Treatment of Bornean orangutans at Zoo Negara distasteful

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Published 18 September 2020. Main image: Two Bornean orangutans at Zoo Negara
Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

Six years ago, two pandas were imported into Zoo Negara from China. Since then, millions of dollars have been spent on the maintenance of the animals. Zoo Negara vice-president, Rosly Ahmat Lana, boasted back in 2014 that the zoo’s Giant Panda Conservation and Exhibition Centre was the “biggest and best in the world.”

Zoo Negara houses four Bornean orangutans. While the pandas are kept in what appears to be a state-of-the-art facility, the four apes are constrained in two visibly substandard outdoor enclosures. These enclosures are not fit for purpose and unacceptable, especially since Malaysia is a country home to the critically endangered Bornean orangutan species.

 

Two Bornean orangutan enclosures at Zoo Negara

What the apes need in the odd-looking, sloped enclosures are elevated platforms connected by robust horizontal ropes to allow them to mimic some of the natural behaviours of wild orangutans, and enable them to exercise to maintain their physical and mental wellbeing. There is an insufficient shade to protect the apes from the searing Malaysian sun in one of the enclosures.

Both enclosures also lack privacy barriers, another essential feature for captive orangutans to rest out of the sight of zoo visitors and other apes when they choose to do so – important to reduce the apes’ stress in captivity.

Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO) first contacted the zoo management about these concerns over two years ago. We also wrote to the zoo in May this year. The zoo management has only taken minimal action. Based on our investigations at the zoo, the orangutans are mostly seen on the ground, looking bored and listless.

Orangutans are arboreal animals, and wild orangutans spend most of their lives in trees. Arboreal locomotion, the ability to travel off the ground is a vital element for captive orangutans. According to captive orangutan management guidelines by esteemed orangutan expert Leif Cocks:

 

‘The most important aspect of the captive physical environment for orang utans is the amount of arboreal space available for both rest and locomotion (Maple 1979; Maple and Stine 1982; Jones 1982). Horizontal arboreal pathways and nesting/resting platforms are the main elements of the natural physical environment (Jones 1982). The lack of opportunity for arboreal locomotion promotes lethargy and contributes to obesity (Maple 1980). The combination of lethargy and living on the ground causes health hazards.’

 

An orangutan enclosure at an international zoo. Not the best, but a far cry from Zoo Negara’s enclosures

Zoo Negara is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). According to the WAZA Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare:

 

‘All exhibits must be of such size and volume as to allow the animal to express its natural behaviours. Enclosures must contain sufficient material to allow behavioural enrichment and allow the animal to express natural behaviours. The animals should have areas to which they may retreat …’

 

Zoo Negara, a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), is no stranger to controversy. Earlier this year, FOTO exposed the zoo for its cruel treatment of Sumatran orangutans and chimpanzees and failing to comply with zoo regulations. Although the zoo was forced to take action, PERHILITAN, the Peninsular Malaysia wildlife department, is yet to announce if it will penalise the zoo.

This year alone, the Malaysian media raised two other cases of animal welfare concerns at the zoo. A 2019 Malaysian media article indicated that the Malaysian anti-corruption authorities would investigate the zoo for “possible corruption.”

In our letter to the zoo in May, we asked the management to provide evidence to the Malaysian public about how its wildlife ‘research’, ‘conservation’ and ‘education’ (as stated on the zoo website) helps to protect the habitat and increase the wild population of all animal species the zoo maintains.

The management has not responded, and in the meantime, Zoo Negara continues to ask the public for donations.

The zoo also did not respond to our demand for it to cease breeding its Bornean orangutans and chimps. (Sumatran orangutans at the zoo are fraternally related, and must not be bred). Captive breeding of chimps and orangutans is not conservation and intentional breeding of these animals to only keep them captive for life is unethical.

Genuine conservation initiatives involve activities such as protecting the apes’ habitat. The Malaysian public can assist in genuine conservation initiatives by donating to and campaigning with organisations that fight to protect rainforests and wildlife habitats, not zoos that keep animals captive.

Melaka Zoo failed to show its lone chimpanzee compassion – and now wants more orangutans

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Published on 16 September 2020. Updated 26 November 2020

Coco is a chimpanzee who, according to PERHILITAN, the Peninsular Malaysia wildlife department, was born at Singapore Zoo. She was reportedly a surplus chimpanzee and in 1999 was sent to Melaka Zoo. We estimate her age to be in the mid-30s. Coco has been the lone chimp for about ten years after a different chimpanzee died at the zoo.

Melaka Zoo was previously managed by PERHILITAN and in 2013 the Melaka Hang Tuah Jaya Municipal Council (MPHTJ) took ownership of the zoo and leased it to a private entity, which also managed the zoo. On 1 October 2018, the MPHTJ took control of the zoo and installed new management, including a new director.

