Stepping Into Orangutan Conservation

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Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP) is an organisation that has done a lot of good for orangutans as well as other domestic and wild animals. They have exposed the shameless and sick perpetrators of the wildlife trade in Indonesia. Their dedication to rescuing injured and sick animals in strenuous situations and bringing wildlife traders and poachers to justice is indeed a dangerous but brave approach. In all regards, this organisation has definitely earned respect.

When I was a little kid, going to animal shows and taking pictures with the animals was something I enjoyed. This included having a picture taken with an orangutan. Being young and naive, I thought it was really cool to have a picture taken with an orangutan, as well as with other wild animals. Later on I would realize that what I did back then was not cool at all.

While I was doing a short externship at Taiping Zoo in Malaysia, I had the opportunity to help out with the enrichment program in the orangutans’ enclosure. Recently, I had a close up experience with a baby orangutan at Animal Sanctuary Trust Indonesia (ASTI). As always, I went up there to lend a hand with the animals and do some photography, and this time I was told that there were two baby orangutans named Upin and Ipin who had just been brought in by the BKSDA and the police.

I saw Upin in the cage and I thought to myself, he is handsome! He reached out his hand and laid it on my cheek and I felt my world stop spinning that second. I had tears streaming down my face. That second right there, something in me changed. Upin casually moved his fingers and wiped away my tears. How did such a beautiful soul end up in the hands of humans, far from the forest?

In 2013, I decided to join Centre for Orangutan Protection School Batch #3. I learned not only that orangutans are endangered in both Sumatra and Kalimantan [Indonesian Borneo], but also how serious the wildlife trade is in Indonesia. Being an animal enthusiast and an animal lover, I felt the need to help them. Wanting to pursue my passion in wildlife veterinary care, I decided to do an internship at COP Borneo to learn about the rehabilitation of orangutans under Ape Defender.

What is the role of a vet in the field of orangutan conservation? I started off my journey to Kalimantan shouldering this curiosity.

Shortly before landing, I saw the lush green forest of Kalimantan stretching for miles and miles, a sight that I had only seen in National Geographic before. There were also a number of coal mines that I saw from above. The drive from the airport to the base camp of Ape Defender was around an hour and a half. It was very exciting when I was briefed about the forest by the Captain of Ape Defender, Paulinus. He told me that coal mines, once they start burning, take years before they burn out, and that even rain water cannot stop the flames. That is how forest fires happen.

Upon reaching the base camp, I was greeted not only by the team who worked there, but also by a number of wild hornbills who flew high above the skies, instantly putting a smile on my face. The following day, I was introduced to the beautiful orangutans who were inhabitants of the rehabilitation centre. There were Michelle and Uci who stayed in one enclosure. Michelle, I came to realise, was slightly cheekier than Uci. Next, I was introduced to Bonti and Owi. These two little ones are able to make their own nests in forest school. There were Septi and Happi. Septi acts as a surrogate mother to Happi. Then there was Memo, a female orangutan who cannot be released back into the wild because she has been diagnosed with Hepatitis. There was Debby who loves pulling on anything that is close to her cage. Therefore, she is one of those orangutans one always has to be aware of while working with. I was then introduced to Ambon, a handsome male orangutan. Dandy, a rescued sunbear, also resided there together with the orangutans. Last but not least, Popi, the sweetheart of the team at COP Borneo and on social media.

These orangutans were all rescued, and are going through rehabilitation before they can be released back to the wild. It is not an easy process, but it is worth all the time and effort for the team of committed and dedicated people who want a brighter future for these souls. Daily activities at COP Borneo consist of feeding the orangutans twice a day, cleaning their cages, and giving medicine or immune boosts to the orangutans who are unwell or weak. The orangutans are fed watermelon, Salak fruit, bananas, pumpkins, oranges, and papayas.

As a vet intern, I followed Drh Ade for daily rounds. I learned the importance of observing the eating habits of the orangutans during feeding time. By observing their eating habits, it is possible to determine if they are healthy or unwell, which is vital for the care of each orangutan. I also learned the technique of drawing blood from an orangutan, during a routine physical examination that I witnessed during my internship there. The routine physical examination also involved measuring the length of the orangutan’s body from head to legs. This is done for identification purposes and to monitor their growth.

