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.