How to play ‘trick or treat’ with an orangutan

How to play ‘trick or treat’ with an orangutan

Posted by Debbie Griffiths on Oct 22, 2018

The following is a guest post written by Debbie Griffiths who volunteered on the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Project

Enrichment is something we volunteers do a lot at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Project. The coordinators and staff here constantly flex their creativity to come up with a myriad of amazing ideas for keeping the orangutans entertained, i.e., enrichment.

Today, we did something they’ve never done before – thanks to yours truly! We made Halloween pumpkins. I’d read a blog from The Great Projects about the Easter bunnies they made from watermelons and thought we should try something seasonal, hence Halloween pumpkins. 

First, we had to scoop out the flesh – to be used for other types of enrichment (nothing’s wasted here). Also, Indonesian pumpkins are far more solid than the orange variety we get back in the UK, and many of the team were wondering why on earth volunteer coordinator Kate had ever listened to me on my enrichment whimsy. But the mood all changed when scooping was replaced by the fun of carving. 

Pumpkin Carving at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Project

Some of us came prepared with sketches of our designs, but most free styled it. Our (teddy) bear, Stan, travels everywhere with us, so we naturally had to carve a pumpkin bear on ours. Patrick’s orangutan design, however, was outstanding – precision German engineering coupled with artistic flair. Among the ghosts and ghouls, we had smiley and angry faces, sticky-out tongues and even a beret-wearing face with eyelash extensions and earrings!

Pumpkin Carvings at the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Project

Each pumpkin contained a few of the orangutans’ favourite treats including pineapple, peanuts and sunflower seeds before being filled with sugar-free, vegetarian jelly - something these red apes had never been given before. 

Once the jelly was set, I set off with Kate and Sam (one of the keepers/coordinators) to deliver the pumpkins by boat. A boat ride is a highlight for every volunteer here, but this time, the rest of the team also got to watch from the riverbank. Merin and baby Marlon were the first recipients. Mum Merin took the pumpkins from Sam with a quizzical look before setting about carefully investigating them. This is different to the standard enrichment with bamboo, where they just pull it all apart to get at the goodies inside. Marlon got a lid but wanted to see more so stuck his cute little head right inside the big pumpkin before leaving mum to her passion – food – and finding his own present to play with.

Merin and Marlon with pumpkin enrichment

Next, we paddled over to Fani’s island, a gorgeous female with Rapunzel-length locks that catch the breeze whenever she gracefully climbs high and strikes one of her stunning poses. She’s a real super model. But she’s also very wary, trying to figure out what’s been placed on her island before she descends.

Slowly but surely, she swings towards us, keeping one hand firmly on her climbing rope. This is the ultimate 'trick or treat' moment as she reaches out her long-fingered hand and tentatively touches the pumpkin. Then she quickly flinches. Oooh – what’s that? She braves it again. Flinch! Still not sure what this alien object is. She dips one of her slender fingers into the jelly and tastes it. Mmmm – what’s this? Flinch. Try again. OK, it’s a new treat.

Fani with Pumpkin Enrichment

She grabs it and starts to retreat. Heavy pumpkin in mouth, she effortlessly makes her ascent and starts savouring the goodies before disappearing into the foliage, away from our prying eyes, and away from the rain. 

Just to add to the Halloween horror movie theme, the midday sun is nowhere to be seen, replaced by the darkest, blackest clouds, claps of thunder and the odd flash of lightning. This is the rainforest, and when it rains, it pours! "Am I OK to continue?" You bet! This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Every close encounter with these majestic animals is magical and an absolute privilege. 

The elusive Alodora responds to Sam’s calls and sits eating her jelly in the rain, eyeing me and Kate up and down all the time. Like Wiwik (another of the keepers/coordinators), Sam has the most incredible relationship with the orangutans and it never fails to bring a tear to my eye observing their interactions. So trusting, so beautiful. 

The exception is Papa, the dominant male, who’s no fan of Sam. Actually, I’m not sure he’s the type of guy who’s bothered about having any friends. Papa has three females on the island, but they also keep their distance. None of them like the rain and they watch us intently. Only Citra (one of the 3 females) braves the elements and comes to collect her intriguing new gift.

Aldora with Pumpkin Enrichment

Papa’s sheltering under a platform – no way is he going to get wet; Halloween or no Halloween. But he’s looking at his pumpkin from afar. It’s his. For when the rain stops and we’ve gone. Soaked, we head back and beneath my face mask I am beaming like a smiley Cheshire cat pumpkin.

For the orangutans that faced their fears or braved the rain, they found this enrichment was no trick. For me, it was the ultimate treat. Thank you to everyone at the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation and The Great Projects for turning my little idea into a massively magical experience that I will never forget. And thanks, too, to all the wonderful animals who’ve made this an exceptionally great project (and unblocked my writer’s block)!

Volunteers with their Pumpkin Enrichment

Photos take by volunteer Luke Robinson and Coordinator Kate Helliwell  on the Samboja Lestari Orangutan Project


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Ruby commented 2 weeks ago
Currently sitting at work reading over your wonderful blog Debbie! The pumpkins really were a great idea, even if it did result in us carving with a spoon! So exciting to see your write up, and Luke's photo come to life! :D xxx

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Kate commented 3 weeks ago
Memories.... Thanks Deb, love to see the beautiful island orangutans so happy with a new enrichment.
Volunteering @ Samboja was fantastic, truly an amazing experience. Please give Minet

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Karen Unkles commented 3 weeks ago
Fantastic blog Debbie!!! Glad to hear your great idea was such a great success!! The pictures & story brought a huge smile to my face. The best time had at Samboji Lestari Orangutan Project & already making plans to return next year!!

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Wendy commented 3 weeks ago
great write up - awesome to hear what some of the apes are up to and what new experiences they are getting into (especially little Marlon) - thanks for sharing Debbie :-)
Wendy "Woodle" L (Aust.)

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