Ensuring survival of orangutans


A photo shows the famous ‘Ritchie’, named after the journalist who bought it at Lubok Antu town in the 1980s, and immediately surrendered it to the centre. — Photo courtesy of SFC

THE gazettement of vast tracts of land in Sarawak as areas of habitat for the orangutans signifies the state government’s commitment in ensuring the protection of this great ape species.

To date, the state government has gazetted around 208,000 hectares of areas for the conservation of orangutans, encompassing Batang Ai National Park (BANP) and Lanjak-Entimau Wildlife Sanctuary (LEWS).

According to Sarawak Forestry Corporation (SFC) senior conservation officer Sundai Silang, these areas are intended as the core habitat zones for the orangutans.

Sundai Silang

Additionally, there are two more national parks also gazetted as the habitat for these great apes: the Ulu Sebuyau National Park covering 18,287 hectares and was gazetted in July 2010, and Sedilu National Park covering 6,311 hectares and gazetted in September 2010.

Moreover, there are also habitat areas designated outside the Totally Protected Areas (TPA) that include Ulu Menyang and Telaus, both in Batang Ai, and Ulu Pasin near Katibas.

“In Sarawak, national parks that have the most orangutans are mostly in the second division (Sri Aman, Betong and Saratok near to the BANP), Kuching, some parts of Kapit by virtue of LEWS, Ulu Sebuyau National Park, Sedilu National Park (in Simunjan), and Gunung Lesong National Park (in Sri Aman division).

“Apart from these, we have more areas being proposed for conservation in Ulu Menyang and Telaus. Some of these areas are subjected to the Native Customary Right (NCR) land status; however, the state government has identified them as being important areas for orangutans,” says Sundai.

Areas of conservation

The orangutans in Sarawak are grouped under the sub-species Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus, and it is estimated that their number is between 2,000 and 2,500, with almost 90 per cent of them are found in the BANP.

A male orangutan’s home range can cover between 1,000 and 2,000 hectares; this range can even be up to 3,000 to 4,000 hectares if the land is undisturbed.

A SFC ranger oversees the feeding time at the orangutan sanctuary. — Photo courtesy of SFC

Sundai recalls a previous proposal for logging to be undertaken in Ulu Menyang, but this was cancelled as SFC had voiced out to the state government about the presence of a good population of orangutans there.

“Until now, that area has not been proposed for any major development such as plantation or logging.

“Ulu Menyang has between 150 and 200 orangutans.

“There are some small-scale developments for community projects, in view of the area being subjected to NCR land status.

“That area is not under SFC per se, and neither it is under TPA; it is partly under the Forest department.

“If I’m not mistaken, it has been proposed to be made into a special conservation area.

“However, should the state government ask us, we could propose it as a special conservation area and later on, we would declare it to be under a national park – if the locals would accept the idea.

“Last time, the government proposed to extend the Batang Ai National Park area into Ulu Menyang as a special area for orangutan conservation, but it was opposed by the locals.

“Once it becomes a special area, then the agency can access it; otherwise, the NCR land plots still belong to the community there,” Sundai elaborates.

An aerial view of the Batang Ai National Park. — Photo courtesy of SFC

It goes without saying that the areas designated by the state government as orangutan habitat are not meant for logging.

In this regard, Sundai says the wildlife activities in Sarawak are controlled because of the existence of licensing laws, as well as the wildlife protection ordinance.

“In Sarawak, we are quite lucky. I can say almost 90 per cent of our orangutan population is inside the TPA; that is how the state government protects and conserves the orangutans.”

In relation to this, he says the state government has targeted one million hectares of TPA by 2025, and at the moment, the coverage is nearly 880,000 hectares.

“The 880,000 hectares only consist of land; if you were to include bodies of water, the total estimated coverage could be 2.1 million hectares.

Governing laws

Meanwhile, SFC head of enforcement and protection division Madhan Kifle says under Section 24 of Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998, no person shall enter any wildlife sanctuary unless he first obtains a written permission from the Controller of Wild Life.

“No permit, no entry,” he points out.

“Except for national parks and nature reserves, where the visitors are allowed to enter upon paying the entrance fees.”

Madhan Kifle

Back on the Ordinance, he says it provides for the protection, management and conservation of wildlife species in Sarawak.

“The Ordinance lays down procedures to protect and manage the species, especially against hunting, keeping them in captivity and cruelty. Under Section 28, it says that the Minister has the right, which in his opinion is necessary, for the conservation of wildlife or geological or physiographical features of a land.”

He adds that as far as logging is concerned, SFC has already issued a circular on prohibiting hunting of any wild animals in the licensed area.

“Should anyone be found to have violated this directive, action could be taken as stipulated in the Ordinance. The circular was issued by (SFC) Controller in 2021.”

