- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 28, 2004

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Azy and Indah are heading to school this week — a unique experience for two clever orangutans whose classroom eventually will encompass more than 200 acres of lowlands, river forest and lakes.

Today, the inquisitive primates will become the first residents of the Great Ape Trust of Iowa. While there, researcher Rob Shumaker and a team of scientists will study the behavior and learning capabilities of the apes.

Azy, 26, and Indah, 24, who are brother and sister, have never lived in the wild. They were born at the National Zoo in Washington, where they have been part of a research program, the Orangutan Language Project, since 1995.

Mr. Shumaker developed the program, which allows the long-haired apes to communicate by selecting symbols on a computer monitor.

“The opportunities that lie ahead for them and this world-class research center are limitless,” said Mr. Shumaker, the trust’s director of orangutan research.

Construction of the Great Ape Trust, one of the most comprehensive ape research facilities in the world, began in 2003 at the site of a former sand and gravel quarry. Besides orangutans, the Des Moines campus also will house bonobos, chimpanzees and lowland gorillas.

“Only 30 acres are under development now,” Mr. Shumaker said. “We’ve just scratched the surface. This project will be growing for a number of years.”

Azy and Indah will arrive at a sanctuary being built south of downtown Des Moines after a 2-hour charter flight from Washington.

Mr. Shumaker hopes to begin working with the orangutans as soon as tomorrow. Part of what he finds so intriguing about them is their individuality and how they learn.

Both are gentle and even-tempered animals, but Azy — the male — is more contemplative. Indah, however, is more impulsive.

“Both eventually learn the same tasks, they understand, they comprehend,” Mr. Shumaker said. “But how they get to it is very different.”

Orangutans live only in the forests of Borneo and Sumatra in southeast Asia. Sumatra has about 7,000 orangutans in the wild. An estimated 35,000 to 50,000 live in Borneo, where 10 percent of their habitat disappears every year, Mr. Shumaker said.

Visitors will be allowed in the center from time to time to tour the facilities and watch research.

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