.

Figure 6. A swift trip upriver to the release site. January 2024.

Soon, they were off to their final stop. Pausing along the river - the release team, Mona and Markus on the left shore and the onlookers on the right. The moment has arrived. The crates were placed at the edge of the forest. With a swift opening of the cages using ropes from a distance, the wild was open to them, and the graduates could walk the stage. It took Markus a few minutes to figure out what he was supposed to do now. The ropes that opened the cages looked like a lot of fun to play with, but soon enough he saw the allure of an entire forest to explore as he disappeared from our view.

Figure 7. Release site from across the river. January 2024.

Immediately following the release, the monitoring program began. Different observation teams follow the pair for at least a week. With the Kalimantan rainforest boasting steep hills and dense brush, one can only imagine this mission being a challenging one as the dextrous apes race through the treetops. 

Figure 8. A newly wild orangutan exploring their forever home. January 2024.

Moved by the release, our team turned their attention to the incredible people who made it happen. In a series of interviews, Mathieu speaks with the team of directors, education team, vets, and observation team members diving deep into their conservation work, their needs and how we and our technologies could best support them. Space4Good’s mission to support local communities to work with nature and provide remote sensing-enabled insights that unlock opportunities for impact, both environmental and social, is key.

Figure 9. The team and volunteers on their way back and onto the next leg of the journey. January 2024.

To close off this incredible journey, sitting at the Grand Banana Hotel, the team’s work was just beginning… but not before the promise of their first night on a soft mattress was taken from them by the realities of travel logistics! With one phone call, the team hoisted up their bags to quickly adapt themselves and bundle into a car to drive through the night on bumpy roads from Putussibau to Sintang City to catch an alternate flight.  What they should have done in 7 hours they did in 5 - with Max in the front keeping the driver on his toes, Mathieu choosing to not notice the lurching and leaning in the dark. Thijs searched for the safety belt only to find it on arrival, and Lisa remained glad to be alive. 

Figure 10. Some much-needed rest. January 2024.

Finally, they arrived and went to Balikpapan for the next phase of the trip. Now on to the Deforestation detection and prediction pilot. Stay tuned for part 2 of our story where we dive into the inner workings of the pilot and the people! 

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