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January 18, 2011

A visit to the Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island

By Tan Cheng Li

EACH time the boat unloads its cargo of tourists on Orang Utan Island in Bukit Merah Laketown Resort, animal keepers will call out the names of the different orang utans with a hailer to get the attention of the primates, which are more often than not hiding in some corner of the enclosure.

Offers of fruits by the keepers entice the apes to come closer to the visitor viewing area. To view the red apes, unique to Sumatra and Borneo, visitors stroll along a covered 100m walkway.

Set up in 2000, the facility near Taiping, Perak, now hosts 26 orang utans, 16 of which were born there through breeding between five males and six females loaned from Sarawak. (The number of captive-breds are higher but some did not survive.)

I was always under the impression that the orang utans in Bukit Merah live in the forest and roam the whole of the 14ha island. But my visit there last year showed otherwise.

At the Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island nursery, infant orang utans are cared for pretty much like a human baby; they are fed milk from bottles, clothed in diapers, sleep in cribs and given cuddly toys and bolsters. Not everyone agrees with this.

The orang utans are confined to a 2ha area by an electric fence. They don’t live in the wild. They don’t build nests to sleep in, but bed in cages. And since there are no wild fruit trees to forage from within that enclosure, they are fed twice a day with fruits, rice and collected leaves.

The island has a nursery – with a glass window for tourists’ viewing benefit – where sick infant orang utans are nursed to health. Tourists go “Awww, so cute” whenever they see the furry red balls sleeping or playing in cribs, clutching dolls and wearing diapers just like human babies. They are taken to the nursery for various reasons, such as rejection by the mother, premature birth, low birth weight, chronic diarrhoea and other biological reasons.

During my visit, three infants were there: one was not nursed by the mother, one was entangled in the mother’s hair when born and the third had damaged fingers.

A brief chat with the resident veterinary surgeon Dr D. Sabapathy revealed that none of the captive-borns survived in the early years of the park. He then found that the infants lacked haemoglobin. Now he feeds them the right supplements and milk formula, boosting the survival rate to 90%. He says in most zoos, the infants do not survive.

At the “training” area – again, housed within a glass case so that visitors can see the cute apes up close – juveniles learn to swing, climb and build nests. Once they get bigger, they are allowed into the open-air exercise yard which have a few trees, ladders, ropes and platforms, for them to learn basic survival skills.

The Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island Foundation prides itself as a unique orang utan research and rehabilitation centre with scientific studies conducted with researchers from Universiti Sains Malaysia, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and even Kyoto University, on behaviour, nutrition, diseases, mortality and natality (the ratio of live births to the overall population). To date, RM5mil has been spent on the programme.

But not all in the scientific fraternity are convinced of the conservation role played by the Orang Utan Island.

One biologist asks: Why waste money studying captive orang utans when you can study wild populations in Sabah and Sarawak? And why call itself a rehabilitation centre when it does not handle rescued orang utans but is merely toilet-training captive-breds? Is it a case of a theme park trying to justify its keeping of orang utans by emphasising a research role?

And what’s the purpose in breeding orang utans when they’re unlikely to be released into forests?

Scientists generally agree that captive-breds have low survival rates in the wild. Foundation officials have in the past expressed plans to send the orang utans back to Sarawak but sources say the state is not keen on that as having been exposed to humans, the Bukit Merah orang utans might carry human-borne pathogens. Furthermore, why would Sarawak want captive-breds when they still have wild orang utans?

So it appears that the Bukit Merah orang utans will just end up stocking other zoos – one is now in a zoo in Johor. (Although the Bukit Merah website stated that an orang utan has been released into forests in Malacca, in reality the ape was sent to the Malacca Zoo and subsequently ended up in a zoo in Johor.)

No release 

THE Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island Foundation is not releasing orang utans into the forests of Belum, Perak.

Datuk Dr Abdul Latiff Mohamed who sits on the board of trustees, says the foundation has no such plan “now or in future.”

He said the media had misquoted Tan Sri Mustapha Kamal Abu Bakar, chairman of the board of trustee and MK Land Holdings executive chairman, in their reports last September.

Source: The Star



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