Saving orangutans – the “how to” guide

Interview: Sylvia Alsisto – Wildlife Officer – Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in the Malaysian Sabah state in Northern Borneo was founded in 1964, to rehabilitate orphan orangutans. The centre is the first established, oldest and longest surviving rehabilitation centre in the world.  The site  situated in a 43 sq km of protected forest  at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve. Today, between 40 to 60 individuals are found around the rehabilitation site and an estimated number of 200 individuals (SWD)  living free in the reserve. We asked the officer in charge Sylvia Alsisto to tell us about the background to the centre.

The formation of the Sabah orangutan rehabilitation project was originally proposed by P.F Burgess, the Deputy Conservator of Forest in 1961. He also established the game branch section within the British North Borneo Forestry Department and drafted the Fauna Conservation Ordinance 1963.

This law was  ameliorated in 1997 to the Wildlife Conservation Enactment 1997.  Going back further in time, the orangutan rehabilitation project was the conservation effort pioneered by Barbara Harrisson also known as  the `Mother of Rehabilitation’ in Sarawak. She was the wife of the curator of the Sarawak Museum, Tom Harrisson. Her passion and affection for these orangutans were inspired by her first encounter with a young orphan baby brought to her care on the Eve of Christmas Day 1956. This led her  to  learn further on their way of life and  slowly developed the rehabilitation program to give them a second chance to survive in the forest.  Rehabilitation is a process of preparing young orphaned orangutan for an independent life in the forest. She initiated her first pilot project in Bako National Park 1962 and when this project discontinued, Sepilok was established in 1964 under the first Game Warden G.S De Silva.

orangutan kinabatangan 5
Baby Orangutan in Kinabatangan area, Sabah (North Borneo)

Historically, the survival of the orangutan population in Borneo and Sumatra have endured a long trail of agonising pasts. The appearance of the mysterious ‘man of the forest’ stimulated great curiosity and paved ways for hunting to occur for scientific and research purposes. This eventually led to the conquests of wildlife trade to meet the demand for  orangutan.

The word “orangutan” was believed to have originated from the Banjar language in Indonesia. It was first authenticated in English as “Ourang Outang” by Dr Jacobus Bontius (1562-1631), a Dutch physician working in Java during the seventeenth century. The word “orangutan” was initially used as a general term to classify the African and Asian great apes (van and a borrowed word from the Indonesian language during the Dutch colonisation). Tulp (1593-1674) was the first to use the word “orangutan” in his description of a “chimpanzee” or “bonobo”.The name “orangutan” was described as any human-resembling ape found inhabiting the forest of Africa and Asia.

Sepilok interior
Sepilok observation area

The human-like appearance of orangutan illuminated great beliefs, stories and imagination emerging from the description of a modest looking dumb female to the believed by the Javanese that the orangutan could talk but played dumb in fear of humans The locals believed orangutan was a transformed beast cursed for irreverence.

How does the rehabilitation process work?

  • Arrival
  • Admission (for rehabilitation & translocation)
  • Quarantine
  • Indoor nursery
  • Socialisation
  • Outdoor nursery
  • Platform A
  • Free roaming
  • Monitoring

rehab programme.jpeg

Conservation is not later. It’s now.

People say that orangutans could be extinct in the wild in around ten years’ time. Do you think that could happen?

If we don’t act now, YES… maybe. Conservation is now and not later. Both, the Sumatran and Bornean Orangutans are now listed under the IUCN red as critically endangered,. The next step after “critically endangered” is “extinct in the wild”. In Sabah, we already have one animal that is classified as extinct in the wild – the Sumatran rhino. This means that the next step after this will be the big word EXTINCT.”. With the orangutan being critically endangered, we have to make it stop here before it endures premature extinction.

Sepilok Orangutan rescue centre.JPGIt seems like a very big job… But you’re not alone.

