Borneo – Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre


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Here I am, nearing the end of my fourth week at Sepilok, a heavily jungled area of Sabah, northern Borneo. So far I have seen some incredibly unique and ecologically-essential species (see previous blog posts), but nothing has entranced me more than the gregarious Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus). Orangutans are, if you are new to my journey, the main reason I am here in Malaysian Borneo. Since the beginning of July I have been volunteering at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, and I will be here until September.


The Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC) officially came to fruition in 1964 thanks to the joint efforts of passionate English woman, Barbara Harrison, and the Sabah government. 43 square kilometres of protected jungle (the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve) surrounds the actual Centre, which sits on the edge of the forest and now greets tourists with large, welcoming gates. Today at the Centre you will find plenty of educational material (including a fantastic short documentary that talks about SORC’s crucial work), a lovely little souvenir shop, a cafe, and of course ample opportunities to view the vivacious orangutans in a jungle environment. It is well set up for tourists and as such makes a fantastic travel destination on any Borneo itinerary.

SORC works through “RRR” – Rescue, Rehabilitation and Release. Orangutans come to the Centre after being found injured, as illegally-kept pets, or orphaned and alone. Older animals are patched up as required and released back into appropriate areas, whereas youngsters are kept at the Centre until they too are old and confident enough to be released. At the Centre the apes are taught important life-skills such as climbing, swinging, nest-building and foraging. Tourists can even view some of the juveniles at the Outdoor Nursery platform: a jungle-gym right on the edge of the forest that serves as feeding point, training ground and open play area all in one. Youngsters can head out into the surrounding trees, or they can remain at the jungle-gym until they are more comfortable with exploring. Giving the juveniles the freedom to venture out as they like allows them to develop the confidence to interact with their jungle home at their pace, which I think is fantastic.


View of the Outdoor Nursery platform from the tourist’s viewing area


Orangutan at one of SORC’s feeding platforms

The conservation status of the Bornean orang-utan has just been re-assessed by the IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature) and this species is now classed as Critically Endangered – meaning the work of SORC is more vital than ever. The orangutans’ numbers have seen an incredibly sharp decline (an estimated 60%) since the 1950’s, and by 2025 it is theorised that a further 22% decline will be seen – this equates to a population loss of 82% by the year 2025. It is likely that even this is a hopeful number, though, and that the population decline we see over the coming decade will actually be higher. Protecting remaining animals is key to the conservation of the species as a whole, and being able to have a personal involvement with this work of SORC’s is truly inspiring. Over the next few weeks my blog will be focused on the animals, the area, and the incredible work that goes on here. If you are planning a trip to Southeast Asia I would, of course, encourage you to come and see it for yourself – the more support we give to places like SORC, the more the orangutan’s conservation can be funded.

– Sam

SORC website – Orangutan Appeal UK

Bornean Orangutan IUCN listing

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Borneo – Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary


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So far during my stay in Borneo I have spent time at two wildlife sanctuaries I would recommend to anyone – the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre and the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, both in Sepilok. One reserve I have also visited, the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, was a stark contrast to my two local Sepilok-based centres.
Getting to Labuk Bay from where we are based takes about 25 minutes by van. On the morning we headed out I was still not quite acclimatised to the heat so I rested my eyes for part of the way, enjoying the van’s air conditioning. When a fairly sizable bump in the road jolted me properly conscious I opened my eyes and almost instantly felt like we were in another world. Out at Sepilok, where I will be based for about ten weeks, we are right on the edge of the jungle – virgin rainforest sings and sways outside my window, and it murmurs the constant conversations of incredibly diverse wildlife. Here, though, as we neared Labuk Bay, rows and rows of palm trees sped past my vision – oil plantations. Until then I hadn’t actually seen any plantations, and now it seemed there was no end to it – not even when we reached the sanctuary itself.

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, it turns out, is privately owned and the original plan for the whole area in the ‘90s was to completely convert it to a palm tree growth site as part of an oil plantation. Apparently, however, during the development process the owner came across some native proboscis monkeys and decided to spare fragments of the animals’ natural habitat in order to keep a number of them protected. Thus, if you visit this so-named sanctuary you will find a vast expanse of palm oil trees enclosing small pockets of mangrove forest, which is where the monkeys have been allowed to stay. Today the sanctuary is composed of this fragmented mangrove habitat along with man-made feeding platforms, logs, dead trees and other natural furnishings in front of various tourist viewing decks. Four times a day when fruit and vegetation is scattered across the feeding platforms they are utterly swamped with monkeys.


Typical view from a tourist platform



Male proboscis monkey

Proboscis monkeys (Nasalis larvatus) are an incredibly unique species only naturally found on the island of Borneo. With ongoing habitat destruction being such a common theme in this area of Southeast Asia, across the last three generations of proboscis monkeys (about 38 years) it is estimated that the population has declined by between 50-80%. This species is classed by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as Endangered, and it faces the typical barrage of threats for this region – habitat destruction (especially due to the species’ preference for coastal and riverine environments) from logging, plantations, human settlement and forest fires, and this monkey is illegally hunted for food and traditional Chinese medicine. Unfortunately proboscis monkeys have a tendency to move quite slowly, which makes them easy targets.


Female proboscis monkey

When I was studying my degree at university I remember having to do a presentation on an endangered species of my choice, and this was the animal I chose. I had never seen a proboscis monkey – or heard of them – before researching unique species to talk about, and I was fascinated. Their common name, of course, refers to the almighty proboscis (long nose) the monkeys possess – especially the males. The nose may act as a resonator for vocalisations, and can even swell depending on a particular individual’s current temperament. They are such an interesting creature to watch, and seeing them in person was something I’m really glad I have finally been able to do.


