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The Ape Crusader
by EMMA COX in Sumatra, Indonesia
Published: 04 Jul 2008
A PLUCKY Brit is single-handedly trying to save a rare species of orangutan from extinction.
Dr Ian Singleton runs the only sanctuary for the creatures in Sumatra, Indonesia, taking in apes rescued from cages or left homeless by ruthless loggers.
Experts estimate there are only 6,500 wild Sumatran orangutans left on the island — and it is predicted they will be the first great ape species to become extinct in as little as TWELVE years.
Scientists have recently discovered the Sumatran orangutans are a different species from their more famous Bornean relatives, making Ian’s battle even more important.
Since he started up the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme in 2001, he has saved 129 orangutans and released most of them back into the wild.
Among the animals he has rescued are Jarot an 18-month-old baby who was being kept as a pet when the SOCP team found him.
The little orphan had a cracked skull and Ian thinks he was probably injured as poachers shot his mother.
He says: “Orangutan mothers and babies cling to each other so the only way to get at the baby is to shoot the mother dead. Jarot was probably injured as his mother was killed. “You can still see the top of his head wobble when he eats, but he’s on the mend.
“Since we found him in February he has tripled his weight from 2.2kg to 6kg so he’s doing well.
“He’s the most adorable orangutan we’ve had here for a while.”
The creatures brought to Ian are first kept in a quarantine centre an hour away from the Sumatran capital, Medan, where they are tested for TB and treated by vets.
Hull-born Ian, 42, who worked as a keeper at Whipsnade, Edinburgh and Jersey zoos before moving to Indonesia, says: “Almost all of the cases we see are riddled with parasites — that’s the most common problem.
“We see other orangutans which have open wounds from where they’ve been chained up, often with maggots in them. And many others have gunshot wounds.
“I’d say 50 to 60 per cent of our arrivals are in a critical condition, but we have an operating theatre here and so far only seven of them have failed to make it, which is an excellent success rate.
“We can do quite sophisticated operations on them.
“Bolo, a ten-year-old who was shot by poachers, was given titanium rods in his broken leg and is doing well.
“Others aren’t so lucky. One of our current quarantined orangutans, Leuser, was shot with an air rifle and had 62 pellets in his skull.
“He’s blind and will never be released. Another, Tila, has hepatitis B and probably cannot be released, so we’re thinking of putting them in together.
“Some of the saddest cases we have are from Malaysia.
“The Malaysians take them from Sumatra and train them for circus shows.
“They’re dressed in cowboy hats and taught how to ride horses and so on.
“One of our orangutans, Harrid, could do a very convincing impression of a sea lion, which was presumably part of the show it was forced to be in. I’ve never heard anything like it.”
Shockingly, Ian estimates that 60 to 70 per cent of the orangutans that are kept as pets are owned as status symbols by the Sumatran police or military.
The rest are owned by politicians or the local mafia, while just five per cent are found at the homes of ordinary villagers.
After receiving tip-offs about orangutans being abandoned or kept illegally, Ian passes the details to the government’s forestry department, which seizes them.
They arrive at Ian’s quarantine camp in different states — but all need lots of love and care to get them well again.
Ian says: “They get fed every hour, we buy fresh fruit and vegetables for them and the babies have bottles of milk.
“Most of the orangutans we see have been fed on a dreadful diet of white rice, instant noodles and sweet tea.”
When apes are fit for release they are taken to another centre in the Bukit Tiga Puluh, a gruelling 36-hour drive away, where they are taught how to find protein-filled termites vital for their diet and climb trees before they are deemed fit to be released back into the wild.
At least two members of staff from Medan make the journey too, so there is a familiar face for them when they arrive.
Before the orangutans are released they are microchipped and their dental records and fingerprints are taken, so that the workers know the orangutan’s medical history should it run into trouble again.
Teams also follow them to make sure they are coping with life in the rainforest.
Throughout the whole rescue process, Ian tries to limit the amount of human contact the orangutans have.
He says: “The ones who have been beaten up and treated badly are actually easier to rehabilitate because they have had to learn to look after themselves. They’re tough.
“The trickiest are the ones who’ve been spoilt rotten and fed on cheese and grapes and slept in a human bed. They are far too humanised.”
It is not known what has happened to all of the orangutans released into the wild, but Ian does know that in 2004 the first baby, Suci, was born to one of his rehabilitated orangutans, Santi.
Now another baby, named Ian after him, has also been born to an orangutan released into the wild.
Ian says: “That’s a real sign of success — not only are we saving the captive orangutans, but we’re releasing them and they’re breeding in the wild.
“People think 6,500 sounds like a lot of orangutans, so what’s the problem?
Well, if you think that Old Trafford football stadium seats 70,000 football fans, that means the amount of orangutans we have left in Sumatra would only sit behind one of the goals. That’s not a lot at all.”
TV wildlife presenter Terry Nutkins praised Ian’s work.
He said: “Orangutans are very special creatures. I’ve felt welcomed by them and felt they had a lot to say. They’re highly intelligent — if they could speak in our language they would come up with some good ideas.
“Unless we human beings understand that greed is going to kill off our wildlife, if people continue to log and continue to destroy their habitat, they won’t stand a chance, and that would be very sad.”