Leo Biddle - Head of Conservation blogs on his new challenge to build a new wildlife centre for orangutans in Borneo.
Over the last 6 years of coordinating The Great Projects orangutan volunteering programs in Borneo called The Great Orangutan Project, I’ve been continually surprised at how much can be achieved with the donations and illimitable enthusiasm that each one of you, the volunteers, has brought for improving the conservation or animal welfare goals of each project.In 2007, for example, Aman (the great alpha male) was the world's first orangutan to receive a eye cataract operation at the Matang Wildlife Centre; in 2009 female orangutans Chiam & Ganti with their orangutan babies were released and live free in the rainforest. The orangutans Ali and Ting San spend many of their days in the jungle soon to be joined by orangutans Catherine, George and one day Doris. The baby orangutans Simangan and Lingga have against the odds survived their machete and gunshot wounds and I am confident that when older they too will return to the rainforest.
I am in no doubt that the contributions you, the orangutan volunteers, all have made financially, and in your collective efforts to improve Matang Wildlife Centre, has enabled us to save the lives of at least 10 of the orangutan now at Semenggoh & Matang; along with the rescue and survival of hundreds of other endangered or protected animals.
I’ve also been fortunate to see the significant development in the reach and impact of The Great Projects (aka WOX) to help endangered apes; from expanding our volunteering model to several other orangutan rehabilitation centres across Borneo as well as to working with animals abroad such as volunteer with gorillas and chimpanzees in Africa.
Despite the progress of our own organisation however one cannot ignore the fact that at the same time great ape populations have continued to diminish, perhaps none so alarmingly as that of the orangutan’s. Unfortunately experts aren’t making it up when they forecast their imminent extinction; likely to be the first of the great apes in recorded history.
The sustained genocide against our furry cousins continues almost unabated. Their habitat is still being burnt and converted at a catastrophic rate; adults are still shot as agricultural pests, while the meat of mothers is sold openly on markets as their orphans languish in cruel captivity for human amusement or profit.
Sadly the situation is not significantly improving; I fear it is actually getting worse. Given how low the orangutan numbers have fallen even minor levels of predation place the remnant populations under an ever increasing strain. If not for the existence of a handful of organisations working ceaselessly to safeguard fragments of habitat, or providing rescue & succour for the refugees of the forest, one wonders if there would still exist a sliver of hope for this ape’s continued existence.
Some of you will recall us saying that no matter how bad things were for orangutan within Sarawak, they were much worse in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) where the vast majority of the remaining wild orangutan remain. Below Sarawak lies the province of Western Kalimantan where I have personally seen many orangutan being held illegally during my time in Borneo. Until very recently there has not been anywhere to take these animals to, coupled with a relative lack of NGO presence to represent them.
Last year a UK charity, famous for ending the practise of dancing bears in India - International Animal Rescue, began to establish a base in Western Kalimantan near a town called Ketapang to temporarily hold rescued orangutan. They have already successfully rescued a number of orangutan; including one some of you might remember ‘Mely’ who’d been chained to a post in Sambas for 15 years.
International Animal Rescue are very focused on wanting to rehabilitate and return as many of the rescued orangutan to the wild as they can; as well as working to stem the flow of fresh ones from the wild and freeing the potentially hundreds of illegally held orangutan in the region. For me their entry into this area is one of the most needed and significant initiatives of the last decade in orangutan conservation and we have decided to throw the full weight of our orangutan project in support of them.
The reality is that we are only able to find so many volunteers for our working with animal projects each year and with our work in Sarawak, Sabah and in Eastern Kalimantan we are already overstretched. Consequently I have made the difficult decision to temporarily stop receiving volunteers at Matang in order to concentrate our efforts in Ketapang. Helping to build, from scratch, a new rehabilitation centre in Ketapang; on a project that both Natasha and I will be leading.
There obviously remains an immense amount of work that is still required at Matang and I do not pretend that rehabilitation and development at the centre will not stall whilst we send our volunteers elsewhere. However of all our project sites Matang is in the most robust position and we do feel that the local staff can maintain the centre as it is until our volunteers return. Eddie, Alvin & Richard will remain and we have set aside money for food and veterinary treatment as required for the animals.
Conversely by sending our volunteer’s enthusiasm, donations and labour to Ketapang I genuinely believe we will achieve the maximum outcome possible for orangutan and if successful be instrumental in saving the lives of one or more hundred orangutan.
Over the last 6 years I have never appealed to you all for more help, for us or the orangutan, as I already appreciate how much you’ve given and done. But this will potentially be the highest impact we can make in the shortest possible time and in my view is the most direct route to enabling people’s money or time help save as many orangutan lives possible.
If any of you are in a position to do so I would ask you to consider donating what you can to International Animal Rescue which will go towards building the new centre.
Donate to International Animal Rescue
If your colleagues or friends are interested in maintaining a planet with orangutan please try to convince them to support the effort, perhaps some of you might have time to arrange a talk about your own experiences during a coffee morning or pub quiz etc and donate any proceeds or raise awareness.
If you find you’ve been missing leeches and humidity you would be most welcome to join us in this latest and challenging project as we literally lay the foundations for many orangutan’s future. The project will be different to Matang or Samboja and very focused on building; not for the faint hearted but definitely for those seeking the frontline of orangutan conservation. Click below for the new orangutan volunteer programme, and help us build a wildlife centre for orangutans in Borneo.
Build a Future for Orangutans
I hope that all of you are well and I hope that some of you will be able to help us in some way.I’m reminded that the future of the orangutan and other great apes will inevitably be decided within our lifetimes and that the only chance for a positive outcome will be decided by the actions of those that care for them. Hence I turn to those of you I know already care and thank you for your continued support.
My very best wishes to you all
Head of Conservation - The Great Projects