Another intriguing monkey frequently seen at the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary is the silvery lutung (or, silvered leaf monkey – Trachypithecus cristatus). Silvery lutungs do not inhabit such a restricted region as proboscis monkeys, thus they naturally have a higher population number. The IUCN currently classes them as Near Threatened. When I was at Labuk Bay and the first silvery lutung leapt out of a tree onto an exposed branch, its orange baby clutching onto its fur, the gathered crowd exclaimed in excitement. Then, out of nowhere it seemed, a dozen more of these monkeys were vaulting out of the brush and crawling along the viewing platform railings, hurrying to grab some edible green stalks the rangers were handing out. They were close enough to touch, and I watched as people took ‘selfies’ with seemingly uncaring monkeys directly behind them. This really reinforced my feelings that Labuk Bay is spreading such a different message to the Sepilok centres – at Labuk Bay the monkeys are encouraged to get close to people, and they have no fear of humans.

Silvery lutungs do not have the same allure that many Bornean animals have to poachers for traditional medicine, but they are hunted for food in certain regions and make a very popular pet. At Labuk Bay there was no education on why wild animals should not be kept as pets – in fact, the opposite was being pushed; the idea that these monkeys are not disturbed by humans, and can be removed from natural habitat. This is not a message I support.


The third species found at Labuk Bay that I was particularly interested in is the oriental pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) – no, not a monkey, but an absolutely stunning bird. On Borneo you can find eight species of hornbills – so far I have spotted two (the oriental pied, and the rhinoceros hornbill). Oriental pied hornbills have a large geographical range throughout Southeast Asia and into China, and because of this habitat availability they are classed as Least Concern by the IUCN despite their actual population numbers being unknown.

One of the most defining features of this bird is the ‘casque’ – the hollow, hard structure composed of keratin above the beak. While rhinoceros hornbills have a striking orange and yellow casque, oriental pieds have pale yellow and black. They are a large bird that can weigh over 900g and can have a length of over 85cm. This species is monogamous, and at the volunteer house we are lucky enough to have a mating pair that frequents our garden’s trees. If you visit Labuk By it is likely you will see at least one of these birds; they are also attracted to the tourist viewing area with food lures.

After becoming quite familiar with the very education/conservation-focused sanctuaries in Sepilok, Labuk Bay was a bit of a surprise for me. The animals are encouraged to get close to tourists, and I couldn’t see any thorough educational material about any of the animals and the threats they face or their conservation whatsoever. If you want to get unnervingly close to monkeys then this destination definitely ticks the box, but it’s not a place that I believe promotes respect for the animals, nor does it curb the “Oh look, I want a pet monkey!” mentality that adds fuel to wildlife trafficking. I have spoken to a few rangers at Sepilok about Lubuk Bay, and I did have a good point mentioned to me: tourists bring money, and money is what will improve things there. Tourists want the thrill of seeing a wild animal up close; tourists pay for selfies. Labuk Bay is certainly not, in my opinion, spreading the right message at face value, but eventually they would like to. What they have is a start.

I would still rather promote places that teach the beauty and importance of wild nature (and why it should stay wild), but I do understand that Labuk Bay is doing what it can temporarily – and at least these animals have a safe home to live in with plentiful food. I’m just glad that Sepilok’s centres are run very differently.
– Sam.


Nasalis larvatus
– Proboscis monkey IUCN listing
Trachypithecus cristatus – Silvery lutung IUCN listing
Anthracoceros albirostris – Oriental pied hornbill IUCN listing

Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary website

Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre website

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre website

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Borneo – Malayan Sun Bears


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As difficult as it has been to keep the absolute longing to begin work right away at bay, the first week in “quarantine” was a wonderful opportunity to explore our surroundings and learn more about the fascinating creatures that make the island of Borneo their home, Malayan sun bears being one of them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, where I spent several weeks volunteering a couple of years ago, they had a few rescued sun bears. I never got to work with them though, as I was busy with the elephants. Fortunately, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre is just next door to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre where I am currently working, thus very easy access for us volunteers. During my first week here in Sepilok I spent some time wandering around BSBCC, and during our quarantine week us orangutan vollies were lucky enough to meet BSBCC’s CEO & founder, Siew Te Wong. There is not a great deal of research out there about the Malayan sun bear on Borneo, and Wong (a wildlife biologist) has done an amazing deal of field research to get more information about these animals published. In his extensive travels Wong has been witness to poorly-treated captive animals (e.g. in sub-standard zoos and in private homes), and in 2008 he set up BSBCC. BSBCC is a refuge for sun bears in need, as well as a rehabilitation centre with the ultimate goal of assisting the sun bear’s population numbers through animal rehabilitation & release and community education.


Spot the sun bear!

Sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) are found in regions of Southeast Asia, including on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. These animals are the smallest species of the bear family, and possess a dark coat with an individually-unique pale horseshoe patch on the front of their chests which is said to resemble the rising sun. Sun bears have developed amazing ways to exist in their ecological niche. For example, they have very long tongues (between 20-25cm!) for snacking on hard-to-reach honey, and are fantastic climbers. Initially I had no idea of just how high they can climb – trees are where they source a lot of their food from, and where they spend long periods of time resting in nests that they crudely build from branches and leaves heaped together. Sun bears eat a variety of food (mainly insects, fruit and honey), and due to this diet they positively influence flora and fauna species around them – when searching for honey and bugs they use their long claws to create grafts in trees which other animals can then nest in (e.g. flying squirrels and hornbills); they nibble away at termite infestations; seeds from fruit are naturally dispersed after passing through their digestive tracts; and they enhance the forest’s soil health by mixing it thoroughly as they dig around for invertebrates. Sun bears are invaluable to their environment, yet – as with so many other animals – face massive threats to their survival due to human interference.


Sun bear foraging for insects

Habitat destruction, of course, has caused a massive decrease in the expanse of natural habitat available to the Malayan sun bear. Palm oil plantations are a major culprit of population decline in countless species on Borneo, and the sun bear is no exception. Habitat loss caused by logging (unsustainable and illegal) and forest fires are also significant causes. Being so small and beautifully cute, sun bears are also a target of wildlife traffickers. Their gall-bladders and paws are sought-after for traditional medicine, which means they are an animal popular with poachers.

