Pertaining to the three months I spent in Borneo in 2016.
I was very excited to begin work with the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabiliation Centre (SORC) in Malaysian Borneo, not just because of the incredible animals that I would be spending time with, but also because it would be the first ever time I would be working with a native mammalian rescue program that released animals back into the wild. In New Zealand I spent some time volunteering at a wonderful local bird sanctuary that aimed to release its animals where possible, but other sanctuaries and shelters I have worked at have been final forever homes for the animals.
There are some confidential aspects of SORC that I will not delve into detail here, and during my work I gathered an understanding that the rehabilitation process is not supported by everyone who has come into contact with the sanctuary. Most sanctuaries, I would say, come across some criticism at one point or another, but in SORC’s case the fact remains that since its birth in the 1960’s it has been responsible for the successful rescue, rehabilitation and release of over 800 Borneo orang-utans (or so I was informed by the rangers). Considering that the wild population of this species currently sits at an estimated 100,000 individuals (compared to an estimated 300,000 in the 1970’s), SORC’s success is undeniably contributing to the Borneo orang-utan’s conservation. Without this organisation, the extinction of this species would likely be more imminent than is already threatened. SORC’s focus on education also aims to bring the number of illegally captive animals down by teaching the public why orang-utans should not be kept as pets, and what to do if these animals take up residence nearby.
When an orang-utan is brought to SORC (usually after being rescued from a small cage on someone’s property, or reported as injured), it enters an initial period of quarantine. This, of course, gives time to assess the animal’s health status, treat evident diseases and parasites, and ensure resident animals are not exposed to any potential health threats that new animals can introduce. Volunteers such as myself are not generally permitted to work with quarantined animals – these patients require extra care, and the chance of disease spread would be increased with different people frequently coming in contact with different animals.
For youngsters, the next step from quarantine is the nursery. The nursery houses infants generally under 4-5 years old, who interact together during the day under supervision in a beautiful outdoor jungle play yard. By night they are kept in a sleeping area which is sectioned off to give each individual his/her own space. In their outdoor area, which is connected to the wider forest, they have a man-made jungle gym and a little copse of trees that they generally stay close to. If the babies really wanted to they could head out into the deeper jungle, but these little ones tend not to stray too far from what is familiar. The youngest babies watch and mimic the older infants, thus learning how to swing, climb, and interact with each other. At the end of the day they are called in by watchful staff, and come back to the safety of their sleeping quarters.
As the littlies progress in age and ability, they “graduate” from the baby nursery to the “outdoor nursery”. This second nursery stage is where more training occurs, but the animals are expected to venture further into the forest to forage and also to make nests. The outdoor nursery is located at a different area to the baby nursery, and while it also contains a man-made jungle gym, it is bordered by forest that is frequented by semi-wild orang-utans. At SORC, a “semi-wild” orang-utan is one that has been rescued and partially rehabilitated, but makes regular appearances at the sanctuary, taking advantage of frequent meal times. Because of these regular semi-wild visitors, orang-utans in the outdoor nursery phase of rehabilitation have regular contact with much older animals, and it is hoped they will steadily develop more confidence to follow the older visitors deeper into the forest and become more independent. These youngsters are also called in at night, but if they wish to stay out in the forest until the next day (and the rangers believe them to be capable), they are left to their own devices. An orang-utan growing in confidence slowly spends more nights in the forest, until they finally do not return to the sleeping quarters at all. Once this occurs it is a cause for great celebration amongst sanctuary staff.
Aside from these nurseries there are other “stages” of rehabilitation. There are five feeding platforms in the forest, each one standing progressively deeper inside the forest than the one before it. The first feeding platform I have already written about, which is visible to tourists. This is the platform that receives the most frequent deliveries of food, and is where the less confident of the “semi-wilds” will make regular appearances. The second feeding platform, a little further into the forest, is loaded with food less frequently. The fifth feeding platform, deep in the jungle, is only occasionally set with food by rangers. As an orangutan grows in confidence and learns to forage better on its own, it is hoped that they will venture further and further into the forest, finding their own food and learning to rely on the feeding platforms less and less, until they do not return at all.
There is a fine balancing act at SORC between giving enough care to the animals, and stepping back to encourage their independence. An animal too attached to humans will never be fully rehabilitated, and if they were to be released far from the sanctuary their dependence and trust of humans would likely lead to their death. During my few months in this protected jungle I did indeed meet several “semi-wilds” who were so attached to SORC staff that it is likely they will never leave the immediate area. While these animals could be viewed as evidence of the program’s failures, I heard many, many stories about the past orangutans who had been rehabilitated successfully. I was even lucky enough to see two rescued females who were living in the forest unassisted and had incredibly given birth to babies of their own. And to me, the “semi-wilds” who are not currently out on their own are not deemed as failures; they have a wonderful, safe home now, and they contribute to the successful rehabilitation of newer orangutans.
It is undeniable that SORC is positively contributing in a huge way to the conservation of the overall species, and also to the welfare of the individual animals they care for. If you are an animal lover this is definitely the type of place that deserves your support.