Lone Droscher-Nielsen & Orangutan Island
By Eirik Knutzen
Copley News Service
Only a thin wall separates Lone Droscher-Nielsen from the 24 orphaned babies sleeping in her house every night. And she doesn’t sleep very well, as she is awakened many times during the night by terrified infants whimpering, crying and screaming for their mothers.
Often emaciated, sick and wounded, they are the children of “the people of the forest” – who share 97 percent of man’s DNA – left to die in the steaming tropical rain forest of Central Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) after watching their parents slashed to death with machetes or blown to bits by shotguns fired by illegal loggers.
Helpless, the tiny, traumatized creatures with long red hair and big pleading eyes cling to each other – or caring humans with warm hearts, soothing voices and gentle hands. And these are the relative handful of lucky tykes – all Pongo pygmaeus, aka orangutans – in the sanctuary of Droscher-Nielsen’s home at the Nyaru Menteng Rescue and Rehabilitation Center she founded in 1999.
“I sleep next door and hear the babies begging for milk when they wake up, but after 12 years of sleeping with them, I can’t do it anymore,” said the 43-year-old former SAS flight attendant from Aalborg, Denmark. “It may not add up to a lot of rest, but two baby sitters work through the night now to take care of every infant’s needs. But I’m there if any animal is sick.”
Working with the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, Droscher-Nielsen now manages the largest primate project on the planet. With 631 orangutans fairly evenly divided between young orphans and wild adults currently in her care, her job is actually more like a 24-7 situation requiring a great deal of diplomacy, incredible administrative detail and ceaseless fundraising.
Money is always a serious issue as no orangutan is turned away regardless of physical condition in a feverish bid to stave off the orangutan’s almost inevitable extinction by 2020. No one knows how many orangutans are left in the wild of Southeast Asia (a vast majority reside in Indonesian Borneo and Sumatra), but an educated estimate ranges between 25,000 to 30,000. Unfortunately, some 5,000 orangutans are expected to die annually over the next few years, mostly due to corporate greed, habitat destruction, misguided ecologists and individuals capable of unspeakable animal cruelty.
Droscher-Nielsen and the supportive Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation now entails some 100 employees ranging from veterinarians and lab technicians to cooks and orangutan nannies.
Finding creative ways of obtaining new funding is not one of her strengths, according to Droscher-Nielsen, but as luck would have it, she works with a number of people who excel at raising money.
“Some of the girls here were inspired by feature films like ‘Lord of the Flies,’ but with a twist,” she explained, laughing.
“Instead of children ending up on an island to love and hate each other, we have 42 young adult orangutans introduced on a 100-acre island in the middle of Borneo. Human support is quickly withdrawn and they are forced to rely on each other to sharpen their survival skills for the next, and last, level: the return to their natural habitat some day.”
And, borrowing bits and pieces from the documentary “March of the Penguins” and the intimate, long-range examination of animal behavior in the Animal Planet documentary series “Meerkat Manor,” “Orangutan Island” was born.
The fun – and drama – starts when the mischievous band of red apes is dumped from the boat and learns to fend for themselves, recorded by an unobtrusive film crew.
“We hope viewers will fall in love with them all and in the process raise the awareness of the plight of the orangutans, who are in dire need of help,” said the self-taught Danish primate expert.
She wants everyone to see her personal favorites, the sweet and lovable Cha Cha, the sexy Jasmine, the feisty Daisy, the happy Bandit Boys, the randy Saturnus and the wily Hamlet – and how they cope.
“The primary reason the rehabilitated orangutans are with us today is the destruction of their habitat,” said Droscher-Nielsen.
In essence, enormous amounts of mature trees are felled by illegal loggers who sell the wood to Chinese and Indian factories making them into coffee tables for the European and American markets. The ancient trees that provided the great apes with food and shelter have been replaced by palm oil saplings providing biodiesel fuel that burns cleaner in cars and ingredients used in thousands of products from hand soap to cooking oil. Cleaner air and armpits mean another orangutan dies soon in Southeast Asia.
Droscher-Nielsen, the daughter of a carpenter and a homemaker, stumbled over her true calling when she arrived on vacation 14 years ago at a compound in Borneo’s Tanjung Puting National Park run by Canadian primate expert Dr. Birute Galdikes.
“I have always been lucky and wanted to give something back,” she explained. “When I saw the malnourished, intelligent, childlike orangutans with outstretched hands and pleading eyes, I had to save them. I had no choice.”