Sadly, although the Malayan sun bear is a protected species, law enforcement in this region of the world is lacking when it comes to injustice to wildlife. It was interesting yet disheartening to speak to our guide, Jeremy, at BSBCC about this species because despite the sun bear’s incredible contribution to the natural ecosystem, it is common for Malaysians to be unaware that this species even exists in the jungle they see every day. This lack of education is something BSBCC is working hard to change.

One thing I adore about Sepilok is that so many incredible species such as the Malayan sun bear coexist in this untamed environment just outside my door. Free-ranging orangutans move through BSBCC as they please, and wild sun bears roam the very jungle I can see out the window of the volunteer house. The natural habitat here is so unique and rich, and it astounds me that it is not more protected along with its extraordinary fauna. The work of organisations such as BSBCC is utterly crucial to ensuring that more people are aware of the importance native species hold to the local environment, and in teaching why we ought to be fighting to save what’s left of the natural world. The Malayan sun bear is classed by the IUCN as Vulnerable, which is one step up from Endangered. In the past 30 years it is suspected that this species’ population has decreased by over 30%, and that this population decline will not stop as long as forest areas containing high-value timber and/or suitable room for plantations are available. Also, without significant anti-poaching measures, the sun bear’s commercial exploitation will continue to be a large part of this species’ future.

While the plight of unique species such as the sun bears can seem overwhelming, there are very practical things you can do. Have a look at my recent post on palm oil for more information on this product that has impacted the environment so greatly (and how, as a consumer, you can avoid supporting it). When travelling, choose eco-tours that support conservation and wildlife welfare, and if you are in a charitable mood you can simply donate directly to an organisation of your choice. In Southeast Asia it can be tricky because there are many establishments that promote themselves as conservation projects, when really they support poaching and wildlife exploitation; I recommend doing some research if you are considering an organisation to support.

BSBCC is certainly an organisation that I would vouch for; the work they do is invaluable to the Malayan sun bear’s conservation and for individual animal welfare. BSBCC’s physical establishment has changed greatly in the last eight or so years, and now boardwalks sprawl high above wild enclosures, nestled amongst the trees – visiting this sanctuary is a perfect way to see elusive sun bears in a very natural setting. BSBCC works hard to rehabilitate their animals and will release individuals that they are confident can survive on their own. Those that cannot be released into unenclosed jungle will live a life as wild as possible at the sanctuary, foraging for food, climbing trees and building nests, and sunbathing as sun bears love to do. If you want to learn more about sun bears or the work that BSBCC is doing take a look at their website – it can be inspiring to see just what other people are doing to help the world.



The Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre website

IUCN Malayan sun bear listing

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Borneo – Sandakan Tour


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I am nearing the end of my first week in Borneo, and so far I have somehow managed to escape the horrid reactions to mosquito and other insect bites that some of my companions have been cursed with. All else, though, we deal with together; the draining heat, the cravings of food from home and familiar luxuries, and of course the love for the work we will soon be undertaking.
When I talk to friends back home they describe to me a typical New Zealand winter; iced-up car windows, clear skies with cold days suddenly turning to heavy cloud and tumultuous rain. Winter is hard to imagine when here the hot air presses in on me like a weight. Sitting still sees you covered in a trickling sweat; my skin constantly glistens, and smells of Deet. Although the jungle is sheltered by an entwined tree canopy, there is no breeze; the heat captures you, so you keep moving to create a slight air current that makes it seem less stifling. Right now Sabah is in its driest months, but every night we hear the furiously loud thunder and see the lightning storms. Dry weather keeps the leeches to a minimum – I have yet to come across one of these worms, but we know that after the rain they will become much more familiar, as will even greater populations of buzzing, biting insects.

While us volunteers are still in our “quarantine” week, we have been given the opportunity to travel around the area a little. We’ve been split into two groups for various activities, the first being a trip around Sandakan. This was mainly to allow us to get to a supermarket so that we could pick up some essential items, but also saw us visiting a couple of local tourist destinations.
On Thursday my group of six hopped in a van with our cheerful and knowledgeable local guide, Gary. Gary gave us the chance to mention the types of shops we needed to visit, and also told us bits and pieces about Sanakan. Sandakan used to be the capital city of the state of Sabah, but this ended in the 1940’s when the Japanese invaded. Once a main trading centre and site for British settlement, in 1944 Sandakan was destroyed by the devastating Japanese occupation and consequential bombing by the Allied forces. Now the region is known for its fishing, eco-tourism and resource exports. Gary says it is nothing like the capital city it used to be.

Sandakan Memorial ParkOur first stop of the day was to the Sandakan Memorial Park. This park is a beautiful tribute to all of those who died during the horrific events of the Japanese occupation; British and Australian troops, and locals alike. I admit that I had little knowledge of what actually happened in Sabah dring those years, and to learn its history was harrowing. The Memorial Park itself sits on the very site of one of the infamous prisoner of war camps where countless soldiers were tortured and killed. During the war, Allied forces damaged the Sandakan airfield and surrounding area so greatly that in 194 the Japanese had to move their local operations. Thus began the “Death Marches”.
At first, hundreds of prisoners were selected to carry food and other supplies to Ranau, a town 260 kilometres (160 miles) away. They were made to travel on foot. While these soldiers were deemed the strongest of the bunch, they were still malnourished, and often injured or diseased. Many died along the way or were shot. Once the Sandakan camp was completely closed several months later, the remaining prisoners were forced to do the same journey across two further marches. Keeping in mind that these leftover men were generally deemed weaker as the first group, they also fared terribly. Ultimately 2,345 Allied prisoners died thanks to these horrific marches. Only six prisoners survived – a mere six Australians who, incredibly, managed to escape during the three marches. They were the only survivors left to tell of the true horror.

The Memorial Park as it stands today is a sobering and moving tribute. Every year on ANZAC Day a service is held in remembrance of all those who fell. Being there, in that exact spot where so many fellow humans were held captive, tortured and slaughtered, was a very emotional experience. We spent many long moments in silence. I won’t forget it.


