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December 03, 2017


LEARNING the ropes: Ceria plays at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. —Photo by writer
LEARNING the ropes: Ceria plays at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre. —Photo by writer

CERIA was merely eight months old when he was brought to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre (SORC). This is located less than half an hour’s drive west of Sandakan, a small town in the state of Sabah, eastern Malaysia. He had just lost his mother, probably during land development for a palm oil plantation, when he was brought to the centre back in 2007. Initially, he was kept in an indoor nursery where he was fed and treated medically like other orphans given in the care of the centre, before being paired with an elder female and being let outdoors to learn survival skills.

Ten years later, Ceria has grown into a healthy ape that has learnt almost every skill he requires for survival in the wild, especially climbing the trees and nesting on the treetops. A citation on him pasted in the centre describes the 11-year-old as a “troublemaker but smart ape who may look evil when he closes his eyelids”.

“When he came to the centre he was sad and malnourished, in bad shape. Today he is happy and thriving,” Sylvia Alsisto, who is in charge of the orangutan sanctuary, told a group of journalists visiting the sanctuary.

Established in 1964 for the rehabilitation of the rescued orphan orangutan babies affected by logging, the proliferation of initially rubber and recently oil palm plantations, and illegal hunting, the facility located inside the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve — home to the last wild orangutans that are native to Malaysia and Indonesia — attracts thousands of tourists and researchers every year from across the globe to watch orangutans up close in their natural habitat. Ever since its inception, the centre has released around 760 orangutan apes back into the jungle.

The centre was the world’s first sanctuary set up to rehabilitate orphaned orangutans, a year after Malaysia passed a law to protect its orangutan population. “The survival rate of the rehabilitated orangutans is quite encouraging,” explains Ms Alsisto. “Most of those released back in the jungle have survived successfully. Some couldn’t because of various reasons, including natural disasters. A few came back to live around the centre.”

An orangutan brought to the centre may take up to 10 years to learn the skills for survival in the wild and be capable of being returned to the wild. “You see, the centre is part of the forest reserve and the orangutans can leave it and return to the jungle any time they feel like it. Some of them often come back for a few days because of their attachment to the place where their childhood was spent,” she says.

Orangutans are among the most intelligent primates, can use a variety of sophisticated tools, and build nests on tree tops. A controversial study released several years ago claimed that they are the closest living relatives to humans because of physical resemblance. (They also share 96.4 per cent of their DNA with human beings.)Ms Alsisto looked away when asked if land development for palm oil plantations was still going on. But one of her colleagues privately said the “process has slowed down but not ceased completely. Recently, the government has committed to increasing the forest coverage in Sabah from the existing 26 per cent to 30pc by 2025,” he hastily added. “The government is now allowing crop land development only in areas marked for agriculture. You can no longer clear forest areas to grow your palm oil trees.”

Before he could finish, Severino Paulin Jr, our tour guide, jumped in. “Palm oil is Malaysia’s largest crop. But the industry has been the victim of negative propaganda [by competitors] ever since we started to develop this crop for export [Malaysia exports 17mn tonne of 19.9mn tonne palm oil it produces]. It is not difficult to counter the propaganda as consumers can see through it. The problem is that palm oil will not win over consumer affection if sustainability is not built into its production. And I think if we can save orangutans, we can also protect our palm oil industry.”

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2017