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Primate Enrichment Session at Colchester Zoo

What a wonderful day it was!

26th April 2010

How it came to happen

Quite a while ago I received a Tweet – oh, how I love Twitter – ‘The primate enrichment session is all yours!’ Dear Grainne McEntee from Bos-UK would send me a letter confirming that I was to attend a behind the scenes tour with the keepers at Colchester Zoo . And not just that, it would be tailored to whatever I liked and I could bring someone. This someone I decided was hubby, and off we went on the 26th of April 2010.

The drive from Ipswich to Colchester is just 40 minutes and hence a good distance for a wonderful day out. I had been at the zoo before and it is the nicest one I have ever seen. And that is where the term ‘enrichment’ comes into play: This zoo is great fun for adults and children alike, but although one never feels lectured one is always aware that everything is about animal welfare and that we are the visitors to their homes. The enclosures are beautifully built and tailored to accommodate all the needs of their inhabitants, and most importantly: Animals have hiding places; if they don’t want to be starred at, they just go away.

Primate Enrichment

Primate enrichment is a special treat for all of us primates. These guys are smart and it is not enough to put an apple onto a platform, their brains need a bit more stimulation to keep them happy and entertained. We were told that a Chimpanzee’s first attempt to solve a problem usually would be brute force, while Orangutans would use ‘thinking it through’ as a tool.

And since my focus is on Orangutans I asked for a session tailored toward those orange fellas.

Our host for the day hence were Rajang and Tiga, and our guide was Natalie their keeper. She told us that they tend to loosen nuts and bolts and basically everything that can possibly be unfastened, and that usually it is possible to trade the metal work for some fruit to get it back – only that a female once (of course it was a lady) realized that this is good business and eagerly loosened everything possible in order to get her hands on enough merchandise. This is when ape entertainment is backfiring.

Primate Health

For me this was a dream come true; I had taken all the precautions to not get a cold and had fed myself with high doses of Vit C. Apparently keepers who work with the great apes have to have jabs for hepatitis and all sorts of stuff, as the apes can attract the same diseases as humans do. As soon as keepers catch a cold they are not allowed to work with the apes until they are fine again. Last year a disastrous epidemic of Malaria killed several Orangutans in BOS’ Nyaru Menteng project. So precautions need to be taken to keep those guys healthy, and thus we had to wear gloves.

First came the Limas

I always liked them, but more in a way I like all animals. Now at close-up I completely fell in love with them. They are a bit shy at first, but food always does the trick.

Similar to humans, vegetables are not really appreciated, and even fruit is scrutinized:

Pineapple is bahh, pears are hmmm?! grapes are all right, and bananas are utterly yummy.

Of course for some reason the yummy stuff is always at the bottom of the bowl, so at times Lima might try and dig a bit already before one can find the right bite for them.

Really lovely fellas and I am glad that Natalie introduced us around to them.

Rajang and Tiga

Oh my goodness, one could write a book about Rajang. He is 41 years old and likes blondes. I might consider changing hair colour should I ever meet him again.

He is a mix of Boneo and Sumatra Orangutan and hence not suitable for a breeding program, i.e. the poor bloke lost his crown jewels. Well, and he is an old chappy already and has a bit of arthritis and digestion is not what it used to be either.

So he gets a daily drink of juice – his favourite is apple / black currant - with medication mixed in. Recently he got a tooth extracted; well, I have to say that thing is teaching respect, one sometimes forgets that orangutans are very powerful.

Rajang is very attached to people because he was hand reared, and loves the attention of the crowd. This led to some distress when he was moved to his new enclosure something like two years ago.

Back then his companion was a female and they both were knocked out for transport. When the keepers took their chance for an examination they found that the female had a tumor, an operation was scheduled, but unfortunately the day before the due date the cyst ruptured and she died.

Poor Rajang was now in a new environment, without his companion and without crowds, as the plan was to first get them used to the new house and then let people in. So it was firstly decided to open early, what gave him the expected pleasure, and secondly to find a new companion. long as it is the favourite juice!