The rest of our day included a visit to a beautiful Chinese temple overlooking Sandakan and its long bay. The Memorial Park and temple instilled a sense of stillness and quiet. It was a very moving few hours. Sabah holds a great deal of history, and there is a richness of diverse cultures. Usually my focus is just on the animals, but it was really good to learn a little about Sandakan’s past and its people.

Our day ended with a complete contrast – a frantic but necessary trip to the (huge) local supermarket. We are now equipped with snacks, practical items such as washing powder for our soon-to-be filthy clothes, and other bits and bobs. We’re as prepared as we can be for our first working day on Monday, and are more than excited for the next stage of our adventure.

– Sam.

Borneo – First Days


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Greetings from Sabah, Borneo! After an 18 hour journey from New Zealand (which wasn’t too bad in comparison to some other trips I’ve made), I arrived in Sadakan on Sunday the 3rd of July. I spent the night in Sadakan city, and headed to Sepilok the following day. I haven’t quite started official work at the sanctuary yet; I and the other volunteers are in a “quarantine” week to ensure we don’t pass any lingering bugs on to the orang-utans. We have been getting to know each other a bit, exploring the local area, putting in plenty of orang-utan observation time, and generally settling in.


I was so excited to finally land at the little airport of Sandakan on Sunday. I do not handle flights and rushing around transit loungers very well, so to step off the plane and find hot heat, exotic birds and beautiful jungle trees was so very welcome. I drank in the familiar Southeast Asia setting with a smile.
Arriving at my hotel in the city was a different story. Before getting to Sepilok I wanted to stay somewhere for a night so that I could gather my thoughts and have a nice, long sleep, but I found the city far from relaxing. I arrived too early to check in, so went for a bit of a wander to find some food and was quickly reminded how much I stand out here! I’m regarded as relatively tall in my home country, let alone Malaysia. People would stop and stare, and in the crowded streets it was quite difficult to get around. Everyone was, of course, very friendly, and I had cheerful “Hellos!” thrown at me from all angles, but I knew I wouldn’t be making street walking a regular activity there.
There is a day-time market right outside the hotel, and throngs of people bustled around it. I suppose I didn’t expect it to be quite so busy – once the time came to check-in I made a quick dash for my room. I didn’t stray too far until leaving the following day for Sepilok.


One thing I noticed was the amount of litter in the water and around the streets. It made me sad to see it, and I had not been able to spot any public rubbish bins along the waterfront – from what I could tell it seemed that trash was simply dropped on the ground. Indeed, during my first night a group of youngsters ate their dinner outside of the hotel. In the morning their rubbish and leftovers still lay in a pile on the street. It doesn’t seem hard to simply pick up and dispose of your litter, but I suppose if it’s not general custom then people simply don’t consider it.
The following day I met up with another volunteer who was staying close by and we shared a ride to the airport to meet some of the others. In total there are twelve of us from all over the world. We will be roommates, work colleagues and social company for the next two months.

Arriving at Sepilok was a relief. Out here we are surrounded by animal conversations and heavy, swaying jungle – it is nothing like the city, and I feel far more at home here. Our accommodation is near the tourist’s entrance to the sanctuary and every day we see people come and go for their daytime visits. Until we begin our work we will be blending in with the tourists, joining the river of groups to watch the twice daily orang-utan feedings. I am really looking forward to beginning at the sanctuary next week, but for now the opportunity to watch the orang-utans and familiarise ourselves with the area is appreciated.

– Sam.


Palm oil – what’s the issue?


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In six weeks today I leave for the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, which is a sanctuary in the northern state of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo. I’ll be working at the Centre for two months, during which time I will be dedicated to the care of the resident rescue orangutans as well as surveying areas of jungle for wild orangutans. One part of me can’t wait to tell you about the journey – the other part, well… Species of orangutan face a lot of hardships, and I know it will be difficult to see some of these first-hand.
The Bornean Orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) is a species endemic to the island of Borneo and is categorised on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as Endangered. It is currently thought that there are three subspecies of the Bornean orangutan; Pongo pygmaeus morio is the subspecies you will find in the Sabah region, and it is estimated that there are less than 10,000 individuals of this subspecies remaining in the area. In the last 60 years the Bornean Orangutan’s numbers have been declining at a rate of well over 50%, and this is not predicted to stop.

The undisputed main threat to the species is habitat loss due to agriculture – and undoubtedly the number one offender of this group is palm oil plantations. Of an island 740,000 square kilometers large, only 86,000km² remains as available habitat for native species such as the Bornean Orangutan – that’s little over 10%. A few years ago, when I was first looking into getting involved with a project in Borneo, someone asked me, “So what? Rainforests are only for tourists anyway.” This was a sad notion to hear, yet it is a common one. The idea that we can be so incredibly self-centered to convince ourselves that every inch of this planet is merely here to serve our singular species only makes me want to fight harder for the others we are very quickly killing.

I’ve been fundraising like crazy for the upcoming trip – selling palm oil-free chocolates, running movie nights and chatting to various local magazines to get the word out. I’ve discovered that so many people want to help – often they are held back because they don’t have the availability to dedicate themselves to a project like this, and it’s been wonderful being able to talk to so many people about the good conservation work that is going on out there. In a lot of discussions I’ve had it’s become apparent that while many people know orangutans are in trouble, they weren’t quite aware exactly why.

So: palm oil plantations. What’s the big issue? Does an issue even exist?

I’m going to answer that last question with a big: YES. Yes, there is an issue. And it is big. Thousands of football fields a day big – that’s an incredibly general idea of how much frequent deforestation potentially occurs to make way for this particular oil.

