When volun-tourism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be’ – ‘It was pretty much a zoo’

Posted in 24/07/2018

(Fair Go)

By Garth Bray (Fair Go)

Orangutans are being kept in cages for up to 14 hours a day without drinking water at a self-described research facility in Malaysia, a Fair Go investigation has revealed.

Bukit Merah Orang Utan Island Sanctuary defended its treatment of the critically endangered animals, saying cages are necessary to protect the orangutans and local fishermen from each other.

The centre’s chief executive, Dr Sabapathy Dharmalingam, also defends depriving the orangutans of fresh drinking water:

“You put anything in their cages like water supply they’ll dismantle the thing within minutes.”

The conditions came to light after Fair Go was contacted by Amanda Rowland, 21, an upset and unhappy volunteer who had paid over $3000 to visit the centre for a month in January.

Amanda had been sold the trip as a chance to work at a temporary holding facility for orangutans rescued from illegal possession.

“It was pretty much a zoo and that’s not what I agreed to be part of.”

Amanda was put to work preparing meals – rice with fish or egg, day after day. Each day she was also told to prepare and feed the orangutans a mixture of watermelon pulp and sugar solution – even though it’s been known in zoos for a decade that dental problems are a major killer of orangutans.

“Why are we giving wild animals sugar water?”

Amanda says the centre tried to take her mobile phone and camera while she worked there but she refused and has now shared the pictures she took with Fair Go, to support her stand.

“Orangutans are in cages and that’s not OK and people should know about that.”

Fair Go has confirmed with the centre that some of the orangutans have been there more than a decade, with the prospect that they may die in captivity.

“We are doing certain research. When the research is complete gradually we will be sending them back.”

But that approach is questioned by Leif Cocks, a scientist with 30 years of experience working with orangutans.

“I would question whether any research from such a facility would have any value for welfare or conservation.”

Leif Cocks says orangutans adapt and that means every day in a cage makes it harder to resettle them in the wild.

“They need to actually migrate back to a wild situation in order to learn skills such as nest building and foraging for food themselves, so keeping them in a captive condition for 14 years without any real rehabilitation is really sentencing them to a life in captivity.”

Amanda bought the trip from The Global Work & Travel Co.

She quit less than three weeks into the four-week trip and raised concerns about how the centre and the trip had been marketed.

For the record, the centre told Fair Go it has never claimed to be a temporary recuse and rehab facility and that it has been misrepresented by travel agents.

The Global Work & Travel Co. failed to respond to Amanda Rowland for four months – but four days after Fair Go raised her concerns with them again, it offered her a full refund.

“I’m embarrassed it has taken this long to address her concerns.”

Jürgen Himmelmann, Global’s CEO  promises stricter quality control of program operators.

“It has come to our attention that the operator of Miss Rowland’s program, ‘The Green Lion’, has recently undergone a change in management. I can report to you that out of an abundance of caution, we have ceased doing business with this provider.”

Leif Cocks urges people not to lose heart because tourism has its place, but he says the best way to save orangutans is to donate to conservation organisations – like the one he heads, which gives jobs to locals to protect the animals and their habitat.

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