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

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Friends of the Orangutans  •  2 Sept 2020  •  Updated 19 Jan 2020

There are genuine concerns over the unexplained fate and welfare of six Critically Endangered orangutans at the controversial Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC).

The Sabah Wildlife Dept (SWD) is the Sabah state wildlife agency that controls the SORC. It has not demonstrated transparency to the public about these six apes’ current situation since June 2020.

What can you do now to help?

CLICK HERE to tweet to the authorities

CLICK HERE to sign and share our petition to demand transparency

The six orangutans are Ceria (age 15), Rosa (female, 18), Mowgli (18), Poogle (17), Tiger (22) and Sen (15). They arrived at the SORC in their infancy – supposedly for rehabilitation to prepare them for wild-release – after becoming orphans in the wild; their mothers might have been killed.

All six apes are humanised orangutans, and the details presented below also raise concerns if their rehabilitation may have failed – leading to welfare concerns of these apes.

To help you understand why there are concerns for the six apes, we first need to describe orangutan humanisation, its probable causes at the SORC and impacts on the animals.

Orangutan humanisation

In orangutan conservation humanisation refers to an orangutan’s over habituation to, and/or overdependence on, humans. It can fail an orangutan’s rehabilitation for forest-release. Humanisation (and disease transmission) risks led the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) to conclude that tourism should not be allowed at orangutan rehabilitation centres.

Unscrupulous hands-on voluntourism practices at the SORC for over 15 years until early 2020, and contentious orangutan tourism may have well increased the risk of orangutan humanisation at the SORC, which could jeopardise the apes’ future. For 20 years until 2016, the SWD sanctioned the supply of orphan, infant SORC orangutans to a luxury hotel in Sabah under the pretence of rehabilitation. We campaigned and stopped this exploitative tourism in 2016.

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

  • Encourage terrestriality, divert their interest away from natural behaviours and interactions within the forest environment
  • Affect their nest building and foraging skills, thus hampering an orangutan’s chances of surviving in a forest
  • Cause the apes to lose their fear of humans, making them far too comfortable with human presence and even seeking interaction with humans. This can increase their proximity to humans, which in turn can increase:
    • the risk of attacks on both humans and orangutans
    • the risk of contracting disease from humans (e.g., hepatitis, tuberculosis, influenza)
    • their vulnerability to poachers and hunters

Wild-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 humanised orangutans is simply a public relations move, one that could lead to the apes’ early death.

Why are the concerns for the six humanised apes?

Rosa, the only female orangutan among the six, was known to steal from items at the SORC and “her next victim”. Through no fault of his own, Ceria has displayed worrying behaviours, including attacking a SORC tourist. He has been injured by a pack of dogs near the centre – as was revealed in ‘Meet the Orangutans’, a maleducative 2016 Animal Planet documentary series about the SORC.

According to our sources, Tiger has been kept in a cage at the SORC since December 2018 after his second release into Tabin Wildlife Reserve* (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. This suggests that these apes are a physical risk to tourists and staff (when left to roam around the centre). The SORC was close to getting sued by a tour company for safety negligence (physical danger by a humanised orangutan).

Based on information from a 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 tourists. 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 the media finds out about it. It is no surprise then that according to our sources, like Tiger, Ceria and Sen are also kept in cages at the SORC.

No transparency from the Sabah Wildlife Department

An October 2019 Borneo Post news report indicated that Ceria and Rosa would be released from the SORC into TWR. In January 2020, we wrote to the SWD to express our concern about the reported release plan and asked the department first to present release plans and available data which led the department deciding to move the orangutans to TWR to the IUCN/SSC Primate Specialist Group. We also asked the SWD to inform for how long post-release monitoring** (PRM) would be carried out.

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 provide details about the six orangutans stated above.

We continue to demand the SWD to show complete transparency on the management and futures of Ceria, Rosa, Mowgli, Poogle, Tiger and Sen.

Tweet to the SWD to demand transparency. CLICK HERE to tweet now. Sign and share our petition for the six apes

 

*A 120,000 hectare protected forest reserve in East Sabah. It is surrounded by oil palm plantations

**When rehabilitant orangutans are released into a forest, researchers need to monitor them to ensure that they can adapt and survive, including to forage efficiently. During monitoring, vital data is collected. Monitoring also enables human intervention if an orangutan is unable to adjust or requires medical attention. Therefore, post-release monitoring (PRM) is also crucial for welfare reasons. The IUCN recommends PRM be conducted for at least one year. Only when an orangutan has consistently proven to adapt and survive independently can the ape’s rehabilitation be considered a success.

 

Further reading about the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre:

When profits rule – Sepilok orangutan release disaster

Sepilok orangutan tourism – here’s what’s wrong

What happened to the mothers of two orphaned Sepilok orangutans?

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