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Thursday October 24, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Thursday October 24, 2013 MYT 9:39:21 AM
Volunteers teaching baby orangutan orphans how to climb, at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan.
Day 2 (Part I)
THE day after our visit to United Plantations, which included a tour of the estate’s plantation, palm oil mill and biogas plant, we fly to orangutan country to meet the charismatic animals in person. Only two are hanging around the platform when we arrive at the Sepilok Orang-utan Rehabilitation Centre in Sandakan, Sabah.
This is a good thing. It means the rehabilitation programme is working, our guide tells us.
There are around 50 orangutans in the forest, where they belong. It’s usually the curious juveniles that return to snack on bananas and other goodies left out on the viewing platform; veterinarian and assistant manager for the Sabah Wildlife Department’s Wildlife Rescue Unit Diana Ramirez recognises the one staring curiously out at the deck of tourists.
Ramirez, originally from Mexico, has been working here for three years.
Apparently we just missed a big event – the release of a 20-year-old male rescued two and a half months ago.
“He was found near the Gomantong caves in Kinabatang, severely injured. We had to bring him back to perform surgery on him,” she says.
His release earlier in the week was a big deal. The injuries he suffered were from natural causes, maybe a fight with another male.
In fact, most of the orangutans Ramirez’ unit rescues these days are victims of floods, loss of habitat due to forest clearance for general development purposes, or because someone has made a call when one wanders onto an orchard.
“There has actually been a decline in the orangutans brought into our sanctuary,” Ramirez says.
The kind of images that go viral – scorched babies due to forest clearance by burning, to make way for oil palm plantations, are simply not the norm. Even confiscations of orangutans as pets by the Sabah Willdife Department have become rare.
When asked about her perspective on common anti-palm oil rhetoric centred around orangutan habitat destruction, Ramirez says some people are alarmists.
“For us, it’s about keeping a balance. In Sabah, especially, its economy is based on agriculture. However, whilst the pictures of scorched trees and orangutans lying burned on the ground may have applied a decade ago, things are very different today.”
This, she says, is due to stricter wildlife laws, and Sabah’s zero burning policy.
“This stuff might still be happening in other countries, but certainly not here. But even then, it is reducing.”
After we are done at the public viewing platform, we move to a smaller, restricted area, surrounded by a pond. On the far side of that is a series of suspended ropes, volunteers wearing face masks are teaching baby orangutan orphans how to climb.
I get chatting with wildlife ranger Elis Tambing, who has been working with the Sabah Willdife Department since 1987. He is 48 years old and of Dusun descent.
“My grandfather was traditionally a hunter, maybe it was God’s will that I am doing the work I do now,” he jokes.
One argument often thrown out in defence against the anti-palm oil lobby, is that boycotting palm oil won’t just hurt major growers, but smallholders.
I wonder what Elis, a native Sabahan, makes of this.
From his point of view, he tells me the palm oil industry has been instrumental in bringing development to rural folk.
“Back in the day, most villagers survived on subsistence farming,” he says.
“Poverty was common, and the only way to the nearest town was by boat.
“One advantage of the industry was the infrastructure it brought with it. It gave us roads, so people could move around more easily.”
Elis remembers the government began opening the land up for rubber plantations back in the 70s.
In the 90s, oil palm was pushed by the Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority and the Federal Land Development Authority, as a new source of economic development.
“All my uncles and cousins were given small, 15ha plots of land with which to plant oil palm.”
Today, Elis estimates that 60% of his family’s livelihoods are tied up with the industry.
Most are smallholders; some of his cousins have joined the big palm oil companies in search of long term career prospects, as estate managers.
“So yes, this industry is very important,” he says.
Tags / Keywords:
Environment, Environment, MPOC, french journalists, orangutans, sabah
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