The plight of our orange cousins

With 35 indestructible balls and a very small suitcase, Helena Armstrong and her daughter and family made a trip to Borneo in April on a mission to enrich the lives of orangutans.

During a visit to the Pasir Panjang care centre near Kumai in Borneo the year before, Helena was moved by the sadness she had seen where orphaned orangutans were caged in small enclosures. In the care centre, 330 orphaned orangutans were kept in cages because there was no rainforest left in Borneo where they could be released.

“The palm oil industry and gold mining has caused the decimation of much of the forest habitat for our orange cousins,” Helena said. “I’ve been working for Free The Bears for 10 years now, but I became interested in the orangutans when I sponsored my first baby in 2006, and realised how endangered they were.

“They tug at people’s heart-strings because they are so like us humans.

“They share 97% of our DNA, are extremely intelligent and they sit around with nothing to do, so we decided it would be good to bring them something to play with.”

Helena and her daughter held stalls and raised money to buy discounted ‘treat balls’ from Aussie Dogs so they could take them as enrichment toys to the orangutan care centre.

“I have five adoptee orangutans now called Lear, Alan, Marsha, Haze and Roy,” Helena said. “When we gave Alan his ball, he raced around the cage with it.”

Helena said it was interesting to watch the younger orangutans interacting with the balls in their play gym.

“These animals are so intelligent – they were copying my daughter,” she said. “The orangutans started rolling the balls like in a bowling alley and stuffing leaves into them.”

Helena said that in Borneo, she visited Camp Leakey where she saw one of the female orangutans who had become bored and stolen one of the keeper’s boats and rowed herself across to the other side of the river.

The boat came back with the current and Helena saw her on the other side of the river, making hand signals saying ‘come and get me’. The keeper was so annoyed with her, that he left her over there and so she made a night nest and stayed there till the next morning.

“They are thinking, reasoning creatures like us,” Helena said. “They need to be constantly stimulated and she took her baby to explore over there.

“I’m nearly 70 now and I wish I’d started campaigning earlier. Trekking into the care centre involved a 1.5 hour walk through the rainforest. It rained most days and the huge tropical mosquitoes were constantly biting.”

Helena has collected some amazing photographs from her trips to Borneo and has printed them onto canvas. She is looking for somewhere to display them, and hopefully sell them to raise more money to help save the orangutans.

At present there is a new site at Lamandau in Borneo that the Australian Orangutan Project is funding which desperately needs money to re-forest. If you can help the cause, contact Helena by email on or by phone on 6687 8148. To find out more about palm oil and the orangutans, visit the website .

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