The fun part was trying to get fingerprints from the little ones – Owi, Bonti, Happi and Popi – for data purposes. Owi refused to have his fingers borrowed for the prints, and we all had a good time of trying and forcing him as well as Bonti and Happi. It was much easier getting Uci and Michelle’s fingerprints! They were so willing and cooperated well. It was then that I realised, much more than before, that they each had unique characters and personalities. I also learned the different types of sedatives used to sedate an orangutan, and methods of handling a sedated orangutan. Drh Ade was kind enough to teach me and allow me to draw blood from Dandy, the rescued sun bear at COP Borneo.

There was a very special bond that I was truly blessed to witness during my internship. It was between Popi, a young orangutan who lost her mother at a tender young age and was fortunately rescued by the team, and Wety, a young videographer from the island of Java who volunteered to be Popi’s babysitter. From the outside world, it is easy for an individual to say “Aww so cute, can I take a picture with an orangutan?” But do they really know how a baby ends up at a rehab centre? Sadly, many are still ignorant to the facts. I used to love watching how Popi clung on to Wety, who now functioned as her mom.

Popi needed 24 hour, around-the-clock care, including feeding eight times a day. If someone else was taking care of Popi and Wety walked past, Popi would start crying, wanting Wety to carry her. Tirelessly, Wety would prepare Popi’s milk every day and would teach her how to hang on ropes and small branches. As safe as it was, Popi never liked it and always cried. I admired how Wety was so patient in teaching Popi how to be an orangutan. The two of them had a language of their own. It was called love. Popi’s place of comfort was in Wety’s arms. Never had I met such a person as Wety, who had dedicated her time to baby sit this little one.

I had an opportunity to baby sit Popi one day, when Wety was called out on videographer duty at the nearby village. When Popi cried during the wee hours of the morning, I mixed milk and fed her. The next morning when I woke up, the hot water flask had been left open. Only then did I realize I was half asleep mixing her milk the previous night and had forgotten to close the flask. I laughed to myself for being silly. When she cried again around afternoon and I went close to her, she immediately held her hands up to me to be carried, and that was a priceless moment for me. It was my first time having her cling on me. I smiled inside and then prepared her milk.

Before the orangutans can be released, they first need to prove that they can survive in the wild. Pre-release candidates are transferred to an island where they live by themselves, making their own nests and learning survival skills from one another. They are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the team, from a small cabin in the midst of a cocoa plantation overlooking the pre-release island.

I was fortunate enough to be able to partake in monitoring the orangutans. I felt great excitement getting into the tiny little boat, called ‘Way Back Home’, which transported us to the island monitoring post. There were ten orangutans stationed on the island at the time. I got to perform a physical examination on one orangutan who was slightly less active than the rest. Thankfully, he was alright and there was no reason to worry about him.

Social media has always been a good way of getting messages across to the world just through a click. Before coming to COP Borneo, I always thought it was “cool” saving the orangutans because of what I’d seen on social media. Little did I realize that this was more than a hero’s job, and how endlessly and tirelessly the team works. Listening to Linus and Reza tell me about their rescue missions and the behaviors of the orangutans only made me want even more to work in this field. The team members are more than just their roles as keepers, vets and team leaders; they’re like a family. I helped with cleaning the cages to learn what it’s like to be a keeper, because I have always believed that it is important to know wildlife from every angle. No one earns their way up without knowing the basics.

Saving the orangutans, I believe, is the bridge to saving the forest, all the life it contains, and perhaps humanity too. How can we allow the destruction of a species that is in so many ways just like us? Has greed consumed so much of our growing population that we have forgotten the simple and important things in life? Poaching wildlife to keep them as pets or sell them to the wildlife trade is as mean as one can get. Robbing animals of their freedom is taking something that does not belong to us. Clearing the land for palm oil plantations and coal mines, without taking responsibility for the harm it causes to animals and their homes, is purely selfish. But while there are those who destroy the forest, remember there will always be good, dedicated, hardworking and responsible people who will keep fighting against it. We have to wake up before we lose our forest forever to the hands of irresponsible people.

When you have spent long enough with an orangutan or any other species of animal, you will realize that we are not planet Earth’s only thinking species. Given the dwindling numbers of orangutans in the wild, with them now being an endangered species, I think it’s important for everyone to help protect orangutans and other wildlife. We need to stop saying “let others do it”, and realize that each of us play a part in their survival.

To come together and work as one, I believe everyone should take the following quote to heart:

“Compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away. Your destiny is bound with the destinies of others. You must either learn to carry the Universe or be crushed by it. You must grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors.” (Andrew Boyd)

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