Was Sepilok orangutan’s release a success?

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Below is our full response to news of the release of one of Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre’s (SORC) orangutans, called Tiger. The release took place on 3 October 2018. Tiger’s release was widely covered by major news medias in Malaysia. Here is one of them. Tiger is now back at SORC.

 

LAST October, an orangutan called Tiger was moved from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve.

Tiger’s transfer to Tabin, which was reportedly co-funded by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, was labelled as his “journey to freedom” and return to “the wild” by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD).

A British figure influential in Sabah claimed that “another magnificent orangutan is saved”. Several major media outlets published news of the transfer and release.

However, we would like to question whether Tiger’s release into Tabin was a success for orangutan conservation in Sabah, especially since Tiger was relocated back to SORC in December.

There appears to be no mention in the media of Tiger’s return to SORC, unlike the fanfare by SWD when he was released into Tabin.

Did SWD decide not to inform the press yet to avoid causing public relations embarrassment to Sabah?

We have tried to make this letter as easy as possible for the public to understand and they can make up their mind after reading this.

When rehabilitant orangutans are released into a forest, there needs to be “post-release monitoring” (PRM).

It is a challenging yet crucial part of orangutan conservation as after release, researchers will track an orangutan to ensure it is able to adapt and survive in a new forest area.

It also enables intervention if the orangutan is proven to be unable to adapt or even needs medical attention. Therefore, PRM is also important for welfare reasons.

A top SWD officer said attempts would be made to monitor Tiger upon release, yet we were informed that there was no PRM done.

If this is untrue, we invite the SWD to release Tiger’s PRM details. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) also recommends that PRM data be made public.

Tiger, reported to be 19 years old, is a fully matured flanged male. In a forest, flanged, dominant orangutan males establish their territory and generally stay within it their entire lives.

Introducing Tiger into a jungle virtually alien to him could have led to brutal physical conflicts with other resident, dominant orangutan males, and as Tiger has been at SORC for more than 15 years, he may not have the survival/feral attributes of a totally wild dominant orangutan male.

This affects his ability to defend and establish himself in his new home. Moving Tiger into Tabin could have also disrupted the native resident orangutan population.

SWD claimed that Tiger was doing well at SORC and were confident that he would forage well in Tabin. However, this can only be confirmed through persistent PRM, which can take months to complete.

SORC is inundated with unsustainable tourism practices till this day (the public will know more about this soon) and human habituation could affect an orangutan’s ability to adapt upon release.

We have also been informed in the past that Tiger had spent considerable amount of time in cages at SORC.

Based on the above, would it be a surprise to anyone that Tiger was relocated back to SORC? We were informed that, in short, Tiger became a danger to people and himself and SWD had no choice but locate and transfer him back to SORC before things got out of hand.

Why was Tiger sent to Tabin? Releasing a 19-year-old flanged male so he may “go back into the wild” is unheard of in the area of orangutan rehabilitation.

Inform a well-meaning orangutan conservationist that a 19-year-old flanged male is going to be “wild released” to a new forest area and immediately there will be a number of concerns raised.

SWD claim that the forest adjacent to SORC is too small for Tiger and thought he would “survive better in the wild”.

Or does the real problem lie in the fact there are already dominant males around SORC and SWD wanted to avoid more PR disasters, especially after a tourist was attacked there by a “problem” orangutan two years ago?

Several Malaysian conservationists have expressed their opinion to us and allege that SWD was merely getting rid of an orangutan now too big and dangerous to handle.

There are other male orangutans around SORC and they are reported to be a risk to tourism activity at the centre. These males are growing larger and stronger and will cause bigger issues once they hit puberty. While females continue to reproduce.

Going back to the subject of PRM, it is a gruelling task to trail an adult orangutan male as he travels far and wide in the wild.

However, if there is no PRM made and lack of information on Tiger’s survivability after release, this orangutan’s move to Tabin in October cannot be called a conservation success. Instead it now looks like it was an embarrassing failure.

This is a public relations practice by the SWD, which has shown no interest in transparency in our private communications with it, despite a new government.

The SWD knew what it was doing and thus could be accused of deliberately misleading Malaysians on what orangutan conservation really looks like.

This greenwashing needs to stop and we urge the public to demand the SWD to be transparent on Tiger’s future.