May 31, 2009

‘Orangutan Island’ Faces Wrath From Conservationists

A Malaysian orangutan sanctuary has come under fire from environmentalists.

The location under the microscope is Orangutan Island in Malaysia's north, billed as the world's only treatment and preservation facility for the endangered mammals.

Care that has been abundantly given to the animals, provided by a staff of seven nurses, is lost on environmentalists who insist that this is hurting instead of helping the orangutans.

The owners of the 35-acre island say the goal of the facility is to return the animals back to their natural jungle habitat, but so far none have been put back into the wild.

The environmentalists take issue with the fact that the primates wear diapers, interact with tourists, and are raised with 24-hour care from a staff of humans.

"It is ridiculous to have orangutans in nappies and hand-raised in a nursery. How are they going to reintroduce the primates back in the wild," wondered senior wildlife veterinarian Roy Sirimanne.

Sirimanne insists that baby orangutans need to live with their mothers to learn important survival skills.

"First, we need to save their habitat, which is quickly disappearing. And it is the mother that will teach its young for the first four years or more on what to eat and how to look for food," he told AFP. "Keeping the orangutans in captivity on an island is not a conservation program. It amounts to desecration (of the species) as it is nearly impossible to reintroduce them back to the forest."

There are about 50,000 to 60,000 orangutans living in the wild, 80% of which are in Indonesia and Malaysia's eastern states of Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo Island.

A 2007 appraisal from the United Nations Environment Program cautioned that orangutans would be eliminated in the wild in two decades if deforestation trends persist.

The Malaysian division of conservation group Friends of the Earth insists that the best way to preserve the orangutan is to focus on out of control poaching and dwindling habitats.

"We are opposed to the orangutan sanctuary. We are opposed to this theme park resort having wildlife in captivity," said president Mohamad Idris. "Captive-bred orangutans have no natural resistance against diseases, making them susceptible to diseases. Death is inevitable."

The center's veterinarian insists that the facility, located in the town of Bukit Merah, is the best thing for the 25 orangutans they house.

He did confess that the center had a high mortality rate early on, with seven deaths of orangutan babies between 2000 and 2003, but feel that they have learned a lot since then.

"It is the pride of Malaysians and it is aimed at helping ensure our orangutans do not become extinct," said Sabapathy. Now we can study the primate and collect data. The orangutans will eventually be returned to Sarawak. That is our objective."

Sabapathy noted that the infants were only taken from their mothers if they were underweight, not taken care of and at risk of dying.

"I will not be disheartened by the criticism," he said. "We are not ill-treating them. People say the species is getting endangered but what are they doing? We are trying to increase the numbers in the wild."

In another area of the center, adult orangutans are roam around and build nests in the trees.

The majorities of the visitors are excited to play with the animals and are oblivious of the criticism.

"I don't think it is wrong keeping them here. It is a practical solution to save the orangutans and educate our children," said 26-year-old Vikki Kendrick from Britain.