Palm oil is the edible vegetable oil extracted from palm fruit which grows on the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). This palm tree is a highly efficient oil producer – it bears fruit year-round, requires less land than many other oil producers, and it grows amazingly well in areas of high-heat and high-rainfall (such as – you got it – Borneo). Palm oil itself has become a greatly desired ingredient for many household products (from food to cleaning supplies to cosmetics to bath products) due to its versatility. Food manufacturers in particular favour it because it is stable at high temperatures and is high in saturated fats (as opposed to trans fats). Palm oil is so popular that it is contained in about half of all packaged food products globally. In New Zealand it is estimated to be an ingredient in at least one of ten supermarket products. This can be hard to tell as manufacturers do not currently have to label palm oil on their packaging – it often comes under the guise of general “vegetable oil”.

Indonesia and Malaysia are the two largest cultivators of palm oil. Every single day virgin rainforests are being cleared in order to set up plantations for these palm trees. There is other space available (e.g. unused land from previous agricultural ventures) but virgin rainforest is an attractive option because timber from felled trees can be sold for profit. Rainforest is also cleared by burning – this is meant to be a controlled and isolated method, but it doesn’t always remain that way. And, of course, the ‘controlled’ burns bring casualties – orangutans and thousands of other animal species are caught up in these blazes. These fires have also contributed to Indonesia being one of the worst greenhouse gas emitters on the planet. The negative impact of this unsustainable industry is devastating and irreparable.
Indigenous peoples are also affected by the palm oil trade. Palm oil manufacturers will often say the introduction of plantations brings strength to local economies, however, in reality the replicated results are communities that have had their lives completely changed and which are suddenly dependent on the palm oil market’s success. Native inhabited, valued land is overhauled for transformations, and people are usually left little choice but to work the plantations for pittance. Workers do include children.

This industry is incredibly unsustainable and damaging – yet the trade is lucrative and the demand is high, so it is seemingly unstoppable. Most consumers contribute in some way to this trade – every time we quickly pop in to the supermarket to pick up a few basic items, it is highly likely that we are supporting this unbelievable environmental impact and species decline. A high number of our favourite multi-national companies are allies of the palm oil trade, as are many of our treasured local brands.

To show that the big-spending palm oil customers do care about the environment, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was created in 2004. This collaboration (between palm oil manufacturers, their customers and some NGOs such as WWF) works to increase the amount of sustainable palm oil produced – defined by them as “environmentally appropriate, socially beneficial, legal and economically viable”. 40 million tonnes of palm oil is produced per year – this industry-led group said that by 2009 1.5 million tonnes of this palm oil was sourced via sustainable means (according to their definition). That’s just 4% of what is globally produced. Here’s an RSPO fact sheet if you want to check out some of their distributed information.

If you hadn’t picked up on it, I’m hinting here that the RSPO really isn’t as wonderful as they make out to be. For one, it’s industry-led, not independent, so has a high bias towards keeping palm oil production up. While products containing palm oil endorsed by the RSPO are most likely more sustainable than products that aren’t, purchasing them still supports the demand for this vegetable oil no matter its source. One thing we can do as consumers is recognise that every product we buy is supporting the demand for what goes in to them – by making a conscious decision to buy palm oil-free, we are not adding to that demand.
It’s certainly not easy to do this – as I said, in New Zealand (and countless other countries, no doubt) it is not a legal requirement to label the type of vegetable oil used in a particular product. I encourage people to contact companies and ask them outright if their products contain palm oil. The more people show they care, the more seriously this sort of thing will be taken.
The Auckland Zoo has a few handy resources on their website for those in New Zealand – check out their palm oil-free shopping guide. Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia also have a guide up on their website, and for those in the UK Ethical Consumer magazine have a guide on their site too.

In a few weeks I will be writing from Borneo where I’ll be able to share some first-hand stories about the devastation these palm oil plantations can wreak. It doesn’t hurt us to be conscious consumers – it may take a little (sometimes a lot) of effort, but we are living in a time where convenience seems to outweigh the greater good. I admire those who take the time to remember that their individual choices do make a difference – great or small, they do matter.


Say No to Palm Oil
Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil
Auckland Zoo – palm oil information (NZ)
Borneo Orangutan Survival Australia (AUS)
Ethical Consumer (UK)

OR-7’s Journey


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Anyone who has spent time close to wolves will be able to tell you that they are incredibly compelling animals with dynamic personalities. Every time I head back to the White Wolf Sanctuary I am greeted with a multitude of characters – some of whom I am familiar with, some of whom are new and are exciting to get to know. I have no doubt that even those who work more hands-off with wild wolves will still have noticed very individual behaviour within packs.

There is one wild wolf in particular who managed to grip the attention of people all over the world, and I think his story is worth sharing. Not only has he made history by being the driving catalyst for an entire state law change, but he defied all odds of location and distance on his instinctive quest to start a family. His name of identification is OR-7 (he was the seventh wolf in Oregon to receive a radio tag), but he has since been affectionately renamed as Journey. He was first radio collared in 2011 when he was about two years old.

Journey originated from the Imnaha pack, a pack of wolves inhabiting a north-east corner of Oregon. This pack was formally identified around 2009 when a video camera caught sight of a group of ten wolves, including a radio-collared female. This female had already made history herself when she trekked down to Oregon with her mate and became the first officially-identified breeding female in the state since the last wolf bounty was collected there in 1947. Journey is one of this female’s pups, and he went on to undertake an incredible expedition himself.

In roughly September 2011 Journey dispersed from his pack, which is something that is encouraged of wolves of this age so that they can find an outside mate and start their own family group. Instead of staying near the area, Journey wandered for miles… and miles… and miles… sometimes 30 miles a day (for metric users like myself that equates to almost 50km a day)! In not even three months, Journey had traveled over 1,200 zig-zagging miles (almost 2,000km) and found himself in California.

Here’s a neat map you can click on that shows how exactly Journey got to California and where he stayed over the years:
Journey's Journey to California

Once his collar signal was recognised in California, it caused quite a stir. This is because it had been almost a whole century since a wolf was spotted in the area. California, like Oregon, once ran a government-funded bounty program that successfully wiped out wolves from the entire state. The last confirmed wild wolf (before Journey) seen in California was identified in 1924. Wolf supporters at the Center for Biological Diversity took the opportunity to set up a petition to invoke state protection for all grey wolves. Fast-forward to June 4th, 2014, and the California Fish and Game Commission finally announced that grey wolves would be listed under the California Endangered Species Act; they would receive state protection.

