In Borneo I was on a two week volunteering project that concerned the conservation of Borneo’s rainforest and the wildlife that calls it home. Borneo’s rainforest is rich with biodiversity, some of the most extraordinary in the world, and unfortunately deforestation and tourism are putting it a lot of it at risk of becoming extinct.
Although only two weeks long, this trip has taught me more than I’ve learnt during my whole time away. My eyes have been opened and I’ll be forever grateful to our guides Alvin and Jagger for introducing us to the beauty of the jungle and the wonderful creatures it contains.
Our first stop was Matang Wildlife Centre, about an hour from Kuching. This is a rehabilitation centre for Orangutans, Sun Bears, Crocodiles and Monkeys, amongst several other animals. Whilst we were here we helped make enrichment packages for both the Orangutans and the Sun Bears.
This involved hiding treats, using different materials, for them to open and enjoy. Our half of the group made some for the Orangutans, and despite us spending 2 hours making them – trying to make them as hard to get at as possible – the animals that are 96% similar to us, managed to get at their treats within minutes.
Most of the animals they rescue have been kept illegally as pets, including birds which they had a lot of. Whilst at the centre we heard about the horrific back stories of some of their animals. We learnt about a bear who was kept in a cage not big enough to stand for 18 years, and about a gibbon who they assume used to work for the circus because despite being a the centre for years she still makes the gestures as if she’s juggling when humans walk past.
We were told about “Bear Bile Farming” which involves the bears being kept in tiny cages with a tube going into their gall bladder. In Chinese medicine they believe the bile has healing powers, so by keeping the bears they have constant access to it.
The sad thing is that bears are strong enough to withstand this, so they’re powerless to stop their own suffering. We also learnt about bear paw soup, and how sometimes bears will be kept alive outside of restaurants, often with paws missing, so that when someone orders the dish it will be as fresh as possible.
Hearing about all these horrific stories filled me with an inextinguishable anger and once again I was questioning how people can be so cruel to animals who are often incapable of self defensive and of speaking out. The power to stop this kind of behaviour though lies with the consumer, the people ordering the soup, the people buying the animals for pets that they’re bound to get bored of, the people going to circuses with animal acts.
If you take away the demand for such things, the people who are making a living out of them will have to look elsewhere. Often people are trying to make money, to support their families or just so they can afford food to eat. It’s difficult to say whether the blame lies with them, when its foreign consumers who are letting them continue.
On our last morning at Matang, just before leaving, we met Alvin and Jagger, our guides for the duration. Alvin is a wonderful man, but is full with a lot of anger about the situation in Borneo, with the rainforests being destroyed and the animals, especially Orangutans becoming at risk of extinction.
He gave us a long talk about how Matang is keeping animals in cages when they should be in the wild, implying that what they were doing there was wrong. Although looking back I think he was rather saying that He’s frustrated and angry that there’s even a need for places like Matang.
However, a lot of the group suddenly decided that there was something “not quite right about Matang” and that they were doing the wrong thing. I couldn’t believe the sudden switch, and personally believe that there is a very definite reason programs like this exist and there’s a need for them.
An animal who’s been brought up as a pet and never seen the wild, who’s mother was killed so could never teach them how to survive, would likely not live for long if they were released. There’s a reason they’re in there, and the enclosures they are living in, and the care and love they are receiving is a great deal better than the horrific lives they were living before
They talk as if these issues are so easy to solve – “just invest in bigger cages” – the money is hard to find, and by the sounds of things so is the permission. I just think it’s really naive to think all animals are able to live in the wild, especially when you have the human race training hem for the circus, or beating elephants so much that they can be used for elephant riding.
You can’t tell me that a sun bear who lived in a cage barely bigger than herself for 18 years would be able to survive outside in the wild by herself, I just don’t believe that’s the better option for her.