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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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Seriously cute: Miriam, a 9-month-old orangutan orphan, is seriously in need of survival lessons from her trainer.

Jerry Guo

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I'm struggling to make friends here. Miriam, a 9-month-old orangutan orphan who's learning how to climb a tree, almost scales past her trainer when I approach. For good measure, she starts to cry. Another orangutan signals displeasure by emulating the sound of a Harley barreling toward me. In fact, the only one who tolerates me is 11-year-old Leuser, and not because the 42 air-rifle pellets lodged in his body have mellowed him. He's also blind.

At any zoo, these surly apes would bomb the aw-isn't-he-cute exam, but here at the world's most successful school for rescued orangutans, they're taught to get back in touch with their wild side. Even playtime is serious business. Passing, say, the test of recognizing a friend (another orangutan) versus a foe (a human logger) could spell life or death for these critically endangered icons of the old world jungle.

Everything happens here with one goal in mind: graduation day, when the shaggy students are set loose into the harsh Sumatran rain forest. But for the students to have a shot at survival, handlers must teach them to avoid humans at all costs, a tough task considering they need to be fed by humans.

"We need to take care of these confiscated animals and return them to the wild," says Ian Singleton, director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme. "But we need to do it scientifically."

And real science doesn't involve a line of gawky tourists dangling bananas and posing for pictures. That's why this center at the far north of Sumatra – one of the main islands of Indonesia – is closed to the public and barely known to outsiders. Even if you made it to the nearby village of Batu Mbelin – where the specialty dish is fruit-bat soup and the humid air is clouded with mosquitoes, this part of Sumatra – is definitely not for the faint of heart.

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I reflexively clench the door handle of Mr. Singleton's SUV as we cross over a rushing river on a wooden bridge. Palm trees line the one-lane road to this village, and in the distance, various plantations – chocolate, banana, papaya – dot the endless green of the hills.

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