The orang utan is facing a serious threat of extinction. Intan Maizura Ahmad Kamal is relieved that there are places like Orang Utan Island in Bukit Merah to help these primates
THE orang utan has always fascinated me. In fact, growing up, when friends begged their parents to get them cats and dogs (and parrots for the more adventurous) as pets, I was wishing for an orang utan.
Somehow, the primate, with its human-like form and features, behaviour and intelligence, presented a more exciting proposition than other conventional options.
Fast forward to today and, as I stand transfixed watching the antics of Jidin and Sara, two infant orang utan through the clear glass window at the Orang Utan Intensive Care Unit of Bukit Merah Lake Town Resort’s Orang Utan Island, my childhood yearnings return.
With their shiny, inquisitive eyes and playful character, these hairy tots once again remind me just how special the orang utan is.
When property developer MK Land’s Tan Sri Mustapha Kamal decided to set up Orang Utan Island, his objective was simple — to ensure that the orang utan or Man of the Forest is preserved. The only difference between the primate and humans is that they can’t communicate our language, he said, during a recent tour of the island. “If they are able to, I’m sure they’ll be telling us to save them.It’s a fact that the orang utan is going to be extinct.”
The island, created to resemble as much of the orang utan’s natural rainforest habitat as possible, is located within the getaway of Bukit Merah Laketown Resort, a 2,800-hectare freshwater lakeside haven in Semanggol, Perak. Formerly known as Pulau Panjang, the island comprises a vast 14-hectare area, of which five acres have been set aside as an orang utan research centre.
The team initially started with just three orang utans in 1999. Today, the number has grown to 24, of which 11 are females and 13 are males. Twelve orang utans were born on the island itself.
The rehabilitation programme focuses on teaching the orang utan the essential skills they need to survive in the wild, such as foraging for food, nest building, tree climbing and socialising, in anticipation for their eventual release into their natural habitat.
LOVE AND CARE
It’s hard not to feel a certain fascination and affection for the orang utan. Jidin was born premature and had a low birth weight, so it was taken away from its mother to be cared for, while Sara, whose mother died when she was just a mere tot, are uncannily like human babies.
Looking comical tottering around the confines of their sterile care room, clad in diapers and mischievously making faces at each other, it’s difficult to tear your eyes away from their antics.
“The ones that you find here at the ICU are those with problems,” says Dr Sabapathy Dharmalingam, the research centre’s veterinarian and chief executive officer of Orang Utan Island. “The baby orang utan’s immune system is lower than that of its human counterparts. The male has a higher antibody than the female.”
With his dedicated team of nurses, Sabapathy devotes his time to providing 24-hour monitoring at possibly one of the world’s most advanced ape hospital.
He adds: “In the morning, we check on them, give them the necessary vitamins and iron, just like what we give humans. They are bathed once a day and are given milk. If we’ve taken them away as babies, we’d monitor them once every four hours, take their pulse, heart beat amd temperature. We do this 24 hours a day for the next three months.”
The orang utan is smart. Even the babies. They’re able to recognise their carers and know how to “manipulate” them. “They can tell who among the staff are stern and who they can trick,” says Sabapathy, chuckling as we observe Jidin and Sara trying their utmost to hitch a ride onto one of the pretty nurses. If they don’t know somebody, adds the doctor, their hair will appear like they’re standing on ends and they’ll keep their distance.
Like an indulgent, proud father, Sabapathy continues: “The babies are very ‘manja’ and playful. Sara is the more manja of the two as her mother passed away when she was just a baby. She’s really good at stacking building blocks despite the fact that nobody actually taught her.”
Pointing at Jidin, who has magically appeared where we are standing, his face pressed against the glass in curiosity, Sabapathy says it is even smarter. “He can open doors and is very determined. He won’t do it if we’re looking at him, but once your back is turned, bingo! Unfortunately we have to lessen our contact with them because ultimately we want them to survive in the forest, one day. The only contact we allow is when we’re feeding them, giving them milk and changing their diapers.”
Understandably, it’s difficult not to get attached. “When you spend a lot of time with them, you’ll start feeling a certain amount of emotional involvement,” says Sabapathy. “These days, I don’t really interact with them — I leave all that to the nurses because I can’t afford to let my feelings affect my judgement, especially when it comes to undertaking certain medical procedures.”
He adds: “When they’re sick, they’re very quiet. They sit in one corner, their appetite goes down and they have a different look. The moment you start saving them, you want to save some more. Sometimes you make it, sometimes you don’t. When you don’t, it’s the worst feeling to have.”
Looking thoughtful, he continues: “When the infant dies in your hands, you always take the responsibility. The worst part is seeing the nurses’ reactions. They get emotionally dismantled. They just can’t talk to you. That’s why we tell them not to get attached but we can’t help it. Sometimes I get calls in the middle of the night and I rush out without thinking. The worry is akin to that you’d have with your own sick child.”
The frustration, he says, came from lack of knowledge on what to do when certain situations arise. “If you know more about their physiology, then you can do so much more for them.”
With so many orang utan on the island, how can the staff identify who’s who, I ask. Sabapathy smiles. “It wasn’t easy in the beginning because you think that they all look the same. But they don’t. When you’re with them long enough, you’ll notice that each one has a different look, or a different walk. Some of them, their hairs are lighter, some darker. Even in character, they differ such as the way they play and smile... it gets easier.”
ALL THE FLAK
The aim is noble — to turn Orang Utan Island into a research centre on orang utan. Progress has been steady but admittedly, it’s all still work in progress. After all, rehabilitation does take time.
The island also serves as a valuable educational centre for reaching out to people who may know nothing about the crisis the orang utan is facing, and how close it is to extinction.
Visitors are exposed to all aspects of the orang utan’s existence here as well as the dangers it faces.
Unfortunately, there are parties unhappy with what’s happening on the island. Some NGO groups are calling for the release of the orang utan back to the wild, says Sabapathy. “But if you leave them in the jungle, what are we going to learn from that? Add to this the threats of poaching, hunting... how will they survive? The best place to do research is in a confined area, which is what we have. We also have certain areas for researchers to observe.”
As it stands, the island’s red-haired residents are able to roam freely within the lush, jungle environment while visitors view them from safe, enclosed spaces built within a dedicated viewing area. Plans are afoot to expand further the area so that the orang utan can have even more space to roam.
The rehabilitation programme is a comprehensive one. It addresses the needs of the orang utan at every stage of its life. There are six stages within the programme — the infant care unit, the enrichment development unit, the introductory controlled release unit, exhibit controlled release, exhibit release, wild release and, finally, return to place of birth, or as is the case here, to BJ Island (thus named after one of the beloved orang utans), where they learn to fend for themselves. “By this stage, there’s minimum human contact,” says Sabapathy.
THREAT of EXTINCTION
THE orang utan population in Sumatra in 1996 was measured at approximately 10,000. Today, they number at less than 6,000. In Borneo, fewer than 15,000 orang utan remain from an estimated 20,000, 12 years ago.
These are the last two remaining homes to the orang utan, worldwide. Almost 80 per cent of their original habitats across Southeast Asia are now gone as a result of forest fires, natural disasters, land clearing for human development, mining and illegal poaching.
If nothing is done to counteract these devastating effects, experts estimate that the orang utan could become extinct in the wild in as few as 10 years.
Go to www.orangutanisland.org.my to see how you can play your part in preserving our endangered Man of the Jungle.