On 7 February 2019 Friends of the Orangutans contacted Tripadvisor to ask that they stop the sale of tours to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre on their website and their subsidiaries. We have explained to Tripadvisor the reason for this request in a letter sent to them, which can be viewed here in full.
Travellers Worldwide is a British company which offers volunteering opportunities around the world. One of these places is at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) in Malaysia. SORC is owned and managed by the Sabah state government. According to the website of the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), “The aim of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is to return orphaned, injured or displaced orangutans back to the wild.”
Volunteers organised by Travellers Worldwide (TW) are placed for four weeks at SORC before a different group of 12 volunteers arrive to replace them. According to TW’s website (as of October 2019) each volunteer pays $3,180. Among other activities at SORC these volunteers are involved in the rehabilitation of orphan orangutans at the centre.
In September 2018 Friends of the Orangutans Malaysia wrote to TW to explain why this practice needs to be changed; TW volunteers can play an important role at SORC but without contact/potential contact with the orangutans undergoing rehabilitation for wild release. Unfortunately TW have thus far not shown us any interest in addressing our concerns. Therefore, in October 2019 we wrote again to TW to ask that the volunteering programme at SORC ceases and we have given a reasonable time frame for this to happen. Should TW refuse, FOTO Malaysia will campaign until the exploitation stops.
We compared this volunteering practice with two orangutan rehabilitation centres in Indonesia which conforms to International Union for Conservation of Nature’s best practice guidelines for great apes. At both rehabilitation centres only a handful of permanent, full time staff are directly involved in the rehabilitation process of their orangutans. SORC does have full time staff working at the centre on a daily basis but the two Indonesian centres do not allow volunteers to work with orangutans. Infact, one of the centres does not allow any form of volunteering.
Without their mothers orphan orangutans need familiarity, trust and bond with as minimal amount of caregivers as possible in their early years as the apes are guided through the rehabilitation process. Besides, having ever changing personnel working hands on with rehabilitant orangutans increases the risk of the orangutans becoming far too comfortable with humans, thus increasing the instance of human habituation. This could effect the chances of rehabilitant orangutans becoming viable wild release candidates.
Orangutan conservationists have also informed us that the volunteering practice at SORC needs to cease completely. Friends of the Orangutans Malaysia continues to urge Travellers Worldwide to cease the current volunteering practices at SORC and stop the exploitation of Malaysia’s orangutans.
On 3 October 2018, an orangutan called Tiger was moved from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR) forest and released there. The TWR is a Protected forest in eastern Sabah.
Tiger’s release into to the TWR, reportedly funded by British organisation Orangutan Appeal UK (OAUK) and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC), was labelled as a “proud day for Sabah’s wildlife conservation initiative” by Dr Sen Nathan, Assistant Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD). The SWD facilitated Tiger’s release. OUAK founder Sue Sheward stated that with the release “yet another magnificent orangutan was saved.”
Tiger arrived at the SORC as a two-year-old orphan to undergo rehabilitation for forest release. He was 20 at the time of release into the TWR.
The high-profile release was a failure as, only two months after his release, in December 2018, Tiger had to be located by SWD staff to transfer him back to the SORC. According to sources he has since been kept in a cage, 24/7.
Tiger now in a cage at SORC
In August 2019, nine months after Tiger was relocated back to the SORC, we found out that the centre kept playing a video which included scenes of Tiger’s release, for visitors to the SORC. Visitors were unaware that while they watched the video, believing Tiger was living a free orangutan at the TWR, he was in a cage at the centre. We are currently unaware if the SORC has stopped playing this video. Possibly thousands of visitors had been misled.
According to an SWD bulletin Tiger had to be taken back to the SORC as he “managed to return to [a] farm area for food and stayed“. This shows that this orangutan is too habituated to humans. It is also likely that he lacks the ability to forage for food in a forest.
The public may not be aware that Tiger had previously been released into the TWR, in 2017. According to a source, the first released failed as he had to be brought back to the SORC after he ventured into a palm oil plantation and became a risk to humans. Plantation workers could have injured or killed Tiger.
According to a news report Tiger had also been released into the Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve (SKFR). (The SKFR is adjacent to the SORC. Many SORC orangutans have been released into this forest). However, only several weeks after the release a “terrified plantation owner ran[g] the centre asking them to come and get Tiger as he had been found trying to make off on a worker’s motorbike.”
We believe the failed release attempts are the consequence of Tiger’s humanisation (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans), caused by the unsustainable and unethical tourism and voluntourism* practices at the SORC. Humanisation can affect orangutans’ ability to build nests and forage in a forest. It causes the apes to lose their fear of humans and makes them far too comfortable with human presence and diverts their interest away from natural behaviours and interactions within the forest environment. This can increase their proximity to humans, escalating both the risk of attacks on humans and the risk of the apes contracting a disease from humans.
It appears that the Sabah state government gives precedence to financial gain from tourism over the future of orphan orangutans at the SORC.
Tiger trying to mount a motorbike in a palm oil plantation after outside SKFR. Photo: Advertiser & Times
After Tiger’s second release into the TWR, Dr Nathan was quoted in a media report as saying that the SORC is “too small” for Tiger and felt he would “survive better in the wild”. How small could the SORC be that Tiger has to be now kept in a cage at the centre?
We discovered that before the release in October 2018, the founder of a British orangutan organisation which supports the SORC privately expressed concern that significant problems could arise if the media found out about the behaviour of several (humanised) SORC orangutans. These male apes – named Ceria, Sen, Mowgly and Poogle – are apparently a physical risk to tourists and staff (when left to roam around the centre). Sources also revealed that the SORC was close to getting sued by a tour company for safety negligence caused by a humanised orangutan. If these apes only inhabited the forest adjacent to the SORC, surely they wouldn’t be deemed a risk?
Sources informed us that before his release into the TWR, Tiger was kept in a cage for an extended period of time. If this is true, might the SWD have deemed it too dangerous to let a large, humanised orangutan roaming around the centre?
Ironically, spending considerable time in a cage is likely to humanise Tiger even more, as he will be dependant on the SORC staff to care for him. Sources informed us that Sen and Ceria are now also kept in a cage at the SORC.
Were Tiger’s release attempts into the TWR really about conservation? All that is stated above undoubtedly raises serious doubts about the real reasons for the SWD’s relocation of Tiger out of the SORC.
The SWD appears to have plans to release two other humanised SORC orangutans into the TWR under questionable circumstances. We have asked the SWD about this. They have not responded.
Unlike the fanfare caused by the SWD when Tiger was released into the TWR, the department remained silent about his return to the SORC until a media article reported this orangutan’s failed release. We believe that the SWD decided to not inform the Malaysian media about Tiger’s return to the SORC to avoid embarrassment and questions being raised about the department’s management and rehabilitation of orangutans at the SORC.
In response to the media article, the director of the SWD, Augustine Tuuga, stated in September 2019 that the department would once again try to release Tiger into a “suitable” forest. There has been no news about a release since then.
We’d also like to ask. If in the media report stated above Dr Nathan was actually referring to the Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve (SKFR) being too small for Tiger, does this mean that the SWD has stopped releasing SORC orangutans into the SKFR after completing rehabilitation?
Because of the SWD and the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS) Sabah’s insistence on prioritizing profits at the SORC, Tiger’s future is in serious doubt and he could be destined for a life in captivity.
We welcome the SWD and the KePKAS Ministry to respond to this article.
*The British company which ran the volunteering programme at the SORC ceased trading in February 2020. However, we have not received assurance from wildlife authorities that the volunteering programme will not continue. Read our statement here.