Alba, the only albino orangutan ever recorded, is now living freely in the Borneo jungle after spending much of her life in captivity.
The striking primate was released deep in the Bukit Baka Bukit Raya National Park on December 19, nearly 20 months after she was rescued from a village in the Indonesian portion of the island by officials from the Central Kalimantan Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA) and the Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS) Foundation.
“She was five years old at the time and suffering from stress, dehydration, and a parasite infection, and had a very poor appetite,” BOS explained in a statement. “However, thanks to the intensive care provided by our dedicated veterinary team and orangutan caregivers our Nyaru Menteng Orangutan Rehabilitation Center, Alba slowly recovered and showed us her excellent climbing and socialization skills.”
While the expert team was nursing Alba – whose name means ‘white’ in Latin – back to health and preparing her to live in the wild, she bonded with another rescue orangutan called Kika. Like Alba, Kika has had experience living in her natural habitat. Both apes also displayed wild behaviors and signs that they “firmly disliked humans” when they were brought to the rehab center.
Alba was kept longer than usual for a semi-wild orangutan because they wanted to give her the best possible chance at survival. Traits caused by her albinism – poor eyesight, poor hearing, and a predisposition to skin cancer – make her more vulnerable to hunting or predation.
The BOS team initially struggled to decide whether Alba was even a candidate for wild release. Given her unusual appearance, it was possible that other orangutans would not accept her. Though considerably more solitary than other great apes, female orangutans often live near their relatives and maintain relationships with individuals in neighboring home ranges.
"Alba has no inferiority complex as we imagined before. She is very confident compared to other orangutans," veterinarian Agus Fathoni told the Associated Press. "I think the real threat actually comes from humans. What we're worried about is poaching where this very special condition makes her a target," he added.
On December 18, the time had finally come for Alba and Kika to return to the forest. Driving through the night, BKSDA and BOS Foundation staff transported the orangutans to the border of the park, a 1,810-square-kilometer (699 square miles) reserve in the southwest tip of Borneo’s Schwaner mountain range. Arriving at dawn, the group traded trucks for boats and began a 4-hour upstream ride to the release site.
Finally, 16 hours after they left the rehab center, the orangutans were let out of their cages into the forest. Kiki’s was opened first, and she burst out and ascended rapidly into the trees. A few minutes later, Alba’s was opened. She took a few minutes to inspect her surroundings before swinging into the canopy to join her companion.
Over the next six months, field crews from the BOS Foundation will closely monitor Alba and Kika to make sure they are adapting well and BKSDA and park officials will perform anti-poaching patrols.