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How to Save a Baby Orangutan

The story of an orangutan in the rainforest of Borneo, paired with a poem

By Mackenzie Carro
From the October/November 2019 Issue

Learning Objective: Students will synthesize information from an article and a poem about why orangutans should be protected.

Lexile: 600L-700L, 800L-900L
Guided Reading Level: S
DRA Level: 40
Other Key Skills: vocabulary, descriptive details, cause and effect, key idea, problem and solution, compare and contrast, point of view, interpreting text

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Synthesizing

As you read this article and the poem that follows, think about what makes orangutans special and why they need help.

How to Save a Baby Orangutan

When a baby orangutan was left for dead in the rainforest, a team of humans raced to save him

Gerhana lay in the dirt—sick, starving, and alone. Death was closing in.

Just a few months earlier, the baby orangutan had been a healthy newborn. He would cling to his mother’s side as she swung through the trees in the lush rainforests of Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia. All around them, the bright-green jungle burst with life. Flying squirrels glided from tree to tree. Fluffy brown monkeys perched in the branches. Lizards the size of crocodiles darted across the forest floor. Gem-colored frogs leaped through the mud, and leopards hunted their dinner.

Baby Gerhana [guhr-HAH-nuh] and his mother snuggled together each night in a comfy nest of leaves high in the treetops.

But then one day, disaster struck.

Gerhana’s mother was killed, probably shot by a hunter hired to keep orangutans away from crops.

Sadly, this is not uncommon, as more of the rainforest where orangutans live is being destroyed. Since the 1980s, about 30 percent of Borneo’s rainforests have been cleared by humans. Hundreds of millions of trees have been cut down for timber and to make room for coal mines and palm oil plantations. (Palm oil is found in many foods and products, including pizza dough, chocolate, and toothpaste.)

For orangutans like Gerhana, this deforestation is a catastrophe. Orangutans survive on the fruits and plants that grow in the rainforest. As their habitat shrinks, so does their source of food. To avoid starvation, the apes wander into places where humans live, looking for something to eat. But many humans see the orangutans as pests—like roaches and rats—and kill them.

Without his mother, Gerhana stood little chance of survival in the wild. For the first seven or so years of life, a baby orangutan is completely dependent on its mother. The two are never apart as the mother helps her baby learn how to find food, swing through the trees, and build a nest to sleep in.

Orphaned babies are doomed. Some starve. Many others are illegally captured and sold to private zoos, where they are forced to live behind bars.

No one is sure exactly what happened to Gerhana after his mother died. It is likely that he stayed by her side. Only six months old and unable to climb trees by himself, Gerhana would have been stranded. All he could have done was cry out—miserable, starving, and alone.

But help was on the way.

Gerhana lay in the dirt. He was sick, starving, and alone. Death was closing in.

Just a few months earlier, the baby orangutan had been a healthy newborn. He would cling to his mother’s side as she swung through the trees in the rainforests. They lived in Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia. All around them, the jungle burst with life. Flying squirrels glided from tree to tree. Monkeys perched in the branches. Lizards the size of crocodiles darted across the forest floor. Gem-colored frogs leaped through the mud. Leopards hunted their dinner.

Baby Gerhana [guhr-HAH-nuh] and his mother snuggled together each night in a nest high in the trees. But one day, disaster struck. Gerhana’s mother was killed, probably shot by a hunter hired to keep orangutans away from crops.

Sadly, this is not uncommon. 

Since the 1980s, about 30 percent of Borneo’s rainforests have been cleared by humans. Hundreds of millions of trees have been cut down for timber and to make room for coal mines and palm oil plantations. (Palm oil is found in many foods and products, such as pizza dough, chocolate, and toothpaste.)

For orangutans, this deforestation is a disaster. They live on the fruits and plants that grow in the rainforest. As their habitat shrinks, so does their source of food. The apes wander into places where humans live, looking for food. But many humans see the orangutans as pests—like roaches and rats—and kill them.

Without his mother, Gerhana stood little chance of survival in the wild. For the first seven or so years of life, a baby orangutan depends completely on its mother. The two are never apart. The mother helps her baby learn how to find food, swing through the trees, and build a nest to sleep in.

Orphaned babies are doomed. Some starve. Others are illegally captured and sold to private zoos, where they live behind bars.

