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January 18, 2011

Do we really need an orang utan reserve in the Klang Valley?


How far will having another orang utan sanctuary, this time in the Klang Valley, go in saving the endangered species?

IT IS yet another case of the tom yam syndrome: “Orang utan sanctuaries in Sepilok, Sabah, and Semenggoh, Sarawak, have done very well in drawing the crowds. Hey, let’s do the same over in Peninsular Malaysia. Let’s set up an orang utan sanctuary right in the Klang Valley, so tourists need not travel all the way to Sabah and Sarawak to view the rare red apes. Never mind that there is already such an orang utan park at Bukit Merah Laketown Resort near Taiping, Perak. And never mind that the primate died out in the peninsula thousands of years ago. The Klang Valley wants its very own orang utan sanctuary.”

But leading orang utan scientists in the country and conservation groups are not at all happy with the idea. The plan is ill-conceived and lacks ecological reasoning, they argue.

Numerous questions have been raised: Why would we need another orang utan park when there is already the Orang Utan Island at Bukit Merah? Can the orang utans survive in peninsular forests? Won’t it drain already limited resources? Will this sanctuary serve any conservation purpose or is it merely a tourism product? Will wild orang utans have to be translocated from Sabah or Sarawak?

On display: Endangered red apes at Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island in Perak. A proposal to set up a sanctuary for the species in the Klang Valley has drawn criticisms from the conservation fraternity. – Pics by CHOU K.S.

Talk about the sanctuary surfaced a year ago, when Deputy Tourism Minister Datuk Dr James Mamit said the Prime Minister had mooted the idea and the park would be set up within the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia (FRIM) in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur. But FRIM officials denied such a plan.

All was quiet until late last year, when news reports quoting Mamit said that the sanctuary will be in either the Kanching or Ulu Gombak forest reserves in Selangor. The proposal remains sketchy and no information has been forthcoming from the ministry.

Scientists are sceptical and wary of the plan.

Dr Benoit Goossens who has worked on orang utans for 13 years in the area of population genetics and conservation, describes the idea of releasing orang utans into the wilds of Peninsular Malaysia as “totally irresponsible”.

“You’re transferring them to an environment where they disappeared from thousands of years ago. They’re adapted to Borneon and Sumatran forests and would not be able to cope in Peninsular Malaysia forests where there are different parasites and diseases,” says the adviser to Sabah Wildlife Department and director of Danau Girang Field Centre in Kinabatangan.

Training ground: Captive-born orang utans learn basic skills such as climbing and building nests at this man-made exercise yard at Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island .

“We have reintroduced species into the wild but this was for species which disappeared decades, not thousands, of years ago. I guarantee that it will be a failure. You will be sending orang utans to their deaths. We don’t even know which species occurred in the peninsula in the past. So releasing them into the wild is scientifically irresponsible,” he says.

Studies on what food is available in the forest for the orang utan and potential threats to their survival must be done prior to any releases, he adds.

He also does not support the idea of an orang utan sanctuary for tourists as it would duplicate existing facilities. “I don’t see the point of putting orang utans in yet another semi-captive environment in Peninsular Malaysia. There are already captive orang utans in zoos.”

Like many others, he believes money will be better spent if used to protect wild orang utans in Sabah and Sarawak rather than by setting up a sanctuary in the peninsula. “There is no conservation role in such parks. If you want to give a conservation message, then people should be encouraged to go to Borneo or Sumatra to see orang utans in their natural habitat.”

Reintroduction risks

Veterinarian Dr Marc Ancrenaz, director of Kinabatangan Orang Utan Conservation Programme in Sabah, too, disagrees with the release of orang utans into Peninsular Malaysia forests chiefly because the primate no longer exists in the wild there. The scientific adviser to Sabah Wildlife Department who has studied orang utans for the past 15 years, says orang utans are believed to have died out in the peninsula because of climatic changes and hunting.

He says that under International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) guidelines, reintroduction of species should be considered only if no other alternatives exist to save the species.

“But there are still wild orang utans in Sabah and Sarawak. So the plan to release orang utans will not be supported by IUCN. The priority should be to protect Sabah and Sarawak populations before reintroducing. We don’t know what disease the orang utans might bring to the new environment and there is also a risk of orang utans dying and not adapting. That’s why scientists are against the introduction of orang utans into Peninsular Malaysia. It is always difficult to release captive animals into the wild. Most will die.”

Ancrenaz asserts that a sanctuary, though useful for promoting public awareness, does little for conservation.

“Conservation is about protecting wild populations. We have to decide which is more important ... to secure wild populations or to use the species for tourism. The priority should be protecting wild populations, which can also be used for tourism.”

Duplicating efforts

S.M. Mohd Idris, president of Sahabat Alam Malaysia, sees the proposed project as the development of another tourist attraction and “has no relevance to conservation or to the well-being of the orang utan.”

“Tourism is not a panacea for orang utan conservation or revenue generation. We do not need another primate sanctuary where animals are treated like humans and hand-raised in nappies in a nursery.”

Rather than creating a new reserve, Idris urges the Government to develop management plans to ensure the long-term survival of the primate, particularly to address conversion of forest habitats to plantations.

He says the orang utans, if released into the forests, might adversely impact local ecosystems and species.

He says translocation would only be appropriate if the natural range of the orang utans in Borneo and Sumatra can no longer support the species or the species has been extirpated there.

“A thorough environmental impact study needs to be conducted to evaluate possible negative consequences of such relocation, involving wildlife managers, veterinarians, wildlife officials, primatologists and orang utan scientists and the result of the report must be made public,” says Idris.

The Malaysian Nature Society (MNS), too, fails to see the need for a new sanctuary, seeing that such facilities already exist and aid in ex situ conservation (outside of their natural habitat) of the species.

“Resources should be channelled to these places and not to another sanctuary, especially not to one that is outside the primate’s natural distribution,” says Yeap Chin Aik, MNS conservation department head. “Why not improve the orang utan conservation work and exhibit at Zoo Negara following modern zoological trends and concepts?”

He says no orang utans should be released into Peninsular Malaysia forests unless it is scientifically established that the species will have no negative impact on any of the other arboreal species of the Malaysian forest.

“Orang utan habitats are shrinking and being degraded by various land uses. If we have the funds, it’s better to channel it into orang utan habitat protection in East Malaysia, rather than to set up more man-made sanctuaries and rescue centres, especially those with misguided or no clear purposes,” says Yeap.

Should the sanctuary be set up, where will the apes come from? Authorities in Sabah and Sarawak have said they will not supply orang utans for the purpose of tourism. So chances are that the primates will have to be the captive-breds in existing peninsular zoos.

Another zoo?

Nobody knows for sure what form the sanctuary will take. But if tourism is the key driving force, it is unlikely that the orang utans will be left to roam freely in a large forest; they would then remain hidden and unseen.

In order to draw tourists, the sanctuary will surely have to be a semi-captive one so that the orang utans remain within sight of tourists and there will be scheduled feeding times (again for the benefit of tourists).

So however you call it – an orang utan sanctuary, park or reserve – the fact remains that the facility might well end up as just another zoo where the red apes are held captive and periodically released for public viewing, albeit in a larger and forested environment. Is this the kind of orang utan reserve to promote?

And rather than duplicating ongoing – and world-renowned – orang utan conservation efforts in Sabah and Sarawak, shouldn’t we instead concentrate on actual conservation work to preserve species found in the peninsula and which are facing graver threats, such as the Sumatran rhinoceros and Malayan tiger?



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