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Official magazine of the Biological Sciences Society
National University of Singapore
The Mudskipper, Aug 90
Bullet's Plight

N. Sivasothi

During my recent trip to Borneo, I visited the Semonggok Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre near Kuching, Sarawak. I was struck, as I walked in to the main office, by the sight of a magnificent adult male Bornean Orang Utan in a wooden cage which was obviously quite inadequate for him. I wondered what such a mature ape was doing at the Rehabilitation Centre.

I discovered later from rangers at the centre that the large ape's name was Bullet, so named because the first thing the Centre had to do when they got him was to remove a bullet from his body in a delicate operation. He was raised by locals and had become familiar with human beings. Attempts to rehabilitate the cute ape never met with complete success because of his history of association with human beings. He would always return to the Centre. When Bullet became older and stronger, he could not be allowed out of his cage for he was unafraid of people and would harass them. His immense strength posed a problem and because he would not return to the wild. He has been, as I saw him, cooped up in the cage ever since.

As I watched Bullet through the bars of his cage, I could sense his immense strength as he paced the floor. I felt a pang of remorse at his plight. But it would be ridiculous to simply set him free for he could pose a danger to man and any incident arising from his release would only cause harm to the rehabilitation programme. Life in captivity is thus inevitable, however there are plans to allocate an area in which Bullet will be given some degree of freedom. To the rangers at the centre who hope to lead the apes back to the wild, this is a poor consolation.

Similarly in Sabah, it is hoped that the orang utans at the Sepilok Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre will eventually be returned to the wild. The nature of the rehabilitation programme is such that the apes eventually lose their dependence and familiarity with mankind in general and become shy even with their trainer. This ensures that rehabilitated apes will not seek out human beings once they return to the forest. However, some tourists who travel all the way to Sepilok feel 'cheated' because they are not allowed to approach and touch the Orangs, especially the cute young juveniles.

Some of the people in Sabah who keep young Orang Utans get angry when told they have to give up their pets. They say they take care of their animals kindly and argue that since the animal is happy and not coming to any harm, why should the authorities confiscate the animal? However, the animal should be allowed to live a natural life and 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. It is important to realise that a young but wild animal is not easily domesticated and when it becomes much older, problems set in. It can become unmanageable, subject to moods and generally unsafe to live with - and when anything happens, people would shoot the animal to protect themselves.

Hence it was with disbelief that I saw Jo-Jo. Visitors were allowed to touch and hold him. I talked to the ranger in charge of the young ape and discovered the reason while Jo-Jo wrapped himself around me. Apparently, Jo-Jo responded badly to the training programme and could not be rehabilitated. The rangers realised that they would have to bring up the ape themselves for it would never return to the wild. So he was to be 'sacrificed' and people who visited Sepilok would be able to say that they had seen and held an Orang Utan. But the rangers are aware of Bullet's plight and do not want Jo-Jo to spend the last of his days isolated in a cage. To my surprise, they told me the solution to their problem would come from Singapore!

Ah Meng's breakfasts with visitors to the Singapore Zoological Gardens are apparently famous. Not just for their novelty but as an example of how tame an adult female Orang Utan can be brought up to be. The training of Ah Meng by her keepers (who have been to Sepilok) is unlike that conducted by rangers at Semonggok or Sepilok. This is because they are not preparing her for life in the wild but rather in a zoo which includes continual contacts with man. Sepilok will send some of her trainers down to Singapore to study the methods adopted by the Zoo's keepers. When eventually implemented on Jo-Jo, he would be able to live relatively free even when he becomes a magnificent adult male like Bullet.

Pure enforcement of the law will protect the apes to some degree. But that alone is insufficient and it is recognised that inherent problems like Bullet's and Jo-Jo's can only be countered effectively by educating the public. Jo-Jo is the only ape at Sepilok currently facing this problem. It is hoped that he is also the last. As for the Singapore venture, we can only hope that their endeavours will be rewarded so that Jo-Jo need not suffer the fate of Bullet because of the folly of man.
© N Sivasothi, 2001