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Sumatran orangutans study for nature's pass/perish entrance exam

The best students are the wildest. Lesson 1: Avoid humans at all costs.

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During the socialization stage, the residents make friends – and sometimes enemies. Two 30-pound toddlers, Kevin and Irwin, are rolling around some blue oil drums when they decide to fight (it looks more like tickling). Just as quickly, they become bored and begin swinging from ropes attached to the ceiling of their metal cage. The playground bully, Prince, who's bigger by at least 25 pounds, glares at them, ready to steal their milk when the handlers bring the twice-daily bowls.

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Though wild orangutans are usually solitary animals, a landmark 2003 Duke University study revealed that they have culture, the only primates besides chimps with this human characteristic. Even more surprising, they've been observed using all sorts of tools to dig for termites, scrounge for honey, and get at the seeds inside the razor-sharp neesia fruit – knowledge passed from ape to ape. After all, it's unlikely a whole troupe of orangutans simultaneously realized leaves could double as gloves or umbrellas.

"Now we know how much these animals learn socially about basic forest skills," Carel van Schaik, an anthropologist at the University of Zurich and lead author of the Duke study, explains in a phone interview. "So you can imagine, if you take naive animals and stick them into the forest, that's going to be an enormous challenge. Ian is doing a very good job of preparing these animals."

If all goes well, the students will soon leave this garden paradise – with its freshwater springs, wood gazebos, and hanging orchids – for the tiger-infested rain forest of Jambi Province. It'll be a 36-hour drive down the spine of Sumatra to a place even more hidden than Batu Mbelin.

There, they must pass their final test. Handlers will bring them into the jungle each day and teach them everything else they need to survive: what fruits to eat and where to find them, how to eat ants and build nests, and perhaps how to use a tool or two. The wilder ones may graduate in a couple weeks. Tamer ones could take months or years. And the tamest ones? Well, like human students, they don't want to get out of bed until noon and will expect food to be handed to them on a plate (and don't even ask them to build a nest anywhere off the ground).

Regardless of their survival know-how, these orangutans face poor odds. Only 6,500 remain in Sumatra and 50,000 in Borneo, down by half from two decades ago.

"Surviving in the wild is not instinct. They have to learn an enormous amount," explains Rob Shumaker, an adviser to orangutan re-introduction programs in Borneo. "I know all the players, and what [Batu Mbelin] is doing is as good as it gets," he adds in a phone interview from the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa, where he is the director of orangutan research.

Indeed it takes stellar teaching to assure an orangutan takes to the wild. More than 90 orangutans have been released since 2003, when the reintroduction began. And it's not goodbye after graduation. Field observation of the animals suggests the survival rate may be as high as 80 percent.

As it stands, wild orangutans need all the help they can get. At current rates of growth, illegal logging, mining, and oil palm plantations, could destroy 98 percent of the orangutan's habitat by 2022, a UN report warned last year. Many conservationists predict the extinction of the orangutan within a decade or two..

Before we drive back to town, Singleton takes me to a nearby abandoned botanical garden. By this fall, he plans to turn the place into an educational center for local schoolchildren to learn about orangutans and the rehab program. It's obvious he's an educator at heart. No wonder his hairy graduates are at the top of their class.