No one knows exactly what happened to Gerhana after his mother died. It is likely that he stayed by her side. He was only six months old. He could not climb trees by himself. He would have been stranded.

But help was on the way. 

©Jejak Pulang | FOUR PAWS | James Mepham

Dr. Signe Preuschoft, founder of the Four Paws Forest School

Racing to Help    

On January 30, 2018, a farmer called the local authorities and told them there was a baby orangutan—Gerhana—in his garden. The authorities picked Gerhana up and took him back to their headquarters. Gerhana needed medical attention—fast. He was dangerously underweight, dehydrated, and feverish. He also had no hair, a sign of malnutrition.

Fortunately, the authorities had a plan. They contacted the Four Paws Orangutan Forest School. At this extraordinary place in the heart of the rainforest, primatologist Signe Preuschoft and her staff care for orphaned orangutans.

The Forest School immediately sent a team to pick up Gerhana. The baby orangutan was terrified. He clung tightly to Yuli, a Forest School caregiver, for the entire six-hour ride to the school. After they arrived, Yuli and the other caregivers sprang into action. They worked around the clock. They fed him and made sure he drank. They gave him medicine and belly rubs.

On January 30, 2018, a farmer called the local authorities. He said there was a baby orangutan in his garden. It was Gerhana. The authorities picked Gerhana up and took him to their headquarters. He needed medical help. He was dangerously underweight. He was dehydrated and feverish. He also had no hair, a sign of malnutrition.

The authorities contacted the Four Paws Orangutan Forest School. At this special place deep in the rainforest, primatologist Signe Preuschoft and her staff care for orphaned orangutans.

The Forest School sent a team to pick up Gerhana. He was very scared. He clung to Yuli, a Forest School caregiver, for the whole six-hour ride to the school. Once there, the caregivers got to work. They fed him and made sure he drank. They gave him medicine and belly rubs. They worked around the clock. 

©Jejak Pulang | FOUR PAWS | James Mepham

Forest School caregivers holding three orphaned orangutans

Important Skills

As the days went by, Gerhana’s strength returned. It was clear that he would survive. With his health getting better, it was time for Gerhana to start his “lessons.”

In the wild, baby orangutans learn necessary survival skills by observing and imitating their mothers. At the Forest School, baby orangutans learn in much the same way. But instead of watching their mothers, they watch their human caregivers.

For example, in the wild, Gerhana might have seen his mother peel the bark away from a tree and eat the nutritious fibers underneath. At the school, human caregivers showed Gerhana how to do this. (Baby orangutans at the Forest School also learn by watching the older orangutans.)

As time goes on, the caregivers give the young apes more time to explore the forest on their own. Once the orangutans are healthy, fully grown, and independent, they are released back into the wild, where they belong. But this process can take 10 years or longer.

As the days went by, Gerhana got stronger. It was clear that he would survive. Now it was time for Gerhana to start his “lessons.”

In the wild, baby orangutans learn survival skills by watching their mothers. At the Forest School, they learn in much the same way. They watch their human caregivers.

In the wild, Gerhana might have seen his mother peel the bark from a tree and eat the nutritious fibers underneath. At the school, human caregivers showed him how to do this. (Baby orangutans at the Forest School also learn by watching the older orangutans.)

Over time, the caregivers give the young apes more time to explore the forest on their own. When the apes are ready, they are released back into the wild. But this process can take 10 years or longer.

©Jejak Pulang | FOUR PAWS | James Mepham

A baby orangutan with a Forest School caregiver 

Cheeky Grin    

As much as the Forest School is doing for orangutans, the problem is bigger than the school can solve on its own. Since 1950, orangutan populations have declined by about 80 percent. Orangutans are now in danger of extinction. There are laws in place to prevent deforestation, but more must be done to enforce them, Preuschoft says.

She points out that protecting orangutans helps more than just orangutans. Borneo’s rainforest is one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. If humans protect the rainforest for orangutans, says Preuschoft, they will also be protecting thousands of other important plants and animals.

As for Gerhana, he is now a thriving 2-year-old with a coat of bright-red hair. He loves to play and is well-known around the school for his “cheeky grin.”

Preuschoft isn’t surprised by Gerhana’s remarkable recovery. “That’s typical of orangutans,” she says. “They are very resilient.”

