Through the Vetwest Volunteer Support Program, veterinary nurse Jennifer Ravat had the privilege of meeting some of the most fascinating animals in the world, the Orangutans as well as other endangered animals. Here she writes about her experience at Matang Wildlife Centre.
"As recipient of the Vetwest Volunteer Support Program, I volunteered for two weeks at the Orangutan Project at Matang Wildlife Centre, Borneo. As part of the volunteer work I worked very closely with Orangutans, Sunbears, Macaques and many other endangered animals. It was truly an amazing experience and I hope to volunteer again.
When I first arrived I met Natasha, one of the coordinators of the Orangutan Project at Matang. It was so interesting to listen to her talk about the struggles they face rehabilitating the Orangutans. It is very difficult to return an Orangutan to the wild once they have become used to humans and our food source. Many of the rescued Orangutans have come from pet trade and are therefore very used to human contact. This can encourage them to come to the ground and seek out humans rather than stay up high in the tree canopies which can expose them to disease and also become a threat to humans.
A lot of the project’s work is also about educating people. Many local people do not realise the dangers of having an Orangutan as a pet or realise the importance of saving their natural habitat, the rainforest.
After a tour of Matang I was surprised by the size of the facilities and the many different animals that are being cared for. I met many Orangutans and other confiscated, abandoned or surrendered animals. There were Crocodiles, Deers, Sunbears, Leopards, Macaque monkeys and Snakes.
Aman, one of the dominant male Orangutans is truly amazing. His cheek pads are huge and he looks right through you with his intelligent eyes. He was the very first Orangutan to ever have cataract surgery in 2007. Prior to this, he had been blind for many years. He has had a lot of human contact so is unsuitable to be released due to his incredible size 130kgs and his obvious risk to humans.
At Matang there is no physical contact allowed with the Orangutans for their benefit and ours. It is hoped that many of them may be released into semi-wild or completely wild situations. It is therefore detrimental for them to have contact with lots of different humans. It is also important for the health of the Orangutans as many human diseases can be fatal to them especially the younger babies with weaker immune systems. The no physical contact is a very positive step in rehabilitation as some of the other centres which allow human contact with the Orangutans have a very high mortality rate.
The working day starts at 8am and we rotated each day through the three main areas, Orangutan enclosure, Sunbear enclosure and Quarantine. We had to clean the outdoor enclosures and hide the daily food. We were then able to watch from the viewing platform as they foraged for their food.
The night dens were then thoroughly cleaned and prepared for the next night. During this time we had to wear face masks at all times as we were in very close proximity to the Orangutans. Aman was very keen to watch me clean his den and it was necessary to be very cautious as they often try to grab you or the equipment you are using. This can be very dangerous as they are so strong. Aman is able to break metal bars off his cage.
There are also three baby Orangutans at Matang and they have their own permanent handlers. During the day they would go to a forest area and climb in the trees under the constant supervision of their dedicated handlers. These three babies have a very good chance to be rehabilitated into the wild and will soon start to go out further into the forest with their handlers.
After husbandry we were then involved in making enrichment tools for the Orangutans and other animals. We made bamboo puzzles, frozen juices with nuts and seeds, hessian bags with food parcels and provided foliage to the animals in cages.
In the afternoons we were involved in general maintenance and construction work. There is a lot of maintenance as the climate would destroy many of the structures without regular painting and varnishing by the volunteers. We were also involved in the construction of new quarantine cages which included tiling, grouting and more painting.
As we rotated daily through the different areas we also got to clean and feed the Sunbears and quarantine animals. Feeding the Sunbears involved some tree and ladder climbing to get the food as high as possible and encourage natural climbing behaviours. Many of the Sunbears have also been rescued or surrendered from pet trade and one Sunbear was even confiscated from the army.
In the quarantine area there are four resident Orangutans - Shirley, Om, Cindy and Maria, as well as many other animals including Bintourang, Macaques, Gibbons, Crocodiles and Snakes. These animals are waiting for more permanent homes or to be released back into the wild after being rescued from very poor living conditions.
During the time I was there we also had a visit from Ganti and her baby. Ganti is a rehabilitated Orangutan living in the forest around the centre in the semi-wild. Semi-wild means they live in the trees but will often come to the feeding platforms to get food from the staff at Matang and to visit the other Orangutans and sometimes help them escape. Ting Sang had recently returned from a 6 week stay in the jungle thanks to Ganti assisting in the escape.
It was great to see her looking so happy and healthy, gracefully swinging through the trees. Ganti often comes to visit her friend Chiam and her baby. Both babies have the same father, George, another resident Orangutan, and were born on the same day only hours apart.
Chiam has also lived in the semi-wild and it is hoped she can once again be released. The reason she is back in captivity at the moment is because she attacked a human and therefore is only allowed in her indoor enclosure as she can easily escape her outdoor enclosure with the assistance of Ganti.
We were also lucky enough to be able to visit Semmengoh National Park and see many rehabilitated semi-wild Orangutans come to the feeding platforms. It was breathtaking to see them all swinging through the trees around us. We also visited Bako National Park and saw the Probiscus monkey in the wild.
At the end of the two weeks we managed to collect lots of logs from the forest and provide enrichment to the two quarantine cages we had helped construct. We then added the Macaque Monkeys and observed them settling into their new and improved homes. They were soon very happy in the new surroundings. The financial contributions from the Volunteer Project help the conservation effort in a big way by helping to fund the new construction work, providing wages for local staff and helping to fund the animal and veterinary care. The volunteers also boost the morale of the permanent staff as they change every two to four weeks and are always full of energy and enthusiasm.
My contribution to the conversation of the Orangutans may only be small but I feel very happy to know that I have helped even in a small way. It has opened my eyes further to realise the problem is much bigger than I first thought and I really hope we are able to make changes and educate people to protect the rainforest these amazing animals call home. I hope to volunteer again and hopefully see the Orangutans in quarantine in their new homes. I also hope I can inspire other people to participate in volunteer work and that you may find it as rewarding as I have."