Orangutan News: Islands of Sanctuary for Endangered Orangutans

By Ollie Milman for theage.com.au

An ambitious project, led by a Melbourne zookeeper, to create a series of  man-made islands for sick and injured orangutans in Indonesia, is a step closer  after an Australian fund-raising drive.

Earth 4 Orangutans has secured 48 hectares in the northern part of Sumatra  after raising a $150,000 down payment on the land from Australian donors,  including Melbourne advertising executive Ted Horton and his wife Miche. It is understood they gave a significant sum towards the project.

The initiative is the brainchild of Jessica McKelson, head primate keeper at  Melbourne Zoo, and Dr Ian Singleton, conservation director at the Sumatran  Orangutan Conservation Program (SOCP) in Indonesia.

Two other orangutan non-government organisations, based in Britain and the US, are also backing the scheme, as well as the Australian-based network The Orangutan Project.

The project intends to relocate sick and injured orangutans, which are unable to be released into the wild and are languishing in cages at the SOCP quarantine centre, Batu Mbelin. A chain of four islands will be created by  digging moats around the land. Orangutans, which are afraid of water, will be free to roam on the islands.

Orangutans are critically endangered due to the clearing of forests for palm  oil in Indonesia, the last country in which the flame-haired apes are found in  the wild. They also suffer from direct contact with humans, with many shot or  captured illegally. Human diseases such as hepatitis are also passed on to  them.

Ms McKelson said she was thrilled the project had attracted support. ”I  didn’t think it was possible 12 months ago, but now we have land secured, which  is a vital first step. This will be the first time that something has been built like this in Indonesia.”

A crucial part of the project will be an education centre at the site, aimed  at the locals. The centre will highlight the threats orangutans and other  animals face from forest clearing and traditional medicine, which results in  animals such as fruit bats and tigers being killed and eaten in the erroneous belief they cure diseases.

”No one has tried to educate the middle-class business people, the guys with  the nice cars in the top networks,” Dr Singleton said. ”At Melbourne or Sydney zoo, you’d get a strong education message, whereas the zoos here are all terrible, apart from, arguably, the ones in Bali. But even there you have people throwing peanuts at the animals and laughing at them.

”The perception of animals in Indonesia is alien to what we’d find  acceptable. But showing people the animals and issues in a conducive setting could have a big impact.”

Initially, four orangutans will be moved to the islands after construction, set to start later this year, is completed.

The group will include an orangutan with hepatitis and another that has been blinded after being shot with an air rifle.

The project is looking to raise about $1 million to complete the islands.  Donors will be able to ”buy” blocks of land in five-metre-square minimums  through the Earth 4 Orangutans website to reach the target.

”Orangutans are ideal educational ambassadors, so they make a great flagship for the program,” Ms McKelson said. ”They also deserve a better  future than sitting in a cage. Ultimately, though, we have to do more to  conserve their habitat. You put one road through their habitat and its splits one viable population into two unviable populations.

”In Australia, we need to import 100 per cent sustainable palm oil. We should try to be a leader in this area and hit that target by 2015, like other nations such as the Netherlands have done.

”Demand here in Australia can change the industry and help the  orangutans.”

This article originally appeared in and is courtesy of theage.com.au website.

OC edit and links by Tom.  Photo courtesy of SOCP.

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