Conservation of our closest biological relatives is an issue I find extremely important. The Bornean Orangutan is critically endangered, but due to the lack of funding from the governments of Borneo, they have only recently reached this conservation status, despite being close to extinction in the wild for over a decade. Conservation in our world has so many enemies, from environmental to political, that every piece of help is cherished.
Maintaining the little that is left of our planet’s natural forests is so key to the animals that we all love to see, as well as prolonging the effect of climate change.
I was given the opportunity to work with an animal rehabilitation centre, that focuses on the conservation of endangered wildlife in Borneo. Borneo is the third largest island on earth, home to the oldest rainforest and is the only natural habitat for many endangered species: such as the Bornean Orangutan, Clouded Leopard, Proboscis Monkey and the smallest species of bear; the Sun Bear. Its rainforest (that once took over 75% of the island) has been reduced down to 25%, due to deforestation, man-made forest fires and palm oil farms.
When I first entered Borneo and was picked up from the airport, the first sighting outside the window of the car was a vast, empty wasteland of burned and timbered trunks, followed by miles and miles of uninhabitable palm oil farms. I was working with a non-profit organization called The Orangutan Project (TOP) that had a centre in Kubah National Park, called Matang. While I temporarily lived there with some of the TOP staff I spent my day from 8am – 6pm working with the animals. I cleaned cages, night dens and enclosures, made enrichment for orangutans, sun bears, gibbons and macaques, cemented, laid bricks and painted. We were working deep in the rainforest where the temperatures were at a constant 30 degrees and the humidity was a moist 80%. When you finish a day hauling wheelbarrows full of logs, bricks and sand your clothes are nothing less than drenched and after having to wash them every day it took several days for them to dry in the humidity. After the days of manual labour, I spent my evenings monitoring the behaviour of the orangutans. The resources given to the centre are limited, meaning that the size and number of the outdoor enclosures were very unfortunately lacking. Dealing with the lack of space for them while also working with an animal that is so similar to us (98% of our DNA is shared) means that there can be personality clashes and grudges held between orangutans, much like we humans have. The reason for me monitoring their behaviour was to make sure that the orangutans were able to spend the most time outside, without being with other orangutans that they would fight or be bullied by. I had to play an elaborate game of fox, goose and bag of beans, rearranging which enclosures the orangutans could go in to avoid them sometimes literally eating each other. This entailed a lot of enticing with exotic fruits for them to go through doors into the next cornered woodland.
The work was exhausting but extremely rewarding. Most of the animals came from extremely horrific pasts. One of the reasons for apes being critically endangered; aside from the destruction of their natural habitat; is the capturing of them, to be sold as pets, entertainment or meat. When you see people with pictures holding orangutans and monkeys, posing with tigers and riding on elephants, the huge problem, that is carefully and intricately hidden from the tourists, is the process they go through to become safe for humans to be near – for example elephants tortured until they show no sign of aggression or dissent.
With Orangutans, people in South East Asia see them as a status symbol. Keeping them as a pet is a sign of wealth. They have their mothers killed, usually at birth, then are chained in someone’s house until they grow up to be too aggressive to be treated like a pet, so are locked in a cage and never let out. The Orangutan Project have several cases very similar to this, some that were trained to be in the circus and still try to pirouette in an attempt to gain food, some that their stomachs are so damaged from years of the wrong diets that they can only eat certain blended fruits.
One of my favourite animals from my time working at the centre was George. A dominant male orangutan that spent the first 25 years of his life in a cage no bigger than your average fridge, being fed scraps of human meals and being left in the basement with very little interaction and natural light. Now, through the help of the rehabilitation; although George has very little hope of being released into the wild due to his inability to climb trees; his life is full of captivating enrichment through challenging puzzles for food and treats, he has his own outdoor enclosure with large climbing frames and trees and is steadily becoming more comfortable around other orangutans. His case is unique in terms of how long he was held in such bad captivity, but now his life is much improved, along with many other endangered animals in the process of rehabilitation due to the work of The Orangutan Project, Matang, Borneo, along with the little other rehabilitation centres that focus on conservation, not profit.