On SFC’s awareness programme, Madhan says it covers visits to the logging camps, plantations, longhouses, schools and settlements in the remote pockets.

“The SFC has this division, Conservation, Education and Training Department (CE&T) that conducts training and education.

“We also appoint Honorary Wildlife Rangers (HWR) among those working at the camps and plantations, as well as those in the longhouses.

“They are the ‘eyes’ of the SFC.

“Throughout Sarawak, we have more than 1,000 HWRs and they are doing this voluntarily.

“They would report to the SFC matters relating to wildlife around them.

“We have been receiving reports from them, though not many – probably less than 20 cases from 2021 till present, and these reports are not specifically on orangutans, but on wildlife in general.”

Talking further about wildlife, Madhan says the local longhouse folks are allowed to hunt animals like some birds, pangolin, wild boar and deer, but only for their own consumption.

“They can consume (the meat), but they cannot sell anything. Even for their own consumption, there’s a 5kg limit. If it’s more than 5kg, we could tell the ‘intention to sell’.

“Another scenario – if you’re found to be transporting wild animal meat to the nearest town, and upon being stopped by any enforcement personnel, you’re found to be carrying more than 5kg, it would indicate the intention to sell, and you could be brought in for questioning and subject to an investigation,” he stresses, adding that at the moment, the major threats to wildlife protection di Sarawak are indiscriminate land development, poaching and illegal wildlife trade.

‘Orangutans and us’

The orangutan’s DNA is 95 per cent to 97 per cent similar to a human’s, and its average lifespan is 50 years.

A male usually reaches maturity stage at 13 years old, having developed cheek pads and also a ‘moustache’. At 17, it would have reached the dominant stage.

The female orangutan, about half the size of a male, can bear its young upon reaching the age of 10, and gestation is almost similar to that of a human – between eight and nine months. However, once it has given birth, there would be an interval of six to eight years when it would get pregnant again.

The first orangutan that arrived at the 653-hectare Semenggoh Wildlife Centre in Kuching was named ‘Bullet’. It was found in 1974 by a medical doctor, who removed a bullet that was lodged in its skull; hence, the name.

At the time, there was no law banning people from keeping wild animals at home, so the doctor continued to look after Bullet as it was recovering from the surgery.

In 1975, the law was enforced and the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre was established.

According to Madhan, from 1975 to the 1990s, the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre had received 43 orangutans, brought in voluntarily by the people who found them. — Photo courtesy of SFC

The doctor then surrendered Bullet to the centre, which took care of it until its death in the 1990s.

Visitors to the Matang Wildlife Centre can still see Bullet’s taxidermied body in a glass display there.

The second orangutan at the Semenggoh centre was a female. ‘Seduku’ was found in Lingga, under the Sri Aman Division, in 1978. Prior to that, she was kept as a pet by a local resident.

At 52 years old, Seduku is currently the oldest orangutan at the sanctuary.

The famous ‘Ritchie’ was found in Lubok Antu town in the 1980s, where it was being put up for sale. Renowned journalist James Ritchie bought the orangutan for RM400, and immediately after that, he surrendered it to the centre.

Ritchie is now 42 years old.

As mentioned earlier, Semenggoh Wildlife Centre is surrounded by a vast forest reserve and the orangutans are free to roam around, as it should be.

At times, some orangutans would not be in sight for quite a period.

In this regard, the rangers are always on the lookout for those that have not returned to the centre’s compound.

For now, Seduku and Ritchie are believed to still be roaming in the jungle within the reserve.

Big no to keeping orangutans as pets

Madhan says in many cases, those who are not aware of the law against keeping an orangutan as a pet, have surrendered the animal voluntarily.

He also says there is no case of any orangutan being kept by any prominent figures, but there are those who keep hornbills.

“We have identified two prominent figures (who keep those hornbills) and we have visited them, informing them to apply for licence.

“The hornbills kept by them are not classified as protected species, so that’s why we allow the issuance of the permit.”

According to Madhan, from 1975 up until the 1990s, the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre had received 43 orangutans, brought in voluntarily by the people who found them.

“Some were found injured. They were taken care of by some concerned folks, who later brought the orangutans to the centre.

“If the folks surrendered the orangutans to us, there would be no legal action.

“The law forbids anyone from keeping orangutans in captivity in any place; however, the Controller may give a special permit in writing – only for scientific, educational, protection and conservation purposes.

“So far, since the establishment of SFC in 2020, there has not been any report about people keeping orangutans as pets.”

Nonetheless, Madhan is quick to remind everyone a provision under Sarawak Wild Life Protection Ordinance 1998, pertaining to the endangered orangutan and proboscis monkey:
‘Any person found hunting, killing or capturing the animal; or having in possession of the animal or any recognisable part or derivative thereof; would face a two-year imprisonment and a fine of RM30,000, upon conviction’.