Monday, January 30, 2012

Borneo's orang-utan sanctuary

IT'S not every day you're confronted by a naked male tourist striding somewhat apprehensively down a jungle walkway.

All in a day's work for Sylvia Alsisto, who runs the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah, Borneo.

"He'd been approached by Raju, one of our male orang-utans who was eight years old at the time," Alsisto says.

"Raju had started tugging at his shirt, so the tourist had taken it off and given it to him," she says. "He then started on his shorts, his watch and finally his underpants.

"He was left with nothing."

It's best not to argue with an orang-utan. Even if they are only eight years old, they're still four times stronger than a human. Although not overtly aggressive by nature, they are wild animals and can be unpredictable.

More than 600 orphaned orang-utans have passed through the 4294ha sanctuary since it officially opened in 1964. The orphans are largely the victims of habitat destruction. Mother orang-utans are often scared by the unrelenting human onslaught that comes with forest clearing and drop their baby while trying to flee.

Occasionally mothers have been killed by hunters, who then capture the infant and sell it as a pet. Luckily this has become increasingly rare, particularly in Sabah, where the benefits wildlife brings to tourism are widely recognised.

The rehabilitation process begins as soon as they arrive at the centre. Young orang-utans spend time in the "nursery", developing essential survival skills that would normally be taught by their mother. They learn how to climb, find food and how to build nests. (Orang-utans are the only primates who build nests.)

Once they've "graduated", they move to the outdoor nursery, where their freedom is increased and their dependence on food and emotional support decreased.

Visitors to the centre can view part of the process by gathering on the walkway opposite the feeding platform. Here a ranger distributes fruit twice daily and this helps supplement the orang-utans' forest diet. In the wild an orang-utan feeds on more than 200 species of plants and fruit.

Alsisto views the visitors and tourists who flock to the centre as necessary but occasionally frustrating.

"It's educational, which is great, and we hope that they'll go away with a true appreciation of orang-utans and how important it is that they survive," she says.

"Unfortunately, there are always some visitors who refuse to obey instructions. Bags, insect repellents and food must be left outside but there are always some who'll try to buck the system.

"They'll try to feed them, pat them or pick them up. This is not only dangerous hygienically to the orang-utans but potentially dangerous to the humans, as well. The only time I've been badly bitten was when I went to rescue a woman that was trying to pet a young male and got bitten."

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Borneo's orang-utan sanctuary

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