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Aiding the great Esc-Ape
Published on: Wednesday, September 13, 2017

For the last year or so, the Wildlife Rescue Unit has allowed a film unit from Kota-Kinabalu based production company SZtv to join them, as they bend themselves to the task of wildlife care and conservation in Sabah.

The experiences and challenges they revealed to the SZtv team continually amazed all those involved.

But perhaps most of all, it was the team's latest mission with the WRU that brought out the most intrinsic and powerful emotions in us all; from our hosts to our crew, and the creatures we were trying to help.

At the heart of the story, a mother and baby orangutan.

After the success of the bull elephant relocation [covered in last week's article], photojournalist and SZtv presenter Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski was once again paired with WRU ranger Hasni Kounig, working alongside WRU wildlife vet Dr. Laura Benedict. "The ranger plays a key role in the search for the orangutan", Hasni tells me.

"We help guide and assist the veterinarian to rescue and treat orangutans before being taken to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center".

Role of the Ranger Benjamin Kotiu is the WRU operations officer; but he too has spent his time in the ranks of the rangers.

"Rangers play a key role in each operation, from the smallest slow loris to the biggest elephant", he says.

"With only 18 WRU rangers it is getting hard to cover all Sabah territory and attend any human-wildlife conflict that we receive". Benjamin is in charge of team coordination, assigning rangers' duties and operations in the unit; it is a job that is growing more difficult with every operation. However, Benjamin's determination to work with the materials available to him is what has made him one of the WRU's most valuable team members.

"We work with what we have", he says proudly, "even if that means sending sometimes one ranger and one vet to an operation".

"Our role is dynamic", Hasni tells me. "as WRU rangers, we have been trained to be able to attend any kind of wildlife conflicts". The joy of the job, as well as it's key challenge, is that "it keeps changing based on the need of each situation and the veterinarian's instructions". Hasni is a veteran of these missions; he knows well what has to be done. "We do all that is necessary to rescue this wildlife without hurting them or get hurt".

A Changing Land
Like all Sabahan wildlife, the orangutan has had to adapt to the advance of human industrial expansion.

The WRU has observed how orangutans continue to travel to what was once forest, despite now being fully developed. "We have observed orangutans living in plantations too," Dr Laura notes; "feeding not only on oil palm fruits but also from leaves and wild fruits from the bushes growing in the area".

However, not all wildlife is equally well adapted to the harsh inorganic environments humans are accustomed to.

"Of course this is not the best habitat for them", Laura continues, "as they will be exposed to threats from irresponsible individuals but also diseases due to the proximity to humans".

The Rescue
When Laura, Hasni, Bertie, and fellow ranger Arnold Supil arrived on the scene, they knew time was against them. "The biggest challenge during the rescue is the location; the topography of the area" Hasni says.

"The height of the trees, the thickness of the forest in terms of shrub density and weather factors"— all these can prevent a team from accessing the orangutan, long before one can even consider rescuing it.

The mother and baby had built a nest in a ragged, remote tree stump, exposed on all sides.

As orangutans move through the palms, they can accidentally damage the leaves and fruits; however, instead of chasing or attacking the orangutan, the plantation owner called the WRU.

This call alone is testimony to the increasing effectiveness of the WRU's strategy in Sabah.

Alongside rescue operations the WRU also carries out public awareness work among local communities, so Sabahans can understand the importance of wildlife and reporting human-animal encounters to the WRU, instead of taking action on their own.

"Communication is key" Hasni stresses, "so more ideas to solve the problem can be generated to save time and reduce possible risks". However, those solutions can only be implemented when the public themselves take part in minimising human-animal conflict.

The Baby's Escape
Once the team encountered the orangutans, the situation swiftly escalated.

The mother orangutan's resistance to capture was remarkable; for hours, she hid herself and her baby in the heart of the plantation and bushes.

Ducking and diving through the maze of trees, the WRU team simply could not keep up.

Finally, despite enormous pressure to avoid darting the baby, Dr. Laura managed to fire an anaesthetic dart into the mother orangutan; but it wasn't enough to stop the desperate mother making her escape.

Hasni had to keep on tracking her; with his help and signals Laura managed to catch the orangutan with a second dart.

"For orangutan rescues, we do all that we can to assist the veterinarian throughout the procedure" Arnold says.

Safety for both animal and humans is paramount; "while handling orangutans you will always see us wearing what we call the Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) as we are aware of the high possibility on sharing diseases between humans and orangutans".

As the mother slipped into sedation, Hasni noticed a reddish shape still moving. It was the baby, desperately trying to shake its mother awake. The team fell silent— the baby saw its chance, and fled.

Laura dived into the bush, Bertie hot on her heels. As the baby tired to flee into the trees, Laura sprang onto it, wrestling frantically to prevent it from escaping. With Hasni and Arnold dealing with the mother, Bertie was the only team member close enough to help.

Hasni recalls the tension in that moment; "Honestly I do not know if Bertie was ready but since he wanted to be a WRU Ranger, he had to take the challenge regardless whether he was ready or not".

"Bertie has some knowledge about orangutans based on watching and learning from the vets of WRU, so this was a test for him to apply his knowledge and common sense into the equation during the rescue."

The Orangutan Babysitter
It was a wild struggle— even as babies, orangutans are remarkably strong, and this one was desperate to bite and lash out. "No wonder", Bertie muses; "it must have thought we had killed its mother".

Cooing to the baby like a human child, Bertie held the panicking ape close, long enough for Laura to slip a specially concocted anaesthetic into the baby's leg. Gradually, the baby slipped into unconsciousness— and peace settled again over the plantation.

The rescue was a success— but that was only the first half of the story. However much the vets and rangers love working with these beautiful animals, they cannot wait to complete the job— and release mother and baby into the wild. Arnold sums it up best; "We in the WRU want to rescue animals in need and release them to where they belong in the forest".

The Wildlife Rescue Unit (WRU) was created in 2010 in response to an urgent need to address human-wildlife conflicts and conservation issues in Sabah. The WRU is the brainchild of the then Director of the Sabah Wildlife Department, Datuk Dr. Laurentius Ambu, and the Assistant Director, wildlife veterinarian Dr. Sen Nathan.

Presently, the unit is fully sponsored by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC).

Currently the unit is headed by its acting manager Dr Diana Ramirez; with 23 staff, the WRU has the responsibility to assist the wildlife department in: human wildlife conflict issues, animal rescue and translocations, enforcement, public awareness and other duties.

SZtv is the original production arm of Scubazoo, based in Kota Kinabalu. For over twenty years, Scubazoo have been making world-class wildlife documentaries about Sabah, its inhabitants, and its uniquely luscious landscapes— above and below the water!

In series two of Borneo Wildlife Warriors, we rejoin presenter Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski as he continues his journey into the heart of wildlife conservation in Borneo, training to become a ranger with the Wildlife Rescue Unit.

In their latest episode, Laura, Bertie and Hasni face a delicate challenge— rescuing a mother orang utan and her baby from death on the plantation.

This 6-part series reaches its finale in next week's episode, released Wednesday on SZtv's website, YouTube and Facebook.

For more information, check out Borneo Wildlife Warriors on SZtv.

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