No transparency from Sabah wildlife authorities on welfare concerns of 6 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.