Notes from the Field: Saving Tiger

The island of Borneo in Southeast Asia is split between three nations: Indonesia, Brunei, and Malaysia which divides its land on the island between the states of Sarawak and Sabah. The rainforest here is one of the oldest in the world, predating man-made boundaries, man-made settlements, and even humans themselves. In the ancient rainforest of Borneo, man of the forest refers to something else entirely. Deriving its name from the Malay orang hutan meaning “man of the forest,” Borneo is one of the only places in the world–the other being the nearby island of Sumatra–where orangutans can be found in the wild.

They are distinctive for their orange-brown hair; round, shiny eyes; long, strong arms perfectly equipped from swinging between the centuries-old trees; and cheek pads for demonstrating dominance.

Pongo pygmaeus morio is one of three subspecies of Bornean orangutan and the only one endemic to Sabah. However, this magnificent animal is no longer able to compete with the human development consuming large swaths of the island for conversion to oil palm plantations, urban settlements, and logging activities. In the past few decades, the Bornean orangutan population has been cut in half; there are currently only around 11,000 orangutans left in Sabah.

EcoHealth Alliance has been working in Malaysia for more than a decade. There we are encouraging government and industry stakeholders to take One Health into account as they consider sustainable development and training local scientists on wildlife sampling and cutting-edge lab techniques. On Borneo, we have forged invaluable partnerships with other organizations working tirelessly to maintain the area’s unique biodiversity.

RELATED: The Gentle Giants of Borneo

One of those is the Sabah Wildlife Department which, in 1964, created the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre near Sandakan, Sabah for the purpose of rescuing and rehabilitating orangutans displaced by human development. Since opening, the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, or SORC, has rescued and rehabilitated hundreds of orangutans around Sabah, mostly injured or orphaned.

The rescue and translocation of these vulnerable animals is facilitated by the Wildlife Rescue Unit established by Dr. Sen Nathan, Assistant Director at the Sabah Wildlife Department. Thanks to the intensive care provided by veterinarians with the Wildlife Rescue Unit and the staff at SORC, most of the rescued orangutans are quickly released back into the wild.

But not all rescued orangutans are so lucky.

Three of them–Tiger, Rosalinda, and Yoda–were diagnosed with Hepatitis B upon their entry to the SORC. At the time, the only testing available to the Sabah Wildlife Department was a serological assay that could not determine which strain of Hepatitis B the animals had. Since one strain of Hepatitis B can be lethal to humans, SORC had no choice but to quarantine all three to avoid transmission of the disease to other orangutans and human visitors at the SORC.

Tiger at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
Tiger at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre

In 2011, EcoHealth Alliance began a collaboration with the Sabah Wildlife Department and Danau Girang Field Centre through the USAID-funded PREDICT project. Together, we established the Wildlife Health Unit (WHU), responsible for leading the diagnostic evaluation of rescued and relocated wildlife across Sabah, as well as conducting sampling trips to trap and sample free-ranging wildlife for PREDICT. The collaboration also built the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory (WHGFL) in Kota Kinabalu which has greatly improved the capacity for zoonotic disease surveillance in Sabah.

RELATED: Animal Sampling in Kuala Kangsar

During an annual screening of the SORC orangutans, the team from EcoHealth Alliance and the Wildlife Health Unit collected samples from the three quarantined animals and the WHGFL facilitated testing of those samples using published hepatitis PCR protocols. Sequencing analysis conducted by EcoHealth Alliance’s Mei Ho Lee, the Senior Research Officer at the Wildlife Health, Genetic and Forensic Laboratory, found the three orangutans had Orangutan Hepatitis B, which is endemic to wild orangutans and poses no public health concern.

With this question answered, Tiger, Rosalinda, and Yoda could be released into their newly built rehabilitation pen: out of quarantine and allowed to play on the ground and enjoy the sunshine for the first time since their rescue.

“This is one the of the best moments in my career, seeing these three orangutans being released and playing like they would in the wild,” Wildlife Rescue Unit veterinarian Dr. Laura Benedict said. Based at the SORC, Dr. Bennet and her team worked with the newly unquarantined orangutans to get them ready for release into the forest reserve at Sepilok.

This story comes to a happy end for Tiger this week, who was released into the wild thanks to the efforts of the Sabah Wildlife Department and the staff at SORC and the Wildlife Rescue Unit. A team from the Wildlife Rescue Unit and the Wildlife Health Unit loaded Tiger into a transport container in the early morning hours of October 3 to begin a long journey which saw him transported by car and then helicopter deep into the Tabin Wildlife Reserve in Lahat Datu, a mature secondary jungle and virgin primary forest covering nearly 300,000 acres. Sabah Wildlife Department Assistant Director Dr. Sen Nathan said they were confident that Tiger would not face many problems adjusting to his “new and bigger home.”

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