Conservationists in Indonesia are celebrating after the world’s only known albino orangutan was released into the jungle in Borneo, after being found starving and dehydrated in an Indonesian village.
Alba, as her keepers named her – Spanish for dawn – was rescued in April 2017.
The Borneo Orangutan Survival nurtured her back to health, feeding her and restoring her strength. She tripled in weight over the course of the 20 months she was in their care.
The foundation originally planned to create a 12 acre “forest island” for Alba, rather than release her into truly natural habitat, because of health issues related to her albinism. Veterinarians worried that she would be impaired by her poor sight and hearing, and struggle with the possibility of skin cancer.
But the government’s natural resources conservation agency and other agencies decided it was appropriate to release Alba into the wild because of her strong physical condition and intrinsically wild behaviour.
She will be electronically tracked and regularly monitored by a medical team.
“Alba has no inferiority complex as we imagined before. She is very confident compared to other orangutans,” said Agus Fathoni, a vet.
On Tuesday Alba, approximately five years old, was given final medical tests and anesthetized for the journey to the remote jungle reserve.
Workers shouted “Alba’s going home” as her cage was lifted onto a truck at the Nyaru Menteng Rehabilitation Center, in Central Kalimantan province, on Borneo.
And on Wednesday, after a 24-hour journey by vehicle, boat and foot, she was released into the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya national park.
Alba climbed away from her human helpers, scaling the trees, foraging for food and beginning to build a nest.
Conservationists said the major challenge now was protecting her from poachers.
“I think the real threat actually comes from humans,” said Mr Fathoni.
“What we’re worried about is poaching where this very special condition makes her a target.”
Patrols of Alba’s new home by national park and conservation agency staff will aim to deter poachers, though they admit the number of personnel is limited.
“We don’t have enough to cover all the area of the national park but we’re confident of covering all the patrol lines that we have set,” said Wirasadi Nursubhi, a national park official.
Orangutans, reddish-brown primates known for their gentle temperament and intelligence, are critically endangered and only found in the wild on the Indonesian island of Sumatra and on Borneo, which is divided among Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature, which declared Borneo’s orangutans critically endangered in 2016, says their numbers have dropped by nearly two-thirds since the early 1970s as plantation agriculture destroyed and fragmented their forest habitat.
The Sumatran orangutan is a separate species and has been critically endangered since 2008.
“It’s true this is a big gamble,” said Jamartin Sihite, chief executive of the orangutan foundation, after releasing her from the cage.
“But we hope that with our collaboration we will win the big bet we have made today.”