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Tuesday January 3, 2006

Lessening the pain

So similar is the orang utan to humans that an illustration book on the human anatomy was used for reference by Swiss orthopaedic surgeon Dr Andreas Messikommer.  

Pointing to the three main interconnected nerves and bone structure in the human elbow, Messikommer explained the gun shot injury sustained by Bolo, a three-year-old female orang utan received by the Sumatran Orang Utan Conservation Programme (SOCP) recently.  

Wounded orang utans are common in Sumatra where habitat destruction is forcing the ape to intrude into orchards and oil palm plantations in search of food. Locals have no qualms about shooting them.  

Initially slated to have her limb amputated to stop further infection, Bolo was lucky that Messikommer was willing to take time off his private practice in Switzerland to operate on her left elbow. 

An orang utan confiscated from Sumatra with a severe bullet wound on its arm is prepared for surgery by Dr Andreas Messikommer (right). --Photo by LAI VOON LOONG
Like humans, Bolo will be fitted with metal plates and she will be able to utilise her left arm with minor restriction. She can still swing among the trees but will not be able to bend her elbow to feed herself.  

Messikommer is no stranger to operating on orang utans, a newfound vocation for the Swiss who had volunteered his service to tsunami victims last year. Last February, he performed a hernia operation on a young male orang utan rescued from Lohksumawae on the east coast of Aceh. The orang utan, named Jondel, has joined four other orang utans in preparation to be released at the Bukit Tigapuluh National Park. 

Jondel and Bolo’s plight might be the extreme cases but most rescued orang utans suffer physical abuse and psychological disorder from long-term confinement or torments from their keepers. SOCP scientific director Dr Ian Singleton said owners tend to chain up young orang utans and fail to adjust the leash as the animals grow.  

“By the time the animal is in pain from the metal leash that has cut into their flesh, there is no way the owners can undo the leash as the tortured ape will bite them. Most just leave them alone and only call in the authorities when the animal is near death.” 

The centre has treated many such cases and sent the animals back to the wild.  

While physical injury can be treated with relative ease, orang utans with neurological problems pose a greater challenge. Time is needed to rehabilitate them. 

Singleton said Lita, the oldest of the lot repatriated by Malaysia, exhibits the behaviour of an animal that has been in solitary confinement for a long period. However, he is hopeful that Lita could be treated and will join the other five scheduled for reintroduction in mid-2006. – By Hilary Chiew  

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