Rehabilitating orang utans in trouble

Rehabilitating orang utans in trouble


Watching the shy, ginger-furred giants during feeding time at the Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre at Sepilok in North Borneo is a sheer delight. Strolling along the plank walkway we marvelled at the towering rainforest trees in this virgin equatorial rainforest sprawling over an area of 43 sq. km. En route, we saw some orang utan nests amidst the dense canopy. The apes with their young ones clinging to them hopped from tree to tree,  came sliding down a rope tethered to trees, greeted the tourists with their low hoots and pranced into the feeding deck.

We witnessed the absorbing sight of the copper-coloured primates feasting on milk and bananas served on large wooden platform suspended by ropes from the branches of a towering tree. We were amused to watch some uninvited long-tailed macaques joining the feeding frenzy for an easy meal. After a hearty breakfast, the orang utans leapt onto the overhanging branch, and swinging arm over arm, vanished into the jungle.

Habitat loss

Orang utans are generally found relaxing in the treetops of the rainforest of Borneo and Sumatra but being gentle and shy by nature, sightings of orang utan in the wild are difficult.

The drastic decrease in their population cannot be solely attributed to natural extinction but rather vast diminishing of their natural habitat, the rainforest. The main causes of this habitat loss are illegal commercial logging, clearance for agriculture, and conversion to plantations. Deprived of their food and home, the orang utans resort to forcible encroachments into previously inaccessible areas which provide access to poachers.

In 1963, orang utans became officially protected under the Fauna Conservation Ordinance, which, among other things, prohibits hunting, trading or keeping them as pets. Barbara Harrison, wife of the Curator of Sarawak Museum then initiated the process of rescuing young orang utans being kept locally as pets, and the idea grew of training these animals to fend for themselves so that they might re-adopt to life in the wild. In 1964, 43 sq. km of virgin jungle was set aside as forest reserve and sanctuary for these amiable creatures. Subsequently the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre was established to return orphaned apes back to the wild. It is but a truism that young orphaned, or pet orang utans become incapable of living in its natural habitat on its own.

Much of its survival depends on acquired skills, which the young orang utan gets from its mother in its first five to six years of life. At the Rehabilitation Centre, orphaned or pet orang utans are trained to live an independent life in their natural habitat.

Trained wardens teach them to climb trees, find food and fend for themselves in the wild. The rehabilitation process starts with a thorough health examination, followed by a quarantine period to eliminate diseases being transmitted.

This process is rather long, and includes a ‘kindergarten,’ enclosed and controlled areas, and its last stage, the forest reserve in Sepilok, where the orang utans are free-roaming. In this sanctuary, orang utans have been abandoned by their mothers, or were formerly in captivity, are rehabilitated until fit enough to be returned to the wild. Some of them have grown so accustomed to human company that they refuse to return to the wilds.
A volunteer at the Centre explained, “In the ‘Nursery,’ the young orang utans learn skills to lead a life in the jungle such as the ability to find food, build nests and even climb, skills they would learn off their mother. Once ready they move to the ‘Outdoor Nursery’ where their freedom is increased and their dependence on food and emotional support is decreased.” Visitors can witness part of the process by visiting ‘Platform A’ where the natural forest diet of the orang utans is supplemented with milk and fruit.

Rampant poaching

Despite stringent legal protection in Sumatra and Borneo, orang utans are poached for their meat and particularly skulls contributing to the thriving illegal black market pet trade. Thanks to the aggressive enforcement of a national conservation programme by the Malaysian and Indonesian Wildlife Departments, orang utans have been saved from extinction while their fragile environment continues to be challenged. 

Sepilok Orang utan Appeal UK , an NGO has also stepped into the fray to ensure the survival of these endangered species by adopting projects. These include the building of an exercise enclosure for the young orphans, release of captive full grown males and breeding females into a remote reserve, the provision of a Land Rover Defender to carry out rescues, and the refurbishment of the indoor nursery and quarantine wards, providing inmates with spacious stainless steel hygienic quarters.