Gerhana still has a lot to learn though. Fortunately, his many human moms and dads will be at his side, helping him every step of the way. 

The Forest School does a lot to help orangutans. But the problem is too big for the school to solve on its own. 

Since 1950, orangutan populations have dropped by about 80 percent. Orangutans are now in danger of extinction. There are laws in place to prevent deforestation. But Preuschoft says that more needs to be done to enforce these laws.

She points out that protecting orangutans helps more than just orangutans. Borneo’s rainforest is one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. If humans protect the rainforest for orangutans, they will also be protecting thousands of other plants and animals.

Gerhana is now 2 years old. He loves to play. He is known at the school for his “cheeky grin.”

Preuschoft is not surprised by Gerhana’s recovery. Orangutans are tough, she says.

Gerhana still has a lot to learn. But his many human moms and dads will be there to help him. 

A Poem From the Treetops 

Thomas Marent/Minden Pictures    

When it rains, orangutans hold leaves over their heads, like umbrellas, to keep dry.

You call us orangutans:

“people of the forest” in Malay


And yes, like you,

we have ten fingers

and ten toes


We sleep in soft beds at night

and cover our heads when it rains


Like you, we share our thoughts

through gestures and sounds

and use tools to help with our work


Like you, we stay with our children not for months but for years

teaching them all that they need to know


Our babies, like yours, cry when they’re hungry

whimper when hurt

love to cuddle and play


Like you, we feel anger, worry, and fear

Like you, we feel joy and surprise


But “people of the forest”

isn’t quite right

We orangutans are different from you


Our arms are much longer and stronger than yours

Our hair is not all on our heads


We don’t like to gather together in groups like you do

and we never

cut down trees

You call us orangutans:

“people of the forest” in Malay


And yes, like you,

we have ten fingers

and ten toes


We sleep in soft beds at night

and cover our heads when it rains


Like you, we share our thoughts

through gestures and sounds

and use tools to help with our work


Like you, we stay with our children not for months but for years

teaching them all that they need to know


Our babies, like yours, cry when they’re hungry

whimper when hurt

love to cuddle and play


Like you, we feel anger, worry, and fear

Like you, we feel joy and surprise


But “people of the forest”

isn’t quite right

We orangutans are different from you


Our arms are much longer and stronger than yours

Our hair is not all on our heads


We don’t like to gather together in groups like you do

and we never

cut down trees

This article was originally published in the October/November 2019 issue.

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Can't-Miss Teaching Extras

Check out this incredible (and adorable) video showing orangutans learning to climb at the Four Paws Forest School.

Go on an interactive tour of the Amazon rainforest using map-based stories from Google Earth. Click on “Discover Your Connection.” Then click on the “I am WATER,” “I am CHANGE,” or “I am FOOD” story to learn about how the rainforest is changing, how deforestation affects the entire world, and what we can do about it. (NOTE: You will need to download the most recent version of your browser in order to use Google Earth.)

This podcast episode tells the story of two Girl Scouts who raised awareness about endangered orangutans. In the process, they ended up launching a campaign against the use of unsustainable palm oil in Girl Scout Cookies. Your students will be inspired by these two young changemakers!

More About the Story

Skills

Synthesizing, vocabulary, descriptive details, cause and effect, key idea, problem and solution, compare and contrast, point of view, interpreting text

Complexity Factors

Purpose

Through the story of one baby orangutan, the article explains how industry has harmed orangutan populations and how some humans are working to address the problem. The poem compares and contrasts humans and orangutans. 

Structure

The article includes narrative, informational, and descriptive passages. The poem consists of 10 stanzas.

Language

The article includes a good deal of challenging domain-specific vocabulary (e.g. deforestation, ecosystems, primatologist) as well as some figurative language.

Knowledge Demands 

Some basic understanding of how an ecosystem works will be helpful.  

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary (30 minutes)

  • As a class, look at the map on page 17. Explain that this story takes place on Borneo, an island in Southeast Asia. Borneo is one of only two places on Earth where orangutans live in the wild.
  • Invite a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box on page 15.
  • Distribute the vocabulary Skill Builder to preview challenging words. Highlighted terms: deforestation, habitat, authorities, dehydrated, sustainable, malnutrition, primatologist, nutritious, extinction, ecosystem

2. Close Reading

Read and Unpack the Text (45 minutes)

Read the articles as a class or in small groups. Then have groups discuss or write their answers to the close-reading and critical-thinking questions.