2014 is getting a bit ahead of the story, though. After first arriving in California in late 2011, and causing such a stir with wolf supporters and those opposed to the protection of wolves, Journey then spent some time flitting between the states of Cali and Oregon with no real established territory of his own. While he was just a wolf doing what wolfies do, people were in awe of him and used him as a real focus-point for positive discussions about the importance of wolves in their natural environment. (If you haven’t already, check out this great video that demonstrates the positive impact reintroduced wolves have had on the environment.)

In 2013, after a couple of years of wandering around (more locally, this time), Journey found himself a mate. And then, only two days before California announced the inclusion of grey wolves on the CESA, US Fish and Wildlife Service biologists released information that they had visited Journey’s known location in the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, and seen and heard two – possibly more – wolf pups. Below is the first photo taken, courtesy of USFWS, of Journey and his mate’s two pups – the first wolf pups in the Oregon Cascades in over 60 years! Check out the Center for Biological Diversity’s article tying Journey’s pups in with California’s state pledge of protection.

OR-7 pups

Two of wolf OR7’s pups peak out from a log on the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest, June 2, 2014. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Since then it was confirmed that Journey and his mate had a total of three mouths to feed – three famous pups born in the Oregon Cascades. All the yearlings survived that 2014-2015 winter – and last year it was confirmed that Journey and his mate successfully produced a second litter! The family group have been named the Rogue Pack, due to their location. HERE is a gorgeous time-lapse video showing two of the three older pups hanging out near a trail-cam (thanks to The Oregonian).

Journey and his mate’s presence has sparked a lot of conversation around wolves and their place in the ecosystem. For the most part, though, people have been accepting of the Rogue Pack (they are keeping well out of the way of humans, which is good). And while the pack are not currently in California, the state protection has lasted in case any other wolves wander through. The status of wolves in California is, however, up for review – for recent updates you can head to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s website.

I left out a small detail of this story, wanting to save it until last. Journey traveled hundreds upon hundreds of miles to finally find his mate and start his own pack. And which wolf did he end up finding to create a mating pair with? None other than a female who quite possibly originated from a neighbouring pack from northern Oregon or Idaho! Scat samples that scientists analysed last year show that Journey’s mate may very well have come from a similar region to him, indicating that each wolf wandered hundreds of miles to meet each other despite being potential neighbours. Why Journey decided to trek so far we will never know, but for now the growing Rogue Pack is safe in the Cascades, leading the way for future packs in the area.


The White Wolf Sanctuary
Center for Biological Diversity
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife – wolf updates
California Department of Fish and Wildlife – wolf updates

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Fur farming – an unnecessary industry


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People who call themselves “animal lovers” can cop a lot of flack for it. According to many, unless you are a dedicated vegan your opinions are null and void. You might mention that you care about one topic, and then are slammed with a barrage of “Well if you care about that, you had better care about this too or you’re just a hypocrite!” It doesn’t seem to work the same way in other circles – for example, if someone likes cricket, but not basketball, they probably aren’t told that they are a hypocrite and not a true sports fan unless they fully support all sports everywhere.

However, in my experience even vegans can get the same amount, if not more grief for their lifestyle choice. I am not currently vegan, but when I was trialing it I would commonly hear things like,
You do realise that you’re not actually saving anything by not eating meat, right?
I read that plants scream when you chop them up – have you ever considered what those poor veges go through to make your salad!
So you don’t use any animal products at all? What – are you trying to ruin our economy?
I don’t understand why some people feel they have to put vegans ‘in their place’ if they aren’t pushing their morals on others; it’s an amazing ethical decision, and I have huge respect for people who take the time to live a vegan lifestyle. I can guarantee that there are currently enough people in support of using animal products to ensure that the economy won’t be “ruined by vegans”.

Realistically one person cannot solve all the world’s problems. I know that if I personally tried to get involved in every single cause I cared about I would burn out very quickly and be no use to anyone or anything. I am at peace with the lifestyle I currently lead, and with what I believe in. My focus the last few years has been to do with animal industries that I feel have no necessity – e.g. street entertainment, the illegal wildlife trade, endangered animal parts for ‘traditional’ medicines. Another industry I feel there is no necessity for in the western world is fur farming – especially when it involves endangered or protected species.

Most of us no longer need fur to survive. There are, of course, small populations of peoples who do not have access to easy trade and do require the fur of animals for the sustenance of their communities. But for most of the world it is no longer a necessity. People on the pro-fur side might argue that when an animal is killed for, say, food, that the whole body should be used in order to minimise waste – but the types of animals most popularly hunted for food (e.g. deer, boar, poultry) do not yield the kind of pelt used for high-demand fur (e.g. fox, mink, wolf).


Ventana, White Wolf Sanctuary


When I first started at the White Wolf Sanctuary I got two know two pretty intriguing characters, Ventana and Nepenthe. This arctic wolf pair had come from an apparently horrific fur farm that was breeding wolves and other animals for their pelts, and forced the animals to live in terrible conditions. Nepenthe and Ventana were six months old when they were rescued from this facility, and had been confined in such a small space that they’d never had the chance to develop their hind legs and could not properly stand. It took a lot of work and care to rehabilitate them, but they eventually grew into strong, capable wolves, and each lived for over a decade at the sanctuary where they were cherished and cared for.

An article about a farm in Minnesota was recently brought to my attention. The farm, Fur-Ever Wild, is a “working agricultural farm, that celebrates our traditional connections to the land and mother nature… from the pioneering trappers and hunters… to our ranchers and farmers who are feeding the world today.” ALDF, the Animal Legal Defense Fund, is compiling a case against FEW with the aim of shutting their operations down.