Under normal circumstances one would not have chosen a male, but no female was available and since Rajang’s Testosterone levels are not up to scratch and the chosen ape was a youngster age 7 and hence not at his prime, everybody was crossing fingers that the two would hook up. And yay they did!

I saw Tiga last year and back then he was tiny. He is only 9 now and still has way to go to reach Rajang’s size, but his cheek pads are growing and it can be expected that at one point in the future he will become the Alpha-male, and Rajang will have to retire.

Everybody is hoping that by then the bond between the two will be strong enough to make this transition a smooth one. And in a hopefully somewhat further future Tiga as a pedigree Borneo Orangutan might even take part in a breeding program.

The tasks of the day

So after the Limas we went to the new orangutan house to prepare the food for the two boys. The zoo is collection food containers and bottles which otherwise would go to waste and everybody who is in need for a bit of arts and crafts material can help themselves from that stock. We had 3 big paper sacks which was filled with a few pieces of cabbage and then rolled up. Big coke bottles for juice and small fruit and veg pieces, two food cartons for bigger and smaller fruits and jacket potatoes, a cup of freshly blitzed smoothie as reward for training and as traces on the climbing frame, and small drinks bottles for juice to freeze for the next day to become ice lollies.

After cleaning the cage all those goodies were planted in various places, and then we moved on to Rajang’s training session. He can distinguish between left and right and he opens his mouth when asked for a teeth check.

Whenever he gets it right it was my task to feed him a teaspoon of smoothie. It is just wonderful to feed a huge Orangutan with a tiny spoon ... and of course he tried to nick the spoon...

Throughout the whole time we were on the lookout for Tiga. The silly boy was well hidden and the camera of the outdoor enclosure didn’t show a thing. Until Natalie saw him – how were we supposed to know to look for a sack rather than an orangutan? Even when he snatched the first bag he still was wearing his shrug.

She brought a bowl of popcorn, though, to be distributed in the enclosure and without me realising I was on a stage: People already had gathered to watch the feeding, and instead of two big orange apes a similar redheaded woman appeared – was a bit odd...

But before they could get to the food one more ritual had to be performed: The door locking! Every door has locks and bolts and in order to avoid mishaps one keeper would come to perform just that one task to check the locks, lock the bolts and supervise the opening of the sliding gates between the enclosures.

Then the doors were all checked, I was allowed to turn the switches for the electric gates, and all of a sudden there was a very tall and upright Rajang dashing through the cages, far from his usual slow motion speed, while Tiga only snatched the nearest bag and vanished outside again.

As Natalie predicted he was soon back, though, when he realised that it was only containing veg.

So we left the ‘behind the scenes’ and joined the crowd to listen a bit to the guide elaborating the palm oil issue and the threat of extinction. These guys do a good job at Colchester Zoo.

I am sure that it is at the zoo that a lot of people hear about these issues for the first time.

After two wonderful hours with the Limas, Rajang and Tiga we had a meal at one of the many restaurants, had a stroll through the Africa section of the zoo – but that is another story - and then made our way home completely overwhelmed by the experience.

Rajang and Tiga

Part 1

Part 2


Meeting Rajang&Tiga

How to Charity?!
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Adopt an Orang 4 X-mas
Incredible Stories -Michelle
Raw Wildlife Encounters


BOS-Borneo Orangutan Survival

OLT - Orangutan Land Trust

Land Empowerment People

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Working for great apes and humans

related links:

Environmental Overview
Blog on Palm Oil issues
Controversial palm oil plan ...
Great Ape Debate, Apr 09

The Palm Oil Pronlem
Willie Smits on Rainforest
ane Goodall:Living Together...

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First Impressions
RfL Picnic
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Incredible Ladies Team
BT Today Article

Race for Life 2007

Other Intersting Ones

Mongol Rally
A friend's ride in 2008

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Author: Rika