 

“How to Save a Baby Orangutan”

Close-Reading Questions

  • Reread the second paragraph of the article. What details does the author use to help you understand what Borneo’s rainforests are like? (descriptive details) The author describes the rainforests as “lush.” She says they “burst with life” such as “fluffy brown monkeys,” “lizards the size of crocodiles,” and “gem-colored frogs.”
  • Based on the article, what is deforestation? Why does it happen? How does it affect orangutans? (cause and effect) Deforestation is the clearing of rainforests by humans. The trees are cut down for their wood and to create space for coal mines and palm oil plantations. As orangutans’ habitat shrinks, they have trouble finding food. They begin searching in places where humans live— but many people see them as pests and kill them.
  • Why can’t young orangutans survive in the wild without their mothers? (key idea) For the first seven years of their lives, orangutans are totally dependent on their mothers, who teach them important survival skills. On their own, the babies face dangers like starvation and capture.
  • In “Racing to Help,” what problems was Gerhana facing? How did caregivers from the Four Paws Orangutan Forest School help him? (problem and solution) Gerhana was starving and dangerously dehydrated, and he had a fever. The Forest School caregivers helped him by giving him food, water, medicine, and belly rubs.
  • Reread “Important Skills.” How is the way orangutans learn at the Forest School similar to how they learn in the wild? What is the goal of this training? (compare and contrast) Just like in the wild, orangutans at the Forest School watch others to learn important skills—for example, how to find food from a tree. But while in the wild babies learn from their mothers, at the Forest School they learn from their human caregivers and other orangutans. The goal is to help the animals become independent enough to move back into the wild.

"A Poem From the Treetops"

Close-Reading Questions

  • Based on the first two lines, who is speaking in the poem? Who are they speaking to? How do you know? (point of view) Orangutans are speaking to humans in the poem. They say, “You call us orangutans: ‘people of the forest’ in Malay.”
  • How does the poem change beginning at line 18? (interpreting text) Until line 18, the orangutans have been explaining what they have in common with humans. But here, they begin to list the differences. The last lines become more serious as they say that, unlike humans, they “never cut down trees.” You can infer that the orangutans feel betrayed by these creatures who are so similar to them.

Critical-Thinking Questions

  • According to the article, poem, and text features, how are orangutans and humans similar to each other? How are they different? (compare and contrast) Both orangutans and humans care for their children for years, feel emotions like anger and joy, communicate using gestures and sounds, sleep in beds, and use tools like umbrellas. But humans have weaker arms and less hair, and they are more social. And unlike orangutans, humans have badly damaged the world’s rainforests.
  • Based on the article and poem, how do humans affect the natural world in negative ways? How do they affect it in positive ways? (synthesizing) Human activity can destroy parts of the natural world. For example, about 30 percent of Borneo’s rainforests have been cleared to make products for people. But at the same time, many people are working hard to protect the natural world and the creatures that live in it—like Dr. Signe Preuschoft and her team at the Forest School.
  • Why is it important to protect the Borneo rainforest? Answer using details from the article and poem. (synthesizing) It is important to protect the rainforest in Borneo so that orangutans, which are sensitive and intelligent creatures much like humans, can survive. Protecting the rainforest also helps the thousands of other plants and animals that live in this ecosystem.

3. Skill Building

Featured Skill: Synthesizing

Have students complete our synthesizing Skill Builder, then respond to the writing prompt on page 19.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Have students read the lower-Lexile article in pairs. As they read, they should create two lists: one with details about why orangutans are special and the other with details about why they need our help. Students can then use their lists to respond to the writing prompt on page 19.

For Advanced Readers

Invite students to write a one-page short story from Gerhana’s point of view, in which he explains the dangers he faces and why humans should help protect him. The stories should include details from the feature, as well as at least one additional source.

For ELL Students

Read through the lower-Lexile version of the article together with students, pausing to make sure they understand each section. Then invite them to make a poster highlighting orangutans’ special characteristics and pointing out the dangers they face.

For Taking Action

Put students into pairs to work on the first suggestion in the “Words Into Action” sidebar— writing a letter to a brand to ask about its use of palm oil. In explaining why the issue is important to them, students should use specific details from the article and poem.