Fur-Ever Wild have a range of species on their farm which they breed for various purposes. Animals include cougars, grey wolves, pigs, horses, deer, raccoon, cattle and goats. FEW markets themselves as an educational facility that aims to connect people back to nature while also promoting “ethical outdoorsmanship” (which, to FEW, includes hunting, trapping and pelting animals). The way they achieve education is through inviting customers to pay to “get up close with North American wildlife” – hand-feeding animals, “pet-n-play” sessions, and live animal demonstrations. All of these services can involve adult wolves and/or wolf pups.

One thing instantly strikes me when reading about what this facility does, and that pertains to it promoting itself as an educational organisation. I am simply not convinced with the “education” that they do. Just as I do not believe that selling elephant rides in Southeast Asia is advocating elephant welfare or their conservation, I am not a supporter of bundling children in to a pen with immature wolves and promoting this as wildlife education. Teaching people that you can keep wild animals in a domestic setting with frequent hands-on contact is not wildlife education in my opinion, and I’m against the breeding of intrinsically-wild animals for the main purpose of turning a profit.

Fur-Ever Wild takes animal exploitation one step further. They also sell the pelts of their own animals. FEW proprietor, Terri Petter, says that when an animal at the establishment dies, “I use everything I can. I don’t think anything should be wasted. I openly admit that.” ALDF, however, is alleging that Fur-Ever Wild doesn’t just wait for their animals to die naturally before they are pelted, but slaughters them in their prime. With federal protection recently being reinstated for grey wolves in Minnesota and nearby states, this means the grey wolf is protected by the Endangered Species Act. The ESA prohibits the killing of a protected species.

While looking into this myself I was only able to find examples of FEW representatives talking about pelting their animals after a natural death – however, during discussion with some activists rallying against the facility I was sent documentation from a 2012 court case in which Terri Petter admitted to breeding animals specifically for their fur, and alluded to having them slaughtered in their prime. One line that really struck me is below:

Q: “Have you pelted anything in the last few months?”
A: “I pelted two wolves last night. And there is another two going tonight… then the rest of them go. There will be 25 within the next three weeks-two weeks.”

As a genuinely interested party I contacted Fur-Ever Wild directly for some clarification on whether they do slaughter animals themselves, or if they wait for natural deaths. FEW received my messages last month, but I have had no reply as yet.

Unsurprisingly, Fur-Ever Wild is a strong talking point for many animal rights activists at the moment – and FEW are understandably not happy about it. Their Facebook page proudly displays plenty of recent posts talking about “animal whacktavists” and how misinformed people can be. Some of their communication gets quite personal – they have openly given the name of one activist and posted her photograph online, and one of their volunteers has even set up a petition against another activist involved in the case, labeling her an “ecoterrorist”.
To be fair to FEW, many of the comments I have read in support of shutting them down have been utterly horrific. I understand that it is an extremely passionate topic for some (I do not exclude myself from that), but resorting to slander, threats and abhorrent language is no constructive way to get things done. That, however, goes for FEW too. In my opinion they have conducted themselves in a very unprofessional manner.

I am completely against what this facility does. Even with legalities aside I personally could never support an establishment that breeds animals primarily for their fur – I do not deem it a necessity in the modern world, not even for the sake of “education”. Educating people on the “old ways” of traditional hunting, trapping and pelting could easily be demonstrated through the use of photographs, illustrations and examples of tools such as you might find in any truly educational facility. Using education as an excuse to carry on a tradition that calls for the unnecessary breeding and slaughter of live animals is simply not a strong enough argument to convince me.

The fact that grey wolves have federal protection just adds another filthy layer to this already messy case. I hope to remain in discussion with people directly involved, and will follow any legal outcomes closely. If this facility is indeed illegally slaughtering protected species then hopefully adequate legal action is enforced. I do admit a personal concerned interest in all of this. The majority of animals I have spent my time working with have been rescues. Rightly or wrongly, if I discovered that any of them had been sold into industries that hold no necessity in my mind, I would most likely be appalled.

I like to think that many people who wish to view wild animals would consider other options before giving money to an establishment that breeds captive wildlife and allows the animals to be exploited in this manner. I suppose by now, though, I have come to learn that countless tourists and customers are prepared to turn a blind eye for the sake of some hands-on contact. Would you be comfortable supporting an establishment that breeds and potentially illegally slaughters its animals for fur? I certainly wouldn’t.


Animal Legal Defense Fund
ALDF article on Intent to Sue Fur-Ever Wild, with link to 2012 court case

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Desexy Revolution


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Christmas is undeniably fast approaching, as terrified as I am to admit it. When I am not overseas working on a wildlife rescue project I do a bit of local rescue work back home and foster cats for a wonderful charity based here in Auckland called Lonely Miaow. Christmas is one of the busiest times for charities such as this one – not only does summer promise countless new kittens, but the festive season also brings an influx of people wanting to get pets as presents. Sadly, the time after Christmas also guarantees more work for rescue charities; for some new owners the reality of caring for a pet sinks in, and many animals are returned to where they came from.

I have never supported the concept of ‘gifting’ a live animal to someone else unless there has been thorough discussion and planning involved. I remember a client who came in for a consultation at a veterinary clinic I work at – a middle-aged lady with her elderly mother. The lady had purchased a fluffy toy breed puppy for her mother – it was running around the clinic waiting room, excitedly soiling the lino every time someone paid it some attention. A typical puppy, it was full of energy and needed lots of stimulation and patience. The lady was grinning from ear to ear, gushing about this little dog who she now got to visit a couple of times a week – meanwhile, her mother simply shook her head at me. Obviously this had not been a ‘gift’ she was prepared for.
Animals are responsibilities. They require time, dedication and, of course, adequate funds for food and medical care. Before acquiring a pet for someone this Christmas please remember to ensure that the decision is one that has been properly thought out by the receiving party. Pets deserve the gift of a good, caring home; not to be given as a spontaneous gift themselves.

