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Orphaned Gorilla Little Chris was intensely curious with different plants in the forest

In the last few weeks, we’ve celebrated several international holidays: International Day for Women, World Wildlife Day, and International Day of Forests. What better way to celebrate than taking a look at something that incorporates all three: Baby Ape Forest Schools!

Forest Schools, or Forest Nurseries are the backbone of orphan care programs for many in situ great ape sanctuaries. Once an orphaned ape arrives at a sanctuary, surrogate human mothers (and sometimes fathers) care for the baby apes around the clock, just as they would a human child. A significant part of the baby’s growth is to experience their wild habitat: the forests. These “schools” aren’t quite the classrooms that most of us attended as kids. Instead they are programs where trained sanctuary caregivers take orphaned young apes out to the forest to learn different skills. Lessons cover climbing, foraging, playtime and exploration as they become more acquainted with life in the trees. By teaching the babies these critical skills from a young age, sanctuaries are setting them up to live a longer, healthier lives — similar to their wild counterparts. 

 

Surrogate Motherhood

Mama P comforts orphaned chimpanzee Woron as vet Dr. Pizarro checks her over, at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary

Many people are in awe at the bond that forms between these little apes and their human caretakers. Indeed, this bond is crucial for the young ones as they grow and develop. These babies rely on their surrogate human mothers to provide touch and affection, attend to their physical needs, mental growth — and above all, give them a sense of security and comfort as they settle into their new life.  As many sanctuaries have strict isolation period for all new arrivals, this bond is especially important during their quarantine. Much like human motherhood, these surrogate mums are on the clock 24/7 in a life that’s not always glamorous, but certainly with its perks. Despite the difficulties, there is an immense sense of joy when they begin to recover from their physical and mental wounds and start acting like a “normal” baby. However, despite their huge importance in the process, surrogate human mothers are just one part of the equation when raising healthy young apes…

 

Classroom in the Forest

Another key component to raising well rounded ape babies — the forest of course! For some babies rescued from the illegal pet trade, dirt and trees may be entirely novel. Indeed I worked with one ex-pet baby who was afraid of stepping on the grass for a while and would hop from rock to rock to avoid it like he was playing “the floor is lava”! Much like human infants learning how to walk, these baby apes need to be taught and encouraged to climb and explore – some catch on more quickly than others (we’re looking at YOU Little Larry!).

Milk time is a favorite time of day for the babies. Little Larry would eagerly drain his bottle as soon as it arrived.

 

While the lessons are certainly important themselves, a big bonus to forest school is the enrichment! Playing in the trees and exploring is exciting and engaging for these baby apes. Boredom seldom benefits any of the 5 great apes, least of which traumatized baby apes. Forest enrichment is hugely beneficial for these vulnerable primates as they begin the healing process. Thanks to these, one day they will eventually become strong, independent individuals that can join new ape families at their sanctuary.

 

So here’s to all of the incredible surrogate mums (and the occasional dad), and the many other caretakers that work so diligently to raise the next generation of Apes Like Us.

— Meg Stark, GLOBIO Programs Director

 

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