Orang-utans stressed when seeing tourists

KINABATANGAN: A study conducted by HUTAN – Kinabatangan Orang-utan Conservation Programme (HUTAN-KOCP) and the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD) together with Indiana University has concluded that orang-utans in the forest are aware of human presence and shows signs of short-term stress when “exposed” to tourists and visitors.

“We conducted this study to ascertain whether tourists and visitors coming into our study site to see orang-utans in their natural forest environment have an affect on them and if so, how do we minimise this,” scientific director of HUTAN-KOCP, Dr March Ancrenaz, said yesterday.

The Sabah-based French non-governmental organisation, HUTAN – KOCP, has been studying orang-utans in their natural forest environment in the State with the SWD since 1998 with emphasis on the wildlife rich Kinabatangan region.

“What we found were hormonal indications that orang-utans in the forest have a spike of the stress hormone cortisol during exposure to tourists,” said Ancrenaz.

According to Ancrenaz,  this indicates that the orang-utans are very aware of the tourists and are ready to “fight or flee” if the need arises.

“However, this wasn’t long-term stress as samples from before the arrival of the tourists were absent of the same stress hormone.  To equate it to human terms, it’s like the stress most of us feel when we are driving and see police along the road.  And even though we might not have done nothing wrong, we feel on edge and this is how these orang-utans are reacting to tourists and visitors,” explained Ancrenaz.

SWD director Dr Laurentius Ambu meanhile said that the study showed that it is absolutely crucial to have strict guidelines when engaging with orang-utans in their natural forest environment.

“We did this study with community-based Red Ape Encounter tours based in Sukau and they use strict guidelines on the number of tourists and length of time spent in the forest observing the orang-utans. We hope that other tourism operators that bring tourists to see orang-utans along the riverbanks and forests also adhere to such protocols which are also part of international guidelines,” said Laurentius.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Best Practices Guidelines for Surveys and Monitoring of Great Apes for research and also Best Practices for Great Ape Tourism were developed by HUTAN – KOCP with SWD and Red Ape Encounters and are available on line.

“Following the guidelines, the short-term stress caused can be minimised and tourists who come to see orang-utans in the forest can do so responsibly,” added Laurentius.

The study was conducted over a four-year period from the time of gathering samples in the field to processing of data.

The findings of this study were recently published in the peer reviewed online journal PLos ONE with the title, ‘Ape Conservation Physiology: Fecal Glucocorticoid Responses in Wild Pongo pygmaeus morio following Human Visitation’.

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