Many animal Christmas gifts come from what I will refer to as ‘backyard breeders’ – people with entire animals who allow them to breed without any real oversight or proper planning. Often someone discovers they have a full litter of kittens or puppies on their hands, and decides that they need to find homes for the offspring in time for summer. In New Zealand anyone can breed their cat or dog – and our shelters are inundated with unwanted animals. A single female cat can be responsible for producing 25,000 descendants in only five years – no, that wasn’t a typo! One female cat can have two-three litters per year, of up to nine or so kittens. These kittens can start producing themselves from only several months of age – the numbers quickly add up.
New Zealand has a massive number of stray, roaming cats – that’s where Lonely Miaow come in. They get these animals ‘off the streets’ so to speak, put them into a foster home, desex them, and then their foster owners find them a forever home. Since my time working with Lonely Miaow I have rehomed 21 kittens and cats – not a huge number, but that is 21 little furballs not out there contributing to the mass feral population; 21 little furballs with a happy home, medical care, full tummies and awesome owners.

HURRAH Desexy Revolution Alyson Young PhotographyAnother Auckland-based charity that I have some dealings with do similar work for dogs. HURRAH – the Humane Rescue, Rehabilitation and Rehoming Charitable Trust – is a volunteer-run group that rescues unwanted dogs, puts them into foster care and provides them with everything they need for a new, happy life. Some of these animals had been surrendered for euthanasia by their previous owners – HURRAH do amazing work with finding these dogs, giving them proper behavioural training and medical treatment, and ensuring they are ready for a caring, responsible home.

Not only this, but HURRAH have recently started up an even more community-focused initiative: the Desexy Revolution. Desexy Revolution aims to eliminate the high number of unwanted puppies in Auckland by offering desexing services to lower-income families. They require massive support for this – not just financial aid and surgical equipment, but man-power too; vets, nurses, dog handlers, administrators – and these are all volunteers.

Alyson Young Desexy RevolutionIn September I lent my nursing skills to Desexy Revolution for one of their mass clinics. In just one day and with only two surgery tables we spayed and neutered over 20 dogs – a fantastic feat. I was at the end of the line in Recovery; as soon as each veterinarian had finished surgery on a dog, I and the trainee nurse stationed with me would take the animals off the table, set them up in a recovery kennel, and ensure they woke up properly. Their endotracheal tubes and intravenous catheters would need to be removed, their post-operative medication (including pain relief) would be given, and we would monitor each animal closely to ensure its early recovery was going to plan. A big part of our job was shuffling animals around for space; with only three recovery kennels we had to be pretty smart about our resources!

Samantha Boston Desexy Revolution recovery HURRAHThe day truly was a great success. It even made national news! You can check out the little piece here.

Samantha Boston Desexy Revolution Alyson Young Photography

Check out my sweet over-sized scrubs

Initiatives like this are so important, but nothing beats responsible pet ownership. I really don’t encourage backyard breeding; I have worked in veterinary clinics, shelters and rescue facilities, and the number of abandoned animals passing through these establishments is shocking. For each puppy or kitten born, that means one less potential home for a shelter animal in need. If you are going to be blessing loved ones with a furry addition to the family, consider a rescue animal. They are far less likely to have medical issues than most pure-bred pets, and providing a wonderful life for an animal in need is one of the most satisfying things you could ever do.


Desexy Revolution
Lonely Miaow
Alyson Young Photography

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Our world is bigger than us


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I’ve been having a few rants lately to people about how western culture encourages us to live for ourselves only, the way our civilization pressures us to. Celebrities flood the media; how to dress like them, why you should want bodies like them, where they eat and what they buy. We are told that our goals in life are to work ourselves raw in a career, secure a house, have children and raise them to care about the same life cycle as us and to become unconscious consumers just as we are. Our shopping choices fuel child slavery, destroy unimaginable expanses of dwindling natural habitat and continue the demand for rife corruption in countless countries – all because we want more, more, more, and we have decided that nothing else matters more than supporting our own lifestyles. Our blind tourism and entertainment desires have consequences I still can’t get my own family to understand: That elephant you’re riding in Thailand has had its herd slaughtered, its family dismembered for some wealthy human’s fetish, and its offspring smuggled across a border to be broken and tortured only to later end up at an ‘elephant camp’ where you will pay to bottle feed it and thus throw more money into supporting the decline and incarceration of a wild species.

And yet we plod along, without a thought for anything but what we deem as important in our own little worlds. That sentiment is something I continue to struggle with. How can we be so intelligent, and know so much, yet allow these things to happen?

Some truly devastating images have been shared widely over social media and through the news lately showing the utter trauma Syria’s people are currently going through. Syria’s displaced refugees are literally dying to get away from the country that was once their home – and shocking photographs are making outsiders realise that this is actually a reality.
A lot of what I hear in response to this are complaints that the photos shouldn’t be circulating at all, because they are disturbing. Yes, they are disturbing, yes they are heart-breaking, and I also can’t stand to see them any more. But when someone tells me that they plan to do nothing but switch the news off and carry on with their own lives, I am ashamed. For many people it is easy to just shut their eyes and put bigger matters out of their minds – but this is an attitude that can sustain humanitarian crises.
So I know that it can be traumatic to be forced to see the horror that is our world right now… but use that energy to do something good. And I don’t meant get up and leave your life and current responsibilities behind to go and physically help – you can do plenty from a chair at home. Donate $5.00 or some toys to an aid project, for example. This link <— has some good little ideas.
Live with compassion. Be aware. Our actions – even many seemingly insignificant ones – have consequences. Give thoughts to things outside your own world and encourage those in your care to do the same. One of my favourite philosophies is: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

There is a lot going on, all over the globe. Plenty of projects need our help. I’ve said it before, but by choosing even one thing important to you, and doing something beneficial for it every now and then, you can make a difference – or so the optimist in me believes. I know that everyone has their own troubles, difficulties, and tragedies. But if we resign ourselves to believing there is no point in even trying to make a tiny piece of difference, nothing will change. It isn’t difficult to do a selfless good deed, and I relish hearing about the many plans different people have to help others or contribute something positive somewhere.

Below is a video that I think is a good illustration of how anything can happen to anyone, and may put things in a different perspective for some. It certainly made me think.