Monkey Business

Rosek Nursahid, a founder of ProFauna Indonesia, visits ebony leaf monkeys at a rehabilitation center while coordinating the most ambitious release to the wild to date.

This year in Indonesia, some 2500 Javan langurs will be poached from the wild, mostly sold as pets. Rosek Nursahid, co-founder of ProFauna Indonesia, doesn’t like this. He and a corps of activists will prod government officials to confiscate the endangered monkeys from markets. In the past, this has involved wrestling cages from angry mobs of vendors.

Langurs in hand, ProFauna’s real work begins. Their biggest challenge lies in rehabilitating the animals and releasing them to the wild.

When I heard that Rosek was coordinating the most ambitious langur release to date—41 animals in 3 troops—I asked to tag along. Graciously he worked me into his logistics, a tactical surge involving three times as many people as monkeys.

6-week-old Intan would be the youngest ebony leaf monkey ever released to the wild. How would she fare?

6-week-old Intan would be the youngest ebony leaf monkey ever released to the wild. How would she fare?

Before Release Day, I visited the langur rehabilitation center. I found Rosek working the phones, wrangling ropes and climbing gear, and checking final touches on three dozen backpack-able crates. Then he stole time for one last stroll through the langur enclosure.

Some monkeys had been there for years. Rosek knew each by name and by their tortured pasts. Did they remember the wild? Would they adapt? He was particularly concerned about Intan, a baby born just six weeks before Release Day. He’d never released a toddler, but at this stage it was too late to turn back.

Releasing 41 monkeys to the wild was an effort involving 3 times as many people.

Releasing 41 monkeys to the wild was an effort involving 3 times as many people.

To the uninitiated, releasing animals to the wild sounds easy. In reality, it’s anything but.

For starters, try finding real estate for wide-ranging leaf-eating monkeys on the world’s most populous island. That took a year. Finally, in the shadow of Mt. Semeru, a smoldering volcano in East Java, they found a patch of cloud forest out of range of humans and other langurs.

Next, chase down funding, push through permits, set a date. Recruit students for three months of monitoring and hope they can actually keep up with monkeys. Hire a village, build a camp, cut steep, slimy trails, string a Tyrolean traverse across a gorge. Haul in planks, build treetop enclosures. Add a neighboring blind at the behest of a last-minute film crew.

Monkeys had to be hauled some 50 meters across a steep gorge to the release site.

Monkeys had to be hauled some 50 meters across a steep gorge to the release site.

Now truck in the langurs. Pack them through the forest, wriggling in their boxes, haul them over the gorge and up into a tree. About two years after you rescued some of those monkeys, shift them to the last cage they’ll ever see. Stuff in leaves and leave them overnight, to settle.

I woke before dawn on Release Day, and joined Rosek on the trek up to Troop #3. Volcanic ash dusted the tree ferns, like snow in the tropics.

I watched from the filmmakers’ blind as the langur cage was opened. We hid behind palm leaves, so as not to scare the langurs. I guess it worked because the first thing the big female did was to march over and greet her new neighbors. Before long there were more monkeys watching us than the other way around.

Red phase ebony leaf monkey

Troop leader Tommy on alert

But Tommy, the troop leader, had other priorities. He climbed high, circled wide around the group and squinted into the forest. Poached late in life, he knew the threats of eagles and aggressive, territorial langurs. Was he up to the task of protecting his harem?

Maybe not. By the next morning Tommy had disappeared. Lost, killed, or living in self-imposed exile, we’ll never know. He was never seen again.

This left Intan without a father, along with her older half-brother, Chewbacca. And though langurs should range far and wide in search of food, this leaderless troop spent days close to its treehouse, and ours, sampling local leaves, napping, grooming, and doing its best to keep the kids out of trouble.

This latter effort proved futile. Intan’s curiosity outpaced her coordination by a long shot. At any chance she’d lurch off a limb and dangle head first, 30 meters off the deck, screaming like eagle bait.

Baby ebony leaf monkey hanging upside-down

Baby Intan in trouble

Before long, mom had had enough. She bounced into the blind, parked Intan on my lap, and took off on a forage. No doubt about it, I was on babysitting duty. Intan craned her neck up with a look that said, “Mom’s gone. Let’s have fun!” Then fell over.

Monkey babysitting

Me getting recruited for monkey babysitting duty

Recall, if you will, that the point of this exercise is to sever the cruel bond between human and wild animal. Then remind me, because never before or since have I seen anything so worth a cuddle as this fuzzy bundle of monkey baby.

Before the release, Rosek made perfect sense when he said that cultivating the trust of the langurs would be a very bad thing. On the whole, we humans should be the langurs’ worst fear. But now all that jazz about maintaining distance and avoiding eye contact was proving a very tall order. I was ready to stuff Intan in my pack and smuggle her home.

Monkey huddle

Mom looking out for Intan and her cousin

Thankfully, Intan wobbled just beyond arm’s reach. She seemed safer there, fixated on some twig and not on me. So silly she was! Jerky, like her nerve impulses came in jolts. She started a jig around that twig—hop, hop, hop, then… gone! Straight over the edge, like a pilot on auto-eject. I dove for her, too late to help, and just in time to see her thumping on leaf litter like dead weight.

Intan lay silent as the langurs and I shrieked obscenities. I was ready to jump off the blind myself. But the langurs were quick. Within seconds, mom had scampered down, scooped up her limp treasure and returned to her tree. She smothered it tight, in a huddle with Chewbacca, who looked fit for tears and Intan’s aunties, who glared as if to say, “To think we could trust a human!”

Just then, mom shifted. And out from under her arm there poked a tiny head. If I didn’t know better, Intan’s smile said, “Wasn’t that fun!” Moments later she was scampering off, in search of her next adventure.

When we climbed down the tree that day, we didn’t come back. It’s hard releasing animals to the wild. Harder still to leave them there.

Baby ebony leaf monkey face framed in mom's fur

Intan, ready for her next adventure.

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