The burden of saving this so iconic species does not fall on the shoulders of just one party because it is “OUR” shared responsibility. It is important that we work hand in hand to ensure the future survival of the species.  But it enlightening to know that we have strong support from the Government together with numerous NGO’s supporting the effort and with more awareness, within the general public local and international, there certainly is HOPE.

Kinabatangan Orangutan 3
Orangutan in Kinabatangan area, Sabah (North Borneo)

Do many people come here and visit this place as a kind of “last chance” tourism?

A journalists once said that one of the things you should do before you die is to come and see Sepilok. In general, I think that’s the impression that people have.when they hear about “Orangutan” especially with it being so charismatic in nature.

What about the elephants? Are you working with them as well?

We have them here at Sepilok but not directly working with them as we have the Wildlife Rescue Unit assisting in the care and husbandry.

How many tourists come from overseas?
Our oversea tourists started escalating after visit Malaysia year in 1990. Today,  more than 60,000 oversea tourists from over 100 countries visit Sepilok with the UK being the long standing top country visiting Sepilok.

How would you best describe your job?

Just in three words; challenging, fulfilling and rewarding.

Is there a movement to buy back some of the land from the developers?

Yes, there are various organisations which are assisting to buy land from for conversation purpose .

How important is it for people to come here and see the animals, to get the real story and understand what is really going on in terms of how you are looking after the animals… creating more awareness around the world?

Sepilok functions as a public awareness centre to educate people from all over the world and the orangutans at Sepilok are ambassadors of their species.  It is important to have centres as such to allow people to experience a sense of connectivity and respect towards an iconic species to enhance a greater appreciation and therefore willing to do more for conservation. Rehabilitating ex-captive and orphaned orangutan is a challenging ordeal and therefore seeing successful rehabilitation with free-ranging ex-captive individuals returning with babies born in the wild creates a sense of pride and accomplishment which will allow visitors witnessing such success to be able to be inspired and share the message of hope.

But for those who can’t come?

My advice… I would really advise people to come visit and see the real scenario. Nevertheless, for those who can’t come, it is important to self-educate themselves on the current conservation issues because conservation is a complex and multi-faceted effort and what we often hear is an over simplified or sensationalised version of events.

What else is the state government doing to help matters?

 I am not in the position to speak on behalf of the state Government however having said that, as a representative of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre which operates under the Sabah Wildlife Department, I am happy to say that we are doing the centre will not have existed without the strong commitment and support from the State Government.

So the palm plantations can become a bit more hospitable for orangutans in the long term?

The orangutan is a totally protected species and this message needs to come across strongly to the plantations. That’s the reason why awareness is very important and so is the role that Sepilok plays.  The Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil (MSPO) is working on involving all stakeholders towards a common goal of conservation and protection of wildlife and alongside the government agencies reaching out to the communities within plantations to explain how they can share the area with the orangutan. This involves understanding orangutan behaviour and what action to take when encountering one in the estate.

Orang utan (5)
Orangutan in Kinabatangan area, Sabah (North Borneo)

What do you say to people who say you’re not doing enough?

We cannot please everyone and there will always be people who aren’t happy about anything and would just say that  that we’re not doing enough. To be fair, as a Government servant, we always strive to do our best and  are definitely doing the most and the best we can within the capacity that we have. This is where the media’s responsibility becomes very important in their reporting.

What are the plans for the future?

Sepilok has existed for almost 54 years, and therefore in need for a state-wide survey of the present orangutan populations and to come up with actual figures.

How does it make you feel to have achieved what you have over the years here?

I am just a little part of Sepilok’s achievement and that is not mine alone to be proud of and as I say this, I would like to pay tribute to all those who have been an integral part of Sepilok and to how it has become over the year.

Caring for the sick and disabled orangutans must also be rewarding, and difficult. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Aside from rehabilitation, Sepilok also functions as a centre for unreleasable individuals. We currently have a female who is half paralysed because of cerebral malaria who has been with the centre for a very long time.  So the staff have to every day look for ways to give her more enrichment.  We have volunteers that come and help design enrichment ideas. And seeing improvement in their welfare is very rewarding and fulfilling.