Chimpanzees are highly social and intelligent animals and, in the wild, live in large social groups. They should never be forced to live alone.

In the wild, chimpanzees may travel up to 10km a day. At Melaka Zoo, Coco spends her lonely, deprived life in a tiny outdoor enclosure. She is kept in an indoor den – which zoo visitors are not allowed to see – for over 12 hours a day when the zoo is closed.

Left: Coco’s deplorable night den (July 2018). Right: The outdoor enclosure

In November 2018 Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO) delivered a proposal for retiring Coco to an African chimpanzee sanctuary to the then Melaka State Housing, Local Government and Environment Committee chairperson Tey Kok Kiew. A copy of the proposal was sent to the office of the ex-Chief Minister of Melaka, Adly Zahari, and the new Melaka Zoo Director, Zanariah Khamis. The sanctuary, accredited by the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA) and cares for over 30 rescued chimps from around the world, was ready to accept Coco.

In January 2019 we informed Ms Zanariah that Coco’s transfer to the sanctuary would come at no cost to Melaka Zoo. Soon afterwards she informed that Melaka Zoo had agreed to send Coco to Taiping Zoo in exchange for a mandrill. The chimp is still at Melaka Zoo.

In January 2020 another proposal was sent to Ms Zanariah. We did not receive a response. During this time, Covid-19 hit, and we were eventually informed by the sanctuary in Africa, understandably, that Coco’s transfer would not be feasible.

Instead of showing compassion, the current Melaka Zoo management appeared to be more interested in protecting its interests. It is also inconceivable that PERHILITAN has left Coco to languish all alone for years.

According to an April 2020 Bernama report, Melaka Zoo is a “conservation, research and educational centre.” Based on what we have revealed above, can the public believe this claim?

Coco’s transfer would have had to be approved by relevant authorities, including to determine that she was healthy enough to make the journey to the African sanctuary. Nonetheless, Coco’s chances of being in the company of other chimpanzees at the sanctuary were denied by the zoo management. The sanctuary does not breed its chimps. Media reports indicate that Taiping Zoo has bred chimpanzees in the past.

In late September we wrote to Dr Luis Carlos Neves, Director of Zoology at Singapore Zoo, to ask if the zoo would be able to accept Coco. Singapore Zoo, where this chimp was born at and the most appropriate destination for her, has better facilities for chimpanzees than any Malaysian zoo. In his response, Dr Neves informed that the Malaysian Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (MAZPA) had been contacted “to inform them” about the concerns we raised about Coco. We have not had further news from Singapore Zoo since Dr Neves’ email on 28 September.

Sadly, another Melaka Zoo great ape is living solitarily. Mardia, a 31-year-old female orangutan from Sarawak, is devoid of contact with other orangutans after the death of her offspring in mid-2019.

According to a 16 September news article, Melaka Zoo will receive “three new products, including three orangutans from the A’Famosa Resort’s Safari Wonderland zoo and the Bukit Merah [Orangutan Island].

FOTO initially objected the transfer of orangutans to Melaka Zoo and suggested that Mardia is allowed to be sent to the Matang Wildlife Centre, near Kuching. The sanctuary is managed by the Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC). However, following PERHILITAN’s response, FOTO informed the wildlife department on 29 September that before Melaka Zoo is allowed to import more orangutans the zoo would first need to agree to several conditions, including initiating and completing a significantly improved orangutan enclosure, and the prohibition of breeding. Click here to see several other prerequisites.

We informed PERHILITAN that if Melaka Zoo refuses the adopt the conditions Mardia should be allowed to be sent to the Matang Wildlife Centre. PERHILITAN has yet to inform if the zoo has agreed to the conditions.

Mardia in her outdoor enclosure at Melaka Zoo

 

Friends of the Orangutans is opposed to the breeding of orangutans in captivity, and of great apes in general. Breeding these highly intelligent animals to only keep them captive for life is not conservation, and it is also unethical. Instead of breeding orangutans in captivity resources would be better spent on genuine orangutan conservation efforts, such as protecting and connecting the habitats of wild orangutans, addressing human-orangutan conflict and tackling the illegal wildlife trade.

No transparency from Sabah wildlife authorities on welfare concerns of six Sepilok orangutans

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Published on 2 September 2020

 

There is genuine concern over the fate of six orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC), and the Sabah Wildlife Dept (SWD) is still refusing to show transparency on the management of these apes.

The six orangutans are Ceria, Rosa, Mowgli, Poogle, Tiger and Sen. These are humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on humans) orangutans.

Rosa, the only female orangutan among the six, is known to steal from items at the SORC and “her next victim”. Ceria has displayed worrying behaviours, including attacking a SORC tourist in 2017. He has also been attacked and injured by a pack of dogs near the centre.

