Saturday, September 28, 2013

Mother of the apes


AFTER 17 years of saving orphaned orangutans in Borneo the former air stewardess who gave up everything to protect the animals is now starting to release them back into the wild.

It was the momentous event Lone Droscher Nielsen had been envisaging for 17 years. Everything she'd worked for had been leading to this: the release into the wild of the orphan orangutans she and her colleagues had reared from babies.

For the former air stewardess it was the heart-warming culmination of many years of work that had brought her here to Borneo on a mission to save these animals' lives.

Further months of planning to transport the apes to this remote spot by boat, plane and helicopter had also gone into this moment. Now the team of project workers took turns to open the animals' individual travel containers.

One by one, the apes headed for the treetops.

Like a proud mother Lone watched as one of the orangutans, an 18-yearold called Emen, climbed into the canopy of trees and started making a nest. Lone thought back to the pitiful youngster she first met 14 years previously - another of the many victims of hunters and poachers who kill orangutan mothers to steal their babies to sell on in an illegal pet trade.

"Her owner was bragging that he'd cut the fingers off her right hand because she'd stolen some eggs," Lone recalls now. But Emen could have got her injuries when her mother was hacked to death with machetes. We'll never know."

Speaking from her home in Monmouthshire, Wales, Danish-born Lone adds: "Emen was the sweetest character and worked so hard to learn to climb using her stump and thumb.

"Seeing an animal freed touches something so deep inside, especially as I'd known these individuals for most of their lives," she continues, recalling the day of the animals' release, soon to be seen in a new TV documentary.

Nor will Lone, 49, forget releasing 17-year-old Leonora, who calmly strode to the nearest tree and climbed to freedom with son Lamar "clinging on for dear life". Looking up at her Lone remembered the sweet-faced three-year-old she had named after her own grandmother.

"When we went to confiscate her from her owner, I saw my grandmother in her face," says Lone. "Leonora was such a gentle soul. I worried she would always be too tame. But here she was proving me wrong.

"I got so emotional I had to walk away from the film crew making the documentary. For any mother the hardest part is letting go." What particularly concerned Lone was whether the animals - so accustomed to being fed and cared for - would be able to survive on their own in the wild.

"That night I didn't want to be at the camp with all the pots and pans and people talking. I felt happy, relieved and afraid at the same time. I slept at the release site in my hammock."

Since 1996 Lone has dedicated her life to saving orangutans nearing extinction. It couldn't be further from the carefree life she had in her 20s - au pairing in California, working as a chef on a yacht and travelling the world as an air stewardess.

But three months on a volunteering holiday at a rescue centre for confiscated pet orangutans changed everything. She learned how babies literally cling on to their mothers for their first eight months. But poachers were hunting down females to kill them and steal their babies to sell on as pets. The majority died in transit to other countries. The lost little souls in the sanctuary were the lucky ones.

"When I hold a baby that has witnessed the killing of its mother I cry for the fear they have both felt. It is heartbreaking to see motherless infants. When you look into their eyes you see such knowing intelligence."

She had found her calling. She left her job and flat in Berkshire and bought a one-way ticket to Borneo. Back at the sanctuary she met and fell in love with Odom, a handsome local Dayak (native of Borneo) who worked as a researcher. Lone's parents flew out for their traditional wedding in 1997 and they moved into a hut with no water or electricity. "We had cushions on the floor and candles. It was so romantic," she says.

Two years later, backed by the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, the couple co-founded the Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Reintroduction Project. The black market pet trade was savage enough but the situation became dire with the relentless destruction of Borneo's rainforests for timber and palm oil plantations. Orangutans only survive on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra and experts fear 98 per cent of forests there will be destroyed by 2022.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Mother of the apes
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