You are not alone in the cosmos. Never mind alien life that may or may not one day visit our planet, there are others closer to home that deserve just as much more care and attention. Look around you, the spirits of the primordial forest are crying out for protection. The natural wealth of Malaysia has to be defended. And the orangutan is a symbol of that priceless wild beauty that has so blessed this land.
*****Article by Azral Hanan*****
The orangutans are some of our closes relatives on the evolutionary family tree – and among some of the most endangered. Habitat destruction, deforestation and hunting have taken a toll on these most precious dwellers of the forest. If no heed is paid to their plight, there may come a time when the vast green canopies will be silent and empty, the voices of the spirits gone forever.
Recognising the immense significance of the orangutan not only as a symbol of the country’s natural beauty but also as legacy for future generations, a collaborative effort between Orang-utan Appeal UK (OAUK) an England registered wildlife organisation, the Sabah Wildlife Department as well as Land Rover was initiated to ensure that these gentle red-furred apes would have a chance.
Known as the Tabin Orangutan Project (TOP), it was established to provide better understanding of these great apes so that greater improvements can be made to the successful local program of rehabilitating captive, orphaned and injured orangutans back into the wild. The Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWF) with an area twice the size of Singapore was ideal for this venture. The first participants include nine research assistants and eight orangutans.
Understanding the Problems
The causes for depletion in orangutan numbers in the wild are manifold and complex, but can be attributed to large scale habitat loss for the orangutans due to increasing human encroachment on their domain. These primates value their privacy and avoid others of their own kind. Leading semi-solitary lives foraging over vast distances their territories often do not overlap with that of others.
When deforestation occurs and the size of their foraging areas are reduced, orangutans become displaced and begin leaving their original home range. This often leads to them straying into human settlements. Many farmers in the small villages deep in the jungle consider orangutans as nothing more than pests that raid their hard-earned fruits and crops. There is then always the danger that whenever the encounter or capture an orangutan it could be mistreated or worse.
Mass logging and clearing away the jungle for infrastructure projects mean that many orangutans are easily exposed to unscrupulous hunting as their environment is disrupted. Young orangutans are much sought after in the lucrative pet trade. The net effect of deforestation, hunting and young orangutans being taken into captivity has not only been decreasing the population of wild orangutans, but also lead to a relatively new problem. Orphaned young orangutans along with captive orangutans that have been abandoned when taking care of them proved too difficult, have been turning up at orangutan rehab centres vacross Borneo and Sumatra.
Of Hope and Hard Work
The main aim of TOP is to have a better idea of post-release conditions and how to ensure the maximum positive outcome for orangutans being re-released into the jungle. It’s all about collecting as much data as possible on general re-introduction outcomes in terms of how each individual is responding and coping to their return. Also, the importance of establishing exactly what are the post-release needs of the rehabilitants in order to enable them to survive and thrive.
The relatively small number of orangutans being monitored means researchers can better focus on each individual over a period of weeks. Assessments are done of the animal’s health through evaluation of fecal matter, diet and from time to time veterinary visits. This is also one of the first instances where VHF telemetry is used via implantation on each released orangutan.
The Tabin Orangutan Project (TOP) is fortunate in having along the guidance, assistance and cooperation of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. Established in 1964 and managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department, it has decades of experience in rehabilitating and preparing captive orangutans for release into the wild. The Centre had also been using the Tabin Wildlife Reserve as a translocation hub for injured and captive orangutans for years.
With new advances in scientific equipment, research and the use of telemetry, radar and GPS, tracking orangutans is no longer the near impossible task it once was. Yet, it is still a labour intensive sweat-inducing affair requiring hours or even days in the field, trekking through the thick jungle foliage on foot which always requires a parang or machete handy.
For longer distances, one would require a sturdy four-wheel all-terrain vehicle to navigate muddy roads, swamplands and leaf littered forest floors. Fortunately, TOP partner, Land Rover, facilitated the AP and helped bring a brand spanking new Land Rover Defender 130 to the site to allow researchers to traverse even the hardiest terrain.
Land Rover also recently donated £3500 (RM16,587) to help pay for a new roof, extensions to living quarters and a water tower at the TOP base camp. TOP isn’t just an onsite field project; it also aims to build and develop awareness with the local community since the people here living on the ground are on the frontline of the ecological struggle. Their views and actions matter a great deal if the orangutan is to have any chance of success. To that end, TOP is tirelessly engaging with local communities with awareness programs and presentations in schools in Lahad Datu along with training locals as staff members.
For the Long Run
These distant yet gentle red-haired relations deserve a chance to live on, so that our future children will be able to thrill at their antics and wonder awestruck at the gleam in their eyes. The endeavour of TOP and the earnest effort of the people behind this project will hopefully go some way towards ensuring that the forests will always be alive with the sights and sounds of the orangutan.