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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Aug 90
Sepilok Orang-Utan
Rehabilitation Centre
15th April 1990

N. Sivasothi

During an eventful six weeks in Borneo recently, I spent two days at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre. It is situated in the Sepilok (or Kabili-Sepilok) Forest Reserve, 23km outside Sandakan, the largest east coast town in Sabah. The forest reserve encompasses 4350 hectares of largely undisturbed lowland dipterocarp on the north shore of Sandakan Bay. It is bordered by mangrove and Nipah palm swamps to the south and by plantations and secondary forest to the east and west. The forest contains proboscis monkeys, gibbons, long and pig-tailed macaques and red leaf monkeys besides Borneo's most famous primate, the Orang-utan

Remains of the orang-utan were discovered in southern China, Vietnam and Java but presently, Pongo pygmaeus is endemic only to Borneo (P. pygmaeus pygmaeus) and Sumatra (P. pygmaeus abelii). It is the only great ape living outside central Africa and an adult male can reach a metre in height and 100kg in weight. Fossil finds e.g., P.p paleosumatraensis indicate extinct varieties which were 16% to 40% larger than the present day species. They are largely arboreal and prefer primary lowland dipterocarp forests, much of which have been destroyed largely due to exploitation for timber. The massive habitat destruction is responsible for the declining population as the apes are driven to other areas with insufficient food.

Presently, Sabah with over 3000 apes has one of the largest surviving populations. The Fauna Conservation Ordinance, 1963 protects the animal by imposing a maximum penalty of $5000 and a 5-year imprisonment to the offender if an Orang-utan is kept, hunted or killed. The rehabilitation programme for Orangs started in 1964 and is administered by the Wildlife Section of the Sabah Forest Department. Its original objective was to return to the wild orphans retrieved from the animal trade. They are orphaned because traders would kill their mothers to obtain the infants. Nowadays, most of the apes who come to Sepilok are confiscated or received from logging camps. [When in Sarawak, an official told me of loggers who hunt the Orang-utan to eat, an activity prehistoric man is said to have done in the forests at Niah.] There are incidents in which the mother falls from logged trees to her death and the infant is retrieved alive and taken to Sepilok. Captive Orang-Utans and infants retrieved from the wild have not learnt skills necessary for their survival in the jungle and cannot be simply released to the forest reserve. That would guarantee their deaths.

Hence the role of the Rehabilitation Centre: to teach them the skills necessary for their survival in the wild.

The first destination of any new 'inmate' of the centre is the quarantine. This is practised in any collection of living animals because there is the possibility of the animal being a carrier of a devastating communicable disease. At the time of my visit, there were 10 babies on a milk diet in quarantine. New inmates are also treated for disease and injuries accordingly.

In the wild, the skills necessary for survival are learned by an Orang-utan offspring from its mother during its first few years. Orphans at the centre are taught by human trainers instead. Every morning after a temperature cheek, the young apes are collected from their cages in a wheelbarrow into which they pile themselves and are given a ride to Station A, an open patch of ground amongst the towering Dipterocarps. Here, they are exercised - climbing, nest-building - and finding food under the vigilant care of Ranger James, their baby-sitter. The juveniles exercising were amusing to watch. Bobby, a two year old with an amusing face, takes time off from tree-climbing practice to stalk Joan, the Sambhur deer, from the rear. It's quite an amusing sight because Joan is very much larger than the mischievous young Orang. His bravado fizzles out the moment Joan turns around and he scampers off, darting amongst the trees with the occasional backward look as if in pursuit. Joan, however, seems quite unaware of the activity of the little ape. Not all the juveniles are returned to their shed at night, as a few of the older apes are allowed to sleep out. Due to constraints of space, some of the juveniles are caged in pairs and the Rangers have noted life-bonding amongst these pairs; they become pals for life and will not be separated willingly.

Once their survival skills develop, graduates are taken to feeding platforms for further reconditioning for their return to the wild by increasing their freedom in. a natural environment. Less control is exercised and their diet is now supplementary rather than principal. Diet is kept monotonous (bananas and milk) in an effort to bore them; the apes will seek more food in the rainforest to the point of self sufficiency. Their occasional reliance on the food provided allows the rangers to monitor the condition of their former wards.

Success is met with the revival of survival instincts and social integration with other apes (wild) in the forest reserve. A successful rehabilitation is not always easily determined because an Orang-utan which ceases to visit the feeding platforms may simply have died and disappeared in the rapid degradation process offered by decomposition and scavenging in the tropical rainforest. However, obvious results are seen in those who pay occasional visits to the feeding platform at Station B, the rendezvous of the semi-wild adults for the regular feed. The rehabilitated 'graduates' of the centre who turn up are those who may have difficulty in obtaining food or need extra food like, for example, the three young mothers whom we were lucky to see that morning.

We were waiting, at Station B, for the approach of any Orangs who might respond to the haunting hoot-call of the trainers. About five minutes later, we saw the tops of tree shaking in the distance. Soon we caught glimpses of the golden-brown fur and eventually saw three adult females, the oldest 15 years old, swing lazily towards the platforms with an instinctive ease amongst the trees and climbers. Their movements are so casual and both hand and foot are used with equal efficiency such that they seem not to look at the branches they grab hold of!

The trainers feed the apes with bananas and also try to ladle-feed these semi-wild adults with milk that they bring to the platform in buckets. This is not always easy for the apes lose their familiarity for the trainers to some degree. Whilst feeding and talking to them, the trainers also conduct a visual check to assess the state of health of the Orang and these observations are duly recorded. The three mothers approach the trainers carefully to obtain the food. We watch them hang in mid-air as they slit banana skins and rapidly eat the fruit. We soon had to dodge the shower of skin bundles that were tossed to the ground below where we stood, watching. As one of the juveniles suddenly moved away from its mother, the enthusiastic audience watched its progress along the branch with exclamations of "so cute!" and the like. Their enthusiasm was soon dampened somewhat by the shower of urine that the enterprising young Orang unleashed upon his unsuspecting audience! I suspect the trainers knew what it was up to but I think they feel that every ape must have his day...

The forest trail we returned by after the apes had swung away back into the forest was very interesting. There was a lot of interesting fungi but what most of the visitors marvelled at was the simply gigantic size of the Dipterocarps, many of which with buttress roots much larger than any of us!

The Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre provides more than just the rehabilitation programme. We talked to the rangers and realised it is used also as a nature education centre for school children as well as the general public. (We would later meet the man who set up this Education Centre while we were being tossed about in a jeep on our way to Danum Valley Field Conservation Centre.) Visitors better appreciate the plight of the Orang Utan and other animals dependent on the disappearing tropical rainforest and the significance. Protection is also extended to other wild animals 'without a home'. The publicity attracted to the Centre has helped to draw international attention to the situation as well. What we felt was reflected in a frequent comment from people of many different nationalities who sign the visitors logbook : "This is a place all Sabahans can be proud of!"

Author's Note: All the facts and information in this article were from conversations in Malay and/or English with the friendly Kadazan rangers of Sepilok. My thanks to them for their kindness to the three boys from Singapore!
© N Sivasothi, 2001