An October 2019 Borneo Post news report indicated that Ceria and Rosa would be released into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR) forest from the SORC. In January 2020, we wrote to the SWD to express our concern about the release plan and asked the department to first present release plans to the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group, including available data which led the department deciding to move the orangutans to TWR. We also asked the SWD to inform how long post-release monitoring (PRM) would be carried out. Persistent PRM is a necessary conservation action to ensure orangutans can survive in a forest after release. The IUCN recommends PRM be conducted for one year.

According to our sources, Tiger has been kept in a cage at the SORC since December 2018 after his second release into the TWR failed.

We discovered that before Tiger’s second release the founder of a British orangutan organisation that supports the SORC privately expressed concern that significant problems could arise if the media found out about Mowgli, Poogle, Sen, and Ceria’s behaviour. These apes are 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.

The SWD did not respond to our January email, and we sent our third email in June this year. The Director of the SWD, Augustine Tuuga, replied and stated that the department was exploring new forest release sites for SORC orangutans and that the SWD acknowledged the importance of carrying out post-release monitoring.

Mr Tuuga also indicated that the SWD was contemplating building an enclosure to keep some unreleasable orangutans in, instead of confining them to life in cages. He, however, did not inform the SWD’s plan for the six orangutans stated above. Why is there a concern?

Based on information from our source Mowgli, Sen, Ceria and Poogle are very terrestrial at the SORC and have shown not much interest in forest life.

Allowing humanised orangutans to roam around the SORC may be a threat to staff, and it would be a public relations disaster for the SWD and the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS) if an orangutan injures another tourist at the SORC and media finds out about it. It is no surprise that according to our sources, like Tiger, Ceria and Sen are also kept in cages at the SORC.

Humanisation can fail orangutans’ successful return to a fully independent forest life as it can affect their 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.

Releasing humanised orangutans that are known not to persistently show that they can survive independently in a forest, away from humans, is highly questionable. Some conservationists may even question if releasing these types of orangutans is simply a public relations move that may doom an orangutan to an early death.

For 20 years until 2016, the SWD supplied infant SORC orangutans to a luxury hotel in Sabah under the pretence of rehabilitation. We campaigned and stopped the exploitation. Hands-on volunteering practice, which took place at the SORC for over 15 years until early 2020, and unsustainable orangutan tourism increased the risk of humanisation among orangutans at the SORC, putting the apes’ future in jeopardy. Is the Sabah state government prioritising profits over the welfare of orangutans at the SORC? Can the public trust authorities at the SWD?

We continue to demand the SWD to show complete transparency on the future and management of the six orangutans mentioned above.

 

Further reading about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre:

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

General public finally barred from involvement with orangutan rehab at Sepilok

Perilous orangutan tourism resumes at Sepilok amid COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19: Time for change at Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

General public finally barred from involvement with orangutan rehab at Sepilok

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Main photo credit: Travellers Worldwide Instagram

Published on 6 July 2020

 

The Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) recently confirmed that an exploitive volunteering programme practised at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) for more than 15 years until early 2020 has been permanently discontinued.

Every four weeks, British company Travellers Worldwide sent up to 12 unqualified individuals to the SORC, in the Malaysian Bornean state of Sabah. The ‘volunteers’ were able to take part in the rehabilitation process of orphaned orangutans that undergo training at the centre for eventual forest release. Each individual paid around US$ 3,400.

The volunteering programme was not conservation; it was an exploitation of a Critically Endangered wildlife species sanctioned by the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS) and the SWD.

After Travellers Worldwide ignored our demand to stop their volunteering programme at the SORC, Friends of the Orangutans (FOTO) started campaigning against the company in late 2019. In December 2019, the Asia for Animals Coalition (AfA) wrote to Travellers Worldwide to ask that the company ceases its volunteering programme at the centre. Almost 200 animal organisations from around the world co-signed the coalition’s appeal letter.

 

 

In January 2020 Travellers Worldwide ceased operations. After making two inquiries, the SWD revealed to FOTO on 11 June 2020 that members of the public would not be allowed to take part in the rehabilitation process of orangutans at the SORC any longer.

Orangutans undergoing rehabilitation should only be exposed to, and bond with, the minimal number of caregivers as possible in their early years as the apes are guided through the rehabilitation process. Rehabilitation at the SORC should be carried out by permanent staff only.

Having ever-changing personnel working hands-on with rehabilitant orangutans increases the risk of the apes becoming humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans). Humanisation diverts the orangutans’ interest away from natural behaviours and interactions within the forest environment. Our previous article explains why allowing the general public to join the rehabilitation process of orangutans can be harmful to the apes.

Reputable orangutan rehabilitation centres, such as those run by organisations International Animal Rescue and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), have never allowed the public to engage with orangutans in their care.

The SWD should have stopped Travellers Worldwide’s exploitation of SORC orangutans years ago – as the Sabah state government wildlife agency, the SWD has authority to do so. Nonetheless, we applaud the SWD for this positive development and thank the AfA Coalition for their support. 

There are still other concerns at the SORC, including unsustainable tourism and the fate of six orangutans. Updates on these and other SORC issues will be posted on our website.

 

See our other articles regarding the SORC below.

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

COVID-19: Time for change at Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

Perilous orangutan tourism resumes at Sepilok amid COVID-19 pandemic

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

No transparency from Sabah wildlife authorities on welfare concerns of 6 Sepilok orangutans

Perilous orangutan tourism resumes at Sepilok amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Main photo: SORC visitor photographs an orangutan up close. Her face mask is in her hand. The person on the left, with a cane in his hand, is an SWD staff.

Published 1 July 2020

Tourism at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) was temporarily halted in March this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and recently resumed on 15 June.

Although visitor precautions have been put in place, recent images show lax enforcement of the safety measures. This does not come as a surprise as the Sabah state government and its wildlife agency the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) have for years shown an apparent disregard for the Critically Endangered orangutans at the SORC by prioritising profits.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) had indicated that until proven otherwise, it’s best to assume that great apes are susceptible to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19. In April, researchers noted that it is likely apes are prone to Covid-19. According to our colleagues in Africa and Indonesia great ape tourism in these areas has yet to resume as of 29 June.

At the moment, only Malaysians are allowed into the SORC. A sign outside the centre reminds visitors that they should refrain from entering if they have symptoms of cough, breathing difficulty, sore throat and headache. Body temperature is checked before visitors are allowed in, and a face mask must be worn when inside the SORC premise, which is half an hour outside Sandakan city.

However, pre-symptomatic (no Covid-19 symptoms in the early stages of infection) or asymptomatic Covid-19 carriers may still visit the SORC. Although the safety measures currently taken for tourist visits at the SORC are vital, it is impossible to reduce the risks of possible infection to SORC staff and orangutans down to zero.

Signs to remind SORC visitors to remain more than 15 metres of an orangutan have been placed at the centre. The signs also clearly state: COVID-19 may infect orangutans. However, enforcement of precautionary requirements by the SWD is questionable as visitors have recently been seen to come within less than 15 metres, without a face mask, all while being under the watch of SWD staff.

 

Photo: SORC visitor without a face mask getting too close to an orangutan. The person on the right is an SWD staff

 

Children have also been seen inside the SORC recently, either not wearing a face mask properly, or without a face mask. The IUCN’s great ape tourism guidelines, published in 2010, state that tourism should not be allowed at orangutan rehabilitation centres, such as at the SORC. At areas where great ape tourism can take place, children under the age of 15 should not be allowed to visit as they are more likely than adults to release pathogens.

We had highlighted these and other unsustainable orangutan tourism practices at the SORC before the SWD suspended tourism at the centre in March, and health risks to orangutans in April.

 

Photo: A child on the right without a face mask. Adults can be seen not wearing a face mask properly, including in the presence of an SWD staff (orange t-shirt)

 

Research has shown that human sneeze can reach up to a hundred miles an hour (about 160 km/h), and saliva from the sternutation can travel up to eight metres. Evaporating droplets from the sneeze can then remain suspended in the air for several minutes.

The research stated above were conducted indoors. However, the lack of or improper use of face masks at the SORC, and the fact that humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans) orangutans often travel terrestrially and come to within several metres of visitors at the centre undeniably increases the risk of disease transmission.

Great apes are susceptible to human diseases, including tuberculosis and influenza. The human coronavirus OC43 (HCoV–OC43) is known to infect chimpanzees. Like COVID-19, the OC43 coronavirus, tuberculosis and influenza are respiratory illnesses and can also be spread through the air.

It is also important to note that earlier in June, the Malaysian government had declared that Malaysians could start to travel from the peninsular to Sabah. AirAsia and Malaysia Airlines have resumed flights from Kuala Lumpur to Sandakan, enabling Malaysians travelling from the peninsular to visit the SORC soon after getting off a plane.

If the argument for reopening the SORC is to help local tour guides and companies, it is unfounded. Malaysians rarely utilise tour guides/companies for SORC visits. The centre is so reliant on foreign tourists that two hotels only minutes away from the SORC are still closed.

The Malaysian government has done a highly commendable job in controlling the spread of COVID-19. However, the risk of contracting and spreading the virus among people remains, and the risk of people possibly infecting orangutans at the SORC will be higher if the centre starts accepting foreign tourists before a vaccine is found.

Unlike at the esteemed Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre (BSBCC), where sun bears are kept apart from visitors at all times, it is a challenge to manage the movement of every tourist and humanised orangutan at the SORC especially when there are vast numbers of tourists around. Even with limited visitors currently, the Sabah state government and the SWD appear not to prioritise the health of a Critically Endangered Malaysian icon.

If the Sabah state government had transitioned towards sustainable and ethical orangutan tourism away from the SORC years ago, careful planning of the reopening of wild orangutan tourism would be more feasible. Instead, state officials have for many years appeared to be more interested in making a quick buck.

Is it time for some resignations at the Sabah Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah (KePKAS) and the SWD?

 

We have highlighted other serious concerns at the SORC. See our articles below.

COVID-19: Time for change at Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

British company folds, but will orangutan exploitation at Sepilok end?

Appalling video of gibbon raise concerns about PERHILITAN rescue centres, again

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The animal in the image above is an Agile gibbon, an endangered species, at the National Wildlife Rescue Centre in Sungkai, Perak. It is a government-owned centre managed by PERHILITAN, the peninsular Malaysia wildlife department.

The appalling state in which the gibbon is kept is revealed in this video. The size of the almost barren concrete enclosure is too small for active animals like gibbons.

The enclosure desperately lacks sufficient ‘furniture’ and enrichment to enable the gibbon to exhibit natural behaviours of a wild gibbon, including brachiation. The gibbon does not get much exposure to the sun, which is essential to maintain healthy skin and coat. It is unacceptable for an animal at a rescue centre to be kept in this manner. What about the condition of other animals held at Sungkai?

The video of the agile gibbon was not taken very recently. However, it once again raises serious concern about rescue centres managed PERHILITAN. In 2017, a report by The Star exposed the disturbing plight of many animals at rescue centres managed by PERHILITAN, including Sungkai.

According to the report, thousands of animals had died between 2016 and May 2017, including gibbons and 1000 Indian Star tortoises. A source for The Star revealed PERHILITAN’s “lack of expertise and knowledge” to manage animals in their care led to the deaths.

The same source indicated that PERHILITAN’s lack of knowledge in caring for animals in their care also led to neglect and that animals “were not properly fed, given the right diet, or housed in proper facilities.” This extremely worrying revelation, in turn, “caused the animals to be stressed from captivity, thus making them prone to disease and death.”

The then CEO of WWF-Malaysia, Dr Dionysius Sharma, suggested in 2017 that an independent wildlife centre would be able to rehabilitate some of the animals confiscated by PERHILITAN, in the hope of releasing them back in the wild.

As of 2020, FOTO is aware of only one independent/NGO rescue or rehabilitation centre in peninsular Malaysia, the Gibbon Rehabilitation Project (GReP). A recent Malaysiakini report noted that the GReP “rescues gibbons from captivity and rehabilitates them for an eventual return to the wild.”

What has changed since the report by The Star came to light? What is PERHILITAN’s plan for the gibbon stated above? PERHILITAN should explain publicly.

What can you do? Social media is a powerful tool for change. We have created a tweet for you to voice your concern directly to PERHILITAN. Click HERE to tweet now.

COVID-19: Time for change at Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre

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Published 5 May 2020. Updated 26 October 2020.

 

Over the years, researchers have provided ample evidence that great apes, including orangutans, are susceptible to human diseases, including respiratory ones. Humans are also known to be vulnerable to great ape pathogens. The human coronavirus OC43 (HCoVOC43) is known to infect chimpanzees. Whilst it is still unclear whether great apes are prone to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has stated that, for now, it’s best to assume that great apes are susceptible.

In March, the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), which manages the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC), announced that it was temporarily closing the doors of the SORC to tourists after the Malaysian government imposed a movement control order. The SWD is the Sabah state government wildlife agency under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah (KePKAS). The SORC reopened for tourism in June and closed again in early October.

We do not doubt that the centre’s staff is concerned about the potential Covid-19 risk to orangutans and themselves. There have, however, been unsustainable tourism practices at the SORC for more than twenty years. In pursuing such practices, the SWD has shown an evident lack of regard for the health not only of the orangutans at the centre but also of the staff and tourists. It is high time the SWD prioritised the health and welfare of orangutans and those caring for them, not profits.

The IUCN’s great ape tourism guidelines, authored by conservation experts, state that tourism should not be allowed at orangutan rehabilitation centres or in forests that are home to orangutans that have been released after rehabilitation. This advice must be adhered to minimise both orangutan humanisation (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans) and disease transmission risks.

The SWD ignored this recommendation. During twice-a-day visiting hours at the SORC, tourists were ushered into a forest adjacent to the centre to view orangutans, including released ones. The number of tourists who have visited the SORC daily is vast. Research has shown that tourism at the SORC can increase the risk of disease being transmitted to the orangutans.

Numerous children have visited the SORC. This is despite the fact that the IUCN guidelines state that children under the age of 15 should not be allowed to visit great apes as they are more likely than adults to release pathogens.

The practice in the forest at the SORC has been to place food on a platform to lure orangutans and enable tourists to see and photograph them. According to experts’ guidelines, this practise is unacceptable, and it is unlikely to be without consequences. A study published in 2008 has revealed that the infant orangutan death rate is higher at the SORC than in zoos. The authors of the study stated that the possible increase in disease transmission and aggression that resulted from frequent close encounters among orangutans gathered at the feeding platform might be one reason for this high death rate.

Not only has the main IUCN recommendation about tourism restrictions been ignored at the SORC, but other expert advice has also not been followed; there should be no more than four people in any group of tourists visiting great apes, and only one visit per day should be allowed. The IUCN also recommends the periodic closure of centres such as the SORC, but the SORC has always operated all year round.

Because the SORC has not followed IUCN guidelines, many orangutans at the centre have become humanised. The SORC’s volunteer (or rather, voluntourism) programme, wherein members of the public paid to engage in the rehabilitation of orangutans at the centre, exacerbated this problem.

Humanisation also causes orangutans to lose their fear of humans and this has resulted in orangutans often being seen roaming terrestrially at the SORC. This undesirable behaviour brings some of the orangutans to within just a few metres of tourists and staff during visiting hours. There is a higher prevalence of malarial infection among orangutans at the SORC than among wild orangutans and research has shown that this could be because of their close proximity to humans.

The IUCN guidelines state that to reduce the risk of disease transmission, tourists should wear a face mask if they come within ten metres of great apes and they should never get closer than seven meters.

While staff has tried to control the crowds during visiting hours at the SORC, it is a challenge to manage the movement of every tourist and humanised orangutan. There is photographic and video evidence of humanised orangutans at the SORC grabbing hold of tourists, and there have even been reports of orangutans attacking visitors to the centre.

Since our investigations began at the SORC nearly ten years ago, we have never observed tourists visiting the centre being obliged to wear a face mask, and we have only rarely seen staff in charge of tourists wearing one.

In an April news media report, the SWD is quoted as saying that it started handing out face masks to visitors when the Covid-19 pandemic began. The use of face masks should have been made mandatory at the SORC years ago. Research has shown that tourists who are ill do visit the SORC, and this has included people showing symptoms of respiratory illness. This increases the risk of pathogen transmission to orangutans and staff. Providing disinfectant foot dips and hand sanitisers is essential, but such measures are insufficient.

We recognise that many local people earn a living through tourism at the SORC. However, the SWD must urgently draw up plans for a transition to sustainable orangutan tourism in Sabah, and adopt all IUCN guidelines about great ape tourism. In an 11 June email to Friends of the Orangutans, the SWD stated that it is “well aware of the IUCN Best Practice Guidelines and is trying its best to follow the recommendations when possible.” Less than a month later, we published an article explaining the continuation of unsustainable tourism at the SORC, amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The implementation of sustainable orangutan tourism in Sabah may take time, but the SWD must be transparent about the process. If unsustainable tourism continues at the SORC, a boycott campaign will become inevitable.

 

Further reading:

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

General public finally barred from involvement with orangutan rehab at Sepilok

No transparency from Sabah wildlife authorities on welfare concerns of 6 Sepilok orangutans

Perilous orangutan tourism resumes at Sepilok amid COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19: Time for change at Sepilok Orangutan Rehab Centre

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

posted in: News | 0

Published on 25 May 2020

 

Based on an October 2019 Borneo Post news report, it appears that the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) is planning to move two “rehabilitated” yet humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans) orangutans, Rosa and Ceria, from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) to release them into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR), a forest in eastern Sabah.

Both Rosa and Ceria are reported to have arrived at the SORC for forest-release rehabilitation at age one, as orphans. As of 2020, Rosa is 19 years old while Ceria is 14. In the area of orangutan rehabilitation, it is not typical for orangutans rescued in early infancy to take 10-15 years to be rehabilitated and released into a forest as adults.

If their rehabilitation was successful, both orangutans should by now be living independently in a forest, away from humans. However, the hands-on volunteering practice, which took place at the SORC for over 15 years until early 2020, and unsustainable orangutan tourism at the centre increased the risk of humanisation among orangutans at the SORC, putting the apes’ future in jeopardy.

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.

Rosa has been labelled as often seen at the centre (instead of the forest adjacent to the SORC) while she waited to steal from “her next victim”. She gave birth to her baby in captivity at SORC in May 2018. An alarming YouTube video shows Rosa and her baby on a tourist boardwalk near the SORC (they should be in a forest). We invite SWD to comment if Rosa’s infant is still in her care.

In Meet the Orangutans, an 8-part, 2016 Animal Planet documentary series about the SORC, Rosa is labelled as “head and shoulders above the rest [of orangutans at the SORC]” when it came to stealing items at the centre.

Ceria is known among SORC staff as a physical risk to them and tourists. We confirm that he attacked a tourist in 2017. The Meet the Orangutans documentary revealed that Ceria was attacked and injured by a pack of dogs near the centre.

We have discovered that 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 – 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 centre 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?

 

Below are statements which have been made by British organisation Orangutan Appeal UK regarding Ceria’s behaviour.

– … causing mischief whenever possible! Keep a safe distance from Ceria if you spot him1
– … Bad boy Ceria has been hanging around the outdoor nursery again throwing rocks this time and now Kala has started to copy him!2
– He’s supremely interested in the human goings-on at the Centre and studies visitors and staff intensely, waiting for the next opportunity to wreak havoc3
– … he and a gang of other adolescent orangutans raided the Centre’s café… Ceria managed to open the ice-cream freezer and grab some treats4
– … one of the rangers was in the small wooden boat on the lake cleaning debris away, when Ceria came up to the shoreline, untied the rope and then tried to haul the boat in whilst the ranger was frantically trying to keep himself afloat5

 

Ceria’s behaviour, through no fault of his own, as indicated at the beginning of this article, is extremely alarming. No thanks to the Sabah state government’s insistence on exploiting SORC orangutans for tourism profits, Ceria chances of living a self-sustaining life in a forest, away from humans, may be in jeopardy.

It is no surprise that a source informed us that Ceria is now kept in a cage at the SORC, likely humanising him even more as he will be dependant on staff to care for him. We were also informed that Sen and is now also kept in a cage at the SORC.

All that is stated above undoubtedly raises serious doubts about the real reasons for the SWD wanting to relocate Ceria and Rosa out of the SORC.

On 22 January 2020 we wrote to the SWD to ask that no SORC orangutan is released into the TWR without the centre first fulfilling these two demands:

– Present its plans for the release of Ceria and any other SORC orangutan into the TWR to the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. This should include available data which led the department deciding to move the orangutans to the TWR.

– Inform how long it plans to conduct Post-release Monitoring and publish the monitoring data (as recommended by the IUCN), or at least submitting it to the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. The IUCN recommends monitoring be done ideally for at least a year.

If Ceria and Rosa are released into the TWR without the two demands being met members of the public and the media may mistakenly believe that the release is an immediate conservation success. A release can only be called a success if an orangutan is proven to be self-reliant in a forest after release – building nests and foraging efficiently while steering clear of humans. This can only be determined through persistent Post-release Monitoring.

Previous releases of a humanised orangutan called Tiger unsurprisingly failed and his fate is now in doubt once more. In September 2019 the SWD once again said they plan to release Tiger. There should also be full transparency about plans for his future. Read more about Tiger here.

 

Photo: Tiger in a cage at the SORC

We welcome the SWD and the KePKAS Ministry to respond to this article.

 

Sources:

1 https://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/meet-the-orangutans

2 https://go.aws/3bu9kF8

3 https://go.aws/2xXPC6U

4https://go.aws/2xXPC6U

5 https://go.aws/3bu9kF8

Zoo Negara’s cruel treatment of orangutans and chimps – and non-compliance with the law

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Published 23 May 2020. Updated 28 October 2020.
Note: Zoo Negara has taken action to comply with the zoo regulations stated below. Click here to view our follow-up article.

Zoo Negara, Malaysia’s most popular zoo, apparently has a dark side to it – housing orangutans and chimpanzees in inhumane conditions and not complying with the law.

There are 38 indoor dens and two outdoor cages for ten chimps and Sumatran orangutans at Zoo Negara. Visitors are not allowed access to the dens and cages. Based on details from PERHILITAN, the Peninsular Malaysia wildlife department, the outdoor cages are used by the zoo to keep apes that are not released into outdoor enclosures during Zoo Negara’s operational hours.

After making two inquiries, PERHILITAN confirmed on 1 April (through the Public Complaints Bureau) that the size of 37 of the indoor dens is not compliant with the 2013 amended Malaysian zoo regulations. To remain within the regulations, only one chimp or orangutan can be kept in the one indoor den that is compliant.

Hence, most of the apes are kept among the 37 indoor dens outside the zoo’s operating hours. We believe the dens were built over 15 years ago.

We estimate the apes are kept in the dens for more than 12 hours a day as the zoo is closed between 5.00 pm and 9.00 am the day after.

Zoo Negara is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). The WAZA Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare state that:

“At all times members will act in accordance with all local, national and international law”

We first contacted the Zoo Negara in late 2018 to question the keeping of the apes. In January 2020, we informed the zoo that the dens are too small to allow the apes to exhibit natural behaviours and ensure their psychological wellbeing.

Till this day, the zoo has not announced any action to provide law-abiding, humane living conditions for the chimps and orangutans. Millions of dollars have been spent on the zoo’s pandas, animals which were imported from China in 2014.

Great apes are highly intelligent and complex animals, and they can suffer when mistreated. Zoo Negara must urgently take action to abide by the law and to provide the chimps and orangutans with the life they need and deserve.

We have also demanded the zoo to stop the breeding of its chimps and orangutans. Captive breeding of chimps and orangutans is not conservation and intentional breeding of these animals to only keep them captive for life is unethical. Genuine conservation initiatives involve activities such as protecting these apes’ habitat. Research has shown that even under the best conditions captive chimps display signs of compromised mental health.

 

 

 

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

posted in: Uncategorized | 0

Photo: two young orangutans grab a tourist at the SORC

Based on an October 2019 Borneo Post news report, it appears that the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) is planning to move two “rehabilitated” yet humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans) orangutans, Rosa and Ceria, from the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) to release them into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve (TWR), a forest in eastern Sabah.

Both Rosa and Ceria are reported to have arrived at the SORC for forest-release rehabilitation at age one, as orphans. As of 2020, Rosa is 19 years old while Ceria is 14.

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

Rosa has been labelled as often seen at the centre (instead of the forest adjacent to SORC) while she waited to steal from “her next victim”. She gave birth to her baby in captivity at SORC in May 2018. An alarming YouTube video shows Rosa and her baby on a tourist boardwalk near the SORC (they should be in a forest). We invite SWD to comment if Rosa’s infant is still in her care.

The 2016, 8-part Animal Planet documentary series about the SORC, Meet the Orangutans, labelled Rosa as “head and shoulders above the rest [of orangutans at the SORC]” when it came to stealing items at the centre. This behaviour indicates that Rosa has become humanised.

Ceria is known among the SORC staff as a physical risk to them and tourists. We confirm that he attacked a tourist in 2017. The Meet the Orangutans documentary revealed that Ceria was attacked and injured by a pack of feral dogs near the centre.

We have discovered that 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 – Ceria, Sen, Mowgly and Poogle – are apparently a physical risk to tourists and staff at the centre. Sources also revealed that the centre was close to getting sued by a tour company for safety negligence caused by a humanised orangutan.

 

Below are statements which have been made by British organisation Orangutan Appeal UK regarding Ceria’s behaviour.

– … causing mischief whenever possible! Keep a safe distance from Ceria if you spot him1
– … Bad boy Ceria has been hanging around the outdoor nursery again throwing rocks this time and now Kala has started to copy him!2
He’s supremely interested in the human goings-on at the Centre and studies visitors and staff intensely, waiting for the next opportunity to wreak havoc3
– … he and a gang of other adolescent orangutans raided the Centre’s café… Ceria managed to open the ice-cream freezer and grab some treats4
– … one of the rangers was in the small wooden boat on the lake cleaning debris away, when Ceria came up to the shoreline, untied the rope and then tried to haul the boat in whilst the ranger was frantically trying to keep himself afloat5

 

It is no surprise that a source informed us that Ceria is now kept in a cage at the SORC, likely humanising him even more as he will be dependant on staff to care for him. We were also informed that Sen and is now also kept in a cage at the SORC.

All that is stated above undoubtedly raises doubts about the real reasons for the SWD wanting to release Ceria and Rosa into the TWR.

Ceria’s behaviour is extremely alarming and he does not seem to be a viable and safe forest-release candidate any longer. Both Ceria and Rosa should now be living independently in a forest, away from humans, but the unsustainable and unethical tourism and hands-on volunteering* practices at the SORC cause humanisation among orangutans at the SORC, putting the apes’ future in jeopardy.

Humanisation can affect orangutans’ ability to build nests and forage in a forest. It can also cause the apes to lose their fear of humans and makes them far too comfortable with human presence. Read more about the effect of humanisation on orangutans here, and here.

On 22 January 2020 we wrote to the SWD to ask that no SORC orangutan is released into the TWR without the centre first fulfilling these two demands:

– Present its plans for the release of Ceria and any other SORC orangutan into the TWR to the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. This should include available data which led the department deciding to move the orangutans to the TWR.

– Inform how long it plans to conduct Post-release Monitoring and publish the monitoring data (as recommended by the IUCN), or at least submitting it to the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. The IUCN recommends monitoring be done ideally for at least a year.

The department has yet to respond.

If Ceria and Rosa are released into the TWR without the two demands being met members of the public and the media may mistakenly believe that the release is an immediate conservation success. A release can only be called a success if an orangutan is proven to be self-reliant in a forest after release – building nests and foraging efficiently while steering clear of humans. This can only be determined through Post-release Monitoring.

Previous releases of a humanised orangutan called Tiger unsurprisingly failed and his fate is now in doubt once more. In September 2019 the SWD once again said they plan to release Tiger. There should be full transparency in plans for his future. release. Read more about Tiger here.

 

Photo: Tiger in a cage at the SORC

We welcome the SWD and the KePKAS Ministry to respond to this article.

 

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

 

Sources:

1 https://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/meet-the-orangutans

2 https://go.aws/3bu9kF8

3 https://go.aws/2xXPC6U

4https://go.aws/2xXPC6U

5 https://go.aws/3bu9kF8