Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Giving sight to a female orangutan named “Gober”

Dr. Ian Singleton is the Conservation Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme - and works tirelessly towards protecting the remaining habitat, and indeed remaining orangutans - on the western Indonesian island. Often finding himself in direct confrontations with the multi-million dollar palm oil, logging and rubber plantation industries, Ian’s passion for the Sumatran species of these great apes began right here at Durrell, where he both attended the International Training Centre as a young Environmental Science student, and worked as a keeper - caring for our very own Sumatran orangutan ‘family’.

Despite the challenges, confrontations and what sometimes must seem like an uphill struggle against people’s irresponsible attitudes to natural resources - intentional or otherwise - there are often amazing stories of kindness, devotion and hope. Ian recently relayed one such story to us here at Durrell, and we’d like to share it with you.

The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme is delighted to announce that cataract surgery was performed on an elderly, blind female orangutan named “Gober” on Monday 27th August at 13.00.

Gober is unique, as in addition to being blind in both eyes, she is also the mother of two 18 month old twin infants, “Ganteng” (male) and “Ginting” (female). Furthermore, the father of the twins is also blind, as a result of being shot 62 times by an air rifle several years ago, 2 pellets being lodged in one eye and 1 in the other.

“Twin orangutan births are not unheard of, “ explained Dr Ian Singleton, Conservation Director of the Swiss based PanEco Foundation and head of the SOCP, “I have heard of some 10 to 15 cases in my career, but twins whose parents are both blind is totally unique”.

Gober came from an area of mixed rubber trees and natural forest, where she had lived wild and reared a number of infants over many years. She was captured in late 2008 for her own safety, as she had become blind due to cataracts, probably as a result of her advancing years. “Based on the condition of her teeth we estimate she is probably well over 40 years old, and if we hadn’t brought her here she would have been killed by local farmers, as she was raiding their crops to survive”, stated SOCP veterinarian drh Yenny Saraswati. She now resides at the SOCP’s orangutan quarantine centre near Medan, in North Sