General public finally barred from involvement with orangutan rehab at Sepilok

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Main photo credit: Travellers Worldwide Instagram

 

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.

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

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.

 

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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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 (MCO). The SWD is the Sabah state government wildlife agency under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment Sabah (KePKAS).

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 visiting and 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 who 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 practice 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. According to IUCN guidelines, 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 SORC have become humanised. The SORC’s volunteer (or rather, voluntourism) programme, wherein members of the public pay to engage in the rehabilitation of orangutans at the centre, exacerbated this problem.

Humanisation 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 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 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. The implementation may take time, but the SWD must be transparent about the process. One positive initiative could be developing a tourism model that involves transferring unreleasable orangutans from their cages to naturalistic enclosures outside the centre. If the SWD does nothing, and in the meantime, the SORC reopens to tourists without any improvement in sight, a boycott campaign will become inevitable.

 

Further reading:

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?

SWD’s dubious plan to release two orphaned Sepilok orangutans

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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 unsustainable and unethical tourism and hands-on volunteering* practices at the SORC increases 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.

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 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.

 

*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

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

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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.

The zoo is in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. It 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”

In 2019 a Malaysian media article indicated that the zoo would be investigated by the Malaysian anti-corruption authorities for “possible corruption.”

There are 38 indoor dens and two outdoor cages for chimps and Sumatran orangutans (ten apes in total) at Zoo Negara. The dens and cages are not viewable to zoo visitors. 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. Up to three apes can be kept in either of these cages. This means that the apes are kept in the dens when the zoo is closed.

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.

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

We estimate the apes spend more time in the dens than in an outdoor enclosure as the zoo is closed between 5.00 pm and 9.00 am the day after.

We first contacted the zoo 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. Great apes do not belong in captivity, and great ape conservation should be about protecting their habitat. Research has shown that even under the best conditions captive chimps display signs of compromised mental health.

 

 

 

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

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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?

Humanised orangutans have attacked tourists at the SORC (see here and here), and large male orangutans can sometimes be seen at centre.

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.

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

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We have previously highlighted how British company, Travellers Worldwide, had been exploiting orphan orangutans at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) through their volunteering programme. The SORC is managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), the state wildlife agency under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS) Sabah, With the approval of the SWD, the programme involved unqualified individuals paying to join the rehabilitation for wild (forest) release of orphan orangutans at the SORC.

We have explained why the volunteering (or rather, voluntourism) programme needed to stop. We also explained to the company, SWD, and KePKAS. No one responded.

At the end of February 2020, Travellers Worldwide ceased doing business entirely (not as a result of our campaign).

We are concerned that a different company or the SWD/KePKAS ministry itself might continue to exploit the SORC orangutans through another volunteering programme.

After Travellers Worldwide’s closure, we wrote to the KePKAS minister, Christina Liew, and the SWD to explain why the programme should not continue. We have yet to receive a response. Neither KePKAS or the SWD have publicly confirmed that the volunteering programme will stop completely.

.We ask our supporters to send a tweet to the minister to remind her that the programme should not continue. We have created the tweet for you, CLICK HERE to tweet now.

The SORC is a controversial orangutan rehabilitation centre, and the SWD’s management of the centre is highly questionable. For almost 20 years, the SWD supplied orangutan infants from the SORC to a luxury hotel in Sabah on the false pretence of rehabilitation. We campaigned and stopped the exploitation in 2016.

The SORC is open to tourism, which goes against the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) guidelines on great ape tourism. Read how tourism at the SORC impacts orangutans.

We have previously received reports of SORC orangutans mugging tourists of their belongings and have been told of ‘problem’ orangutans allegedly suspiciously vanishing from the SORC; KePKAS and SWD officials did not respond when they were asked about this.

One SORC orangutan’s future is in serious doubt, and the SWD appears to have plans to release two orangutans into a forest reserve under questionable circumstances.

Tell Travellers Worldwide, stop exploiting Sepilok orangutans!

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16 March update – Travellers Worldwide have ceased trading (not as a result of our campaign). However, we have not received assurance from wildlife authorities that the volunteering programme at the SORC will not continue. Read our statement here. However, we highly recommend that you read the article below to understand why hands-on orangutan voluntourism should not take place.

 

Travellers Worldwide is a British company which is refusing to stop the exploitation of Critically Endangered Malaysian orangutans, an animal at risk of extinction. The exploitation is approved by the Sabah Wildlife Department, the Sabah state wildlife agency which manages the SORC. If you love orangutans and care about their future please join our campaign by signing and sharing our petition. CLICK HERE to sign and share now. And don’t forget to TWEET.

Every four weeks the company sends up to 12 unqualified individuals to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) in the Malaysian Bornean state of Sabah, Malaysia, for them to take part in the rehabilitation of orphan orangutans. Each individual pays around US$ 3,400. This is simply another form of exploitative voluntourism.

According to the Travellers Worldwide website, the volunteers can, among others, monitor, feed and manage orangutans who are under rehabilitation for potential forest release in the future. However, this voluntourism practice can have severe impacts on orangutans under rehabilitation and yet has continued for over 15 years.

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 done by SORC 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.

It is no surprise that the SORC has for many years faced major problems with humanised orangutans, made worse by its unsustainable orangutan tourism. Humanised orangutans have also attacked tourists at the SORC.

Orangutan conservationists have warned that humanising rehabilitant orangutans can:

– encourage terrestriality, which has been linked to increased vulnerability to predation
– affect their nest building and foraging skills, thus hampering an orangutan’s chances of living independently in a forest
– cause the apes to lose their fear of humans and makes them far too comfortable with human presence. This can increase their proximity to humans, which in turn can increase:
– the risk of attacks on humans
– the risk of contracting disease from humans (e.g., hepatitis, tuberculosis, influenza)
– their vulnerability to poachers and hunters

The last three points above refer especially to ex-rehabilitants who have been released into a forest. All points above can have dire consequences on the future of a species fighting for its survival.

The conservationists also recommend that orangutan rehabilitation be limited to a closed, qualified and stable group of people who always work with the same orangutans, ideally through their entire rehabilitation. These few dedicated caregivers promote trust and provide social and emotional support to rehabilitants.

Exemplary orangutan rehabilitation centres, such as those run by reputable organizations International Animal Rescue and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP), do not allow tourism, including volunteerism.

We informed Travellers Worldwide the effects their volunteering practice can have on the rehabilitant orangutans at the SORC, yet they have chosen to ignore us in favour of continuing to exploit Malaysian orangutans.

We call on the new Sabah state government and its Environment Minister, Datuk Christina Liew to put an end to the exploitation to help with the future of Sabah’s orangutans.

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

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The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) is owned by the Sabah state government and managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD), a government agency under the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS) Sabah. At the SORC, orphan orangutans are put through a rehabilitation process to prepare them for release into a forest. The centre is at the edge of the Sepilok-Kabili Forest Reserve (SKFR), where the centre’s ex-rehabilitant orangutans (released into forest after completion of rehabilitation) co-range with wild orangutans (born in the SKFR and not ex-rehabilitants).

 

The SORC is open to the public for tourism. The tourism at the SORC, however, does not follow the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Best Practice Guidelines for Great Ape Tourism and, as a result, negatively impacts the apes and can put tourists in danger. Below are several points from the guidelines, concerning the SORC, followed by our comments. The full guidelines are available here.

 

Pg. 10 – Consequently, experts recommend that no tourism be allowed with rehabilitant orangutans that are eligible for or already returned to forest life

Pg. 58 – No tourism should be allowed with reintroducable orangutans in rehabilitation centres, or in forests where rehabilitants range

The SWD and KePKAS ignore this recommendation. This advice must be adhered to minimise the risk of orangutans (both rehabilitant and ex-rehabilitant) becoming humanised (over habituation to, and/or overdependency on, humans). During twice-a-day visiting hours at the SORC, tourists can pay to enter and see orangutans eating on a platform in the SKFR. Orangutans still undergoing rehabilitation have also been seen at the platform.

The SWD allows members of the public to pay and be part of the rehabilitation process* (another form of tourism) at the SORC, humanising the apes to humans from a young age. Humanised orangutans released into the SKFR are then exposed to large numbers of tourists daily – exacerbating the humanisation impact.

According to conservationists, the effect of humanisation on orangutans undergoing rehabilitation can, among others:

 

– encourage terrestriality, which has been linked to increased vulnerability to predation
– affect their nest building and foraging skills, thus hampering an orangutan’s chances of living independently in a forest
– cause the apes to lose their fear of humans and makes them far too comfortable with human presence. This can increase their proximity to humans, which in turn can increase:
– the risk of attacks on humans
– the risk of contracting disease from humans (e.g., hepatitis, tuberculosis, influenza)
– their vulnerability to poachers and hunters

The last three points above refers especially to ex-rehabilitants who have been released into a forest. All points above can have dire consequences on the future of a species fighting for its survival.

 

Orangutans are known to roam terrestrially around the SORC. They have also been seen at hotels and other tourist attractions outside the SORC. Research has shown that tourism at the SORC can increase the risk of disease transmission to the orangutans.

 

While staff do try to control the crowds during visiting hours at the SORC, it is a challenge to manage the movement of every tourist and humanised orangutan, as our video shows. Tourists have been attacked at the SORC (see here and here). We have previously received reports of orangutans mugging tourists of their belongings and have been told of ‘problem’ orangutans allegedly suspiciously vanishing from the SORC; the SWD and KePKAS officials did not respond when they were asked about this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A worker at a hotel near SORC feeding an orangutan, with unsuspecting tourists present

 

Pg. 10 – Orangutan tourism focused on rehabilitants, especially when visited in unnatural contexts such as cages and feeding platforms and by extremely large numbers of visitors, does not meet many of the criteria that define ecotourism and as such should not be promoted as ecotourism or considered best practice.

The purpose of having a twice a day feeding sessions at the SORC is to lure orangutans to the feeding platform, to enable tourists to see and photograph them. While we’re unaware whether the SORC has been labelled as an ecotourism attraction, tour companies may label the SORC as an ecotourism destination to lure customers.

This practice 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.

 

Pg. 48 – To facilitate the control of visitors, minimise danger and enhance visitor satisfaction, the number of people per party should be no more than 4 tourists accompanied by 2 guides/trackers. This should achieve a reasonable balance between apes and humans, and reduce stress and its knock-on effects.

We are not aware if there is an entry limit to SORC, but it’s certainly not four. In fact, depending on the month of the year, over ten times the recommended amount of tourists can be seen during a feeding session.

 

Pg. 49 – There should be no more than one visit per day to each group of apes (or individual/ party/forest area in the case of chimpanzee and orangutan tourism).

The SORC has twice a day feeding session. Having more than one visit per day increases the instance of humanisation and in turn, increase disease transmission and physical risks between humans-orangutans at the SORC.

 

Pg. 49 – All tourists and staff who are likely to approach habituated apes to within 10 metres should wear a surgical quality N95 respirator mask for the duration of their one-hour visit. Respirators that filter out higher percentages of aerosolised particles are also acceptable (i.e., N99 or N100).

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.

The use of respirator or face masks should be made mandatory because:

a) Humanised orangutans at the SORC tend to come within 10 metres of tourists. There is also photographic evidence of orangutans at the SORC grabbing hold of tourists, as one photo below shows.

b) 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.

 

Photo: Two orangutans grab a tourist at SORC

 

Pg. 50 – Children below 15 years old must not be allowed to visit great apes. While parents may argue against this regulation on the basis that their child is capable of the hike or mature enough to control their fear, this safeguard is primarily for health reasons. Young people are more likely to be infected with common childhood diseases, even when properly vaccinated, and therefore pose a much greater health risk to habituated apes.

Children under the age of 15 can often be seen at the centre.

 

 

Pg. 57 – Individual orangutans should not be visited by tourists for more than 10 days per month. Tourism to individual orangutans should be suspended for at least 3 months per year. Note that if all habituated orangutans at a particular site use the same area of forest, periodic closure of the site is recommended.

SORC is open to tourism 365 days a year. Many of the same orangutans can regularly be seen at the SORC.

Additional note:

The Sabah Wildlife Department may argue that tourists are not allowed into areas where the rehabilitation process of SORC orangutans take place. However, members of the public can pay to be part of the rehabilitation process*, as stated above. This voluntourism practice can humanise orphans undergoing rehabilitation for wild release. In addition, it is wrong to assume that orangutans are successfully rehabilitated when let/moved out of rehabilitation areas: they still have to learn and prove that they can forage and survive independently and integrate into a forest’s orangutan community – away from tourists. This, however, may be a challenge at the SORC. A British orangutan organisation which supports the SORC made the statement below when defending the sending of orphaned SORC orangutans to a luxury hotel in Sabah under the guise of rehabilitation. FOTO stopped the exploitation in 2016. The highlighted parts below may refer to the effect of humanised orangutans at the SORC on orangutans undergoing rehabilitation at the centre.

 

Source: https://www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk/about-us/news/article/a-short-satement-regarding-the-facts-surrounding-ten-ten

 

Have questions? Click here to write to us.

 

*The British company which ran the unethical volunteering programme at the SORC closed down in late February 2020. However, neither the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) nor the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Environment (KePKAS) has confirmed that the programme will not continue. Read more here.