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Call of the wild
Published on: Sunday, September 17, 2017

In the final episode of Borneo Wildlife Warriors, join the Wildlife Rescue Unit as they release a rescued mother and baby orangutan back in-to the wild…

IN the previous episode of Borneo Wildlife Warriors, viewers witnessed an extraordinary scene – a Wildlife Rescue Unit vet and her team fighting to rescue a orangutan and her baby from an oil palm plantation.

After shooting the mother with an anaesthetic dart, it looked as if the mission was complete.

That was, until the baby, desperately trying to shake its mother awake, fled into the undergrowth.

WRU vet Dr Laura Benedict wasted no time tackling the terrified infant – aided by SZtv presenter and ranger-in-training, Aaron "Bertie" Gekoski. Thankfully, Bertie stepped up to the plate, and helped Dr Laura and the rangers to rescue mother and baby. But the mission was far from over.

Dr Laura explains what happens next: "Any rescued orangutan will be brought back to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre for quarantine. A clean bill of health is required to enable these orangutans to be released back to a selected release site by the Sabah Wildlife Department".

Sepilok has been taking care of rescued orangutans since 1964; today, it is the WRU's eastern base of operations.

"Sepilok acts as a half way home for all the rescued orangutans, with the hope most of them can be re-turned back home. Of course in a real world, not all can".

Why are these beautiful creatures in need of this solution? The answer has become tragically repetitious.

"Due to further decrease in the overall habitat and even worse, habitat fragmentation, orangutans sometime travel out of the forest for food," WRU Operations Officer Benjamin Kotiu told me.

"After, most will find their way back into the forest. But we do observe orangutans who live in a plantation too, but of course this is not the best habitat for them, as they will be exposed to threats from irresponsible individuals but also diseases".

Living on the plantations is problematic both for plantation owners and orangutans.

For this reason, the WRU have conducted an extensive campaign to encourage landowners to contact them when orangutans and other wild animals are caught on their sites, in order to relocate them to safer territories.

As WRU ranger Ray Madius explained to me, it is always the WRU's priority to return rescued animals to the wild.

"These are wild orangutans that have not been habituated with humans and are in a good health condition," he said. "We have no right to keep them in captive or in a rehabilitation centre as they have no need of rehabilitation".

"Generally, releases are the best part of any rescue mission," Ray said. Alongside the vets, rangers play a crucial role in the rehabilitation process. Ray Madius is an established WRU ranger with experience of many releases.

"The rangers' task is carrying and handling the cage, which is very dangerous with a wild orangutan in the cage regardless the age. The animals or the ranger can get injured if the transportation crate is not handled properly".

At the moment of release, "the rangers will need to make sure that the cage is positions in the right way, if is shaking or not stable this may in-crease the stress in the orangutan; we need to open the door carefully hoping the animal will be quick to move towards the forest, back to the wild, as sometimes an stressed individual could turn back towards the team.

"Once the orangutan is out, we will check them for several minutes, sometimes hours depending on the situation; in this case, we must make sure that mother and baby remain together". It's a process that takes skill, nerve and good timing.

On the day of mother and baby's release, Dr Pakeeyaraj Nagalingam is the vet in charge together with the WRU rangers, Ray and Marcelleno selected by Benjamin for this assignment.

The decision is made to release the baby first; as the mother is more inclined to flee this will reduce the risk of harming or abandoning the baby in her rush to the forest. "By releasing the baby first, hopefully he will climb the tree," Marcelleno said.

"Then when his mother rushes up after him she will be suitably calm after escaping her captors that she will reunite with her young and they both will go off into the forest together."

Gently, carefully, the rangers return the baby to a nearby tree - it takes a moment to get used to the feel and smell of the forest, before climbing to wait in the canopy for its mother.

Next, the mother. The rangers are careful to place her cage in the right direction, so that the path of least resistance leads her straight to the baby. "She's really stressed," Hasni warned us.

"The sedative is wearing off. It's very hard to know what she might do, she might flee without a thought for her baby – she might even attack us." Dr Pakee is taking no chances – this will be a slow and steady operation.

The rangers were quiet, tense and ready. A loud thunk echoes through the forest as Ray unbolted the cage; Hasni and Bertie pull the grate aside. As her cage opens, the mother darts straight up the tree – faster than anyone had expected, and too fast to see if she had stopped for her infant. She didn't make a sound.

The forest is strangely silent.

The team scanned the forest nervously – until they have seen mother and baby together, there is no way of guaranteeing the two have reunited. After all this effort, the team could be leaving the baby to its death.

"There!" Hasni shouted – his keen eyes caught the double-flash of orange first – mother and baby, together in the treetops. The team resists shouting with delight as they watched mother and baby, looking back at their rescuers, before swinging off into the forest.

"The release moment will always give me the best feeling," Ray Madius said effusively, "to see them out again where they belong. Hopefully they will continue to live out in the wild in many more years to come".

The future looks tough for the orangutan. The human-animal conflict rages on, and orangutans have recently been upgraded to a critically endangered species. Despite this, the WRU team remains as determined as ever.

"It's not the end of our fight, its just means we need to work harder," said Benjamin.

"We in the WRU want to rescue animals in need and release them to where they belong in the forest," Ray said.

"They spend time In Sepilok in quar-antine to ensure their health status and they should be released back to a forest reserve away from humans".

For the orangutans of Borneo to survive, we all need to respect the natural world around us; whether that means thinking about calling the WRU when one of these amazing creatures appears on your land, or thinking carefully about the origins and consequences of your supermarket shopping, we all have a role to play.

"To the people out there, please appreciate our precious treasure. Appreciate and protect our forest and its content," Ray said. Let us hope his words are widely echoed.

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