When greed rules – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

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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. Tiger’s release was widely covered by major news media in Malaysia. Tiger, who arrived at SORC as a two-year-old orphaned infant, is now back at SORC.

 

On 3 October 2018, an orangutan called Tiger was moved from SORC to the Tabin Wildlife Reserve forest and released there.

Tiger’s release into to Tabin, which was reportedly funded by British organisation Orangutan Appeal UK and the Malaysian Palm Oil Council, was labelled as his “journey to freedom” by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD). A prominent British figure in Sabah claimed that “another magnificent orangutan is saved”.

However, we would like to question whether Tiger’s release into Tabin was a success for orangutan conservation in Sabah, especially since Tiger’s release eventually failed and he was relocated back to SORC in December 2018 and has since been kept in a cage 24/7, according to sources. This was Tiger’s second failed release into Tabin, the first being in 2017. We strongly believe Tiger’s failed release attempts are the result of the Sabah state government prioritizing financial interests by allowing unethical and unsustainable tourism and volunteering practice* at SORC, at the expense of the orphaned orangutans.

Tiger in his cage at SORC

Unlike the media fanfare caused by the SWD when he was released into Tabin, the department remained silent about Tiger’s return to SORC until a media article reported Tiger’s failed release. Did the SWD try to keep news of Tiger’s return under wraps to avoid public relations embarrassment to Sabah?

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 claimed 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 as of 2019, 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 was 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 & unethical tourism and volunteering practices* till this day and human habituation could affect an orangutan’s ability to adapt upon release, if they can be released at all.

Tiger trying to mount a motorbike in a palm oil plantation after his first release. Photo: Advertiser & Times

 

We have also been informed that Tiger had spent a considerable amount of time in cages at SORC prior to his second release into Tabin.

Based on the above, would it be a surprise to anyone that Tiger was relocated back to SORC? We were informed that Tiger ventured into an oil palm plantation and became a danger to people and himself and SWD had no choice but to locate and transfer him back to SORC before he or someone got injured, or worse.

Why was Tiger sent to Tabin? In the area of orangutan rehabilitation, it is not common for orangutans rescued in early infancy to take 10-15 years to be rehabilitated and released into a forest as adults.

Inform a well-meaning orangutan conservationist that a 19-year-old ex-rehabilitant 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 in 2017, and a tourist injured by an orangutan in 2016?

Several Malaysian conservationists have expressed their opinion to us and allege that SWD was probably getting rid of a habituated orangutan now too big and dangerous to handle, no thanks to the unethical and unsustainable tourism and volunteering practices* at SORC. The release would then be called a conservation success for public relations reasons. We welcome SWD to comment on these allegations.

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.

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. In fact, it now looks like it was an embarrassing failure.

Was 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 state government coming to power?

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 demand the SWD to be transparent on Tiger’s future.

 

*The British company which ran the unethical volunteering programme at SORC reportedly closed down in late February 2020. However, neither the SWD nor the Sabah environment ministry has confirmed that the programme will not continue. Read more here.