Orangutan or Man of the Jungle. Photo: Bernama

By Nur Adika Bujang

(First of two articles on the endangered orangutans of Sabah)

SANDAKAN: The movement control order (MCO) over Covid-19 has come as a blessing in disguise for the endangered orangutans of Sabah.

The MCO, in force from March 18 to April 14, has forced the closure of the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near here, and this is seen as vital in keeping the great apes safe from the coronavirus disease.

Centre manager Sylvia Alsisto said this is the first time the centre had to close its doors to the public in over 55 years since its establishment but it is most necessary although the collection of funds from the visitors’ entrance fees is affected.

She said there is an adequate financial allocation from the Sabah government to run the facility, one of the world’s longest-surviving rehabilitation centres.

Alsisto said orangutans or “men of the jungle” and humans share 96 per cent of their DNA sequence.

“They (orangutans), therefore, can contract the same kind of diseases that humans can,” she told Bernama.

Echoing a joint statement by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC) Wildlife Health Specialist Group and the Primate Specialist Group Section on Great Apes, Alsisto said it is not known yet if great apes like orangutans are susceptible to the Covid-19 virus.

However, she said, there is enough scientific evidence to show that the great apes are susceptible to human respiratory pathogens and it is safe to assume that the primates can contract Covid-19.

“It is crucial that immediate steps are taken to control the risks because of the orangutan present number and its status as critically endangered,” she said.

Alsisto said that even with the MCO in force, the orangutans at the centre are well looked after by the in-house veterinarians and keepers.

The amount of work remains the same although the number of staff had to be reduced by half from about 50 in all, she added.

Alsisto said the centre has more than 60 orangutans, 40 of which are under the centre’s care and the rest are free-roaming.

Asked whether the centre will remain closed to the public after the MCO is lifted, she said the decision is in the hands of the state government and it will determine whether further precautionary measures need to be taken.

Meanwhile, Orangutan Appeal UK (OAUK) founder and chairman Datuk Susan Sheward said the existence of the orangutans is important to the survival of the ecosystem of the rainforests.

“Without orangutans, the ecosystem stands little chance of survival and without a suitable rainforest home, the orangutans will become extinct in the wild.

“(Therefore) without the orangutans, the lungs of the earth will struggle to breathe,” she said.

Sheward said OAUK is doing everything it can to assist the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre ensure that the primates there stay healthy and safe.

“This disease (Covid-19) can be fatal for the already critically-endangered orangutans. It is a risk that we cannot afford to take,” she said.

A scientific study, in which Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) Malaysia was involved, found that there was a 30 per cent decline in the number of orangutans in the lowlands of Sabah between 2002 and 2017.

It also found that the primate population remained stable with more than 70 per cent found in the state’s totally protected areas following the implementation of effective forest management practices.

According to the study, there were 5,376 orangutans in 2002 and the population increased to 5,933 in 2017.

Sabah has remained as Malaysia’s stronghold in the conservation of orangutans which number just over 71,000 spread out throughout Borneo and Sumatra. – Bernama