Where animals go before extinction

Editor’s Note:

Story highlights

Jenni Watts produced Expedition: Sumatra, CNN's new environment special

The team traveled round Indonesia charting some of the biggest issues affecting the country

They visited an animal sanctuary and were amazed with what they found

CNN  — 

Being in the middle of an animal sanctuary in Jakarta, Indonesia was a huge change from the rugged Sumatran jungle where the Expedition: Sumatra crew and I had spent the last week and a half.

We didn’t set out to go to an animal sanctuary during Expedition: Sumatra. One of the local people we were working with suggested it while we were filming in the rainforest. We had a few hours in the schedule between leaving Jambi and flying out of Jakarta, so we decided to go see some of the animals we weren’t able to see while we were exploring.

Read more: The devastation of Indonesia’s forests

CNN producer Jenni Watts

We had a few obstacles to overcome, as usual, like rain and the nightmarish Jakarta traffic, but we arrived at Taman Safari Indonesia around lunchtime. At first, this seemed like a typical zoo tour. But, the head of Taman Safari Indonesia had other plans for us. We were going to see the highlight of the work being done at this facility: the animals bred in captivity to help preserve the species.

We went to this small playroom which was the baby animal nursery. Here, there were a few caretakers and several Sumatran orangutan babies. There were also three baby cats: a leopard, a Bengal tiger and a Sumatran tiger.

Philippe Cousteau and I did a debrief interview for the last show of Expedition: Sumatra and we talked about the experience at Taman Safari Indonesia. We didn’t include it in the show, but he described the scene:

“We get in and the whole crew, everybody’s eyes just got big and there’s lots of giggling and energy. People were shaking. Oh my goodness. These are just the most adorable things on the planet.”

Read more: The battle to save Sumatra’s elephants

It’s an experience none of us will ever forget. Each of us was able to hold one of the tigers. We even talked about what it would be like to be baby animal caretakers.

After the initial excitement wore off, Philippe reminded us that this is ultimately a sad situation. The Sumatran tiger cub had a defect in its back leg and was rejected by its mother. The orangutans were orphans. These animals will grow to adulthood and likely never live in the wild.

The greater purpose of this nursery of babies is to make sure their species doesn’t go extinct. It’s a reminder of the tragic circumstances going on in the rainforst of Sumatra right now. If wildlife habitat cannot be saved, this kind of facility could be the only place where Sumatran tigers, orangutans and elephants will live. But with all the efforts of those trying to preserve this habitat, I’m hopeful that this worst case scenario will never become a reality.

In 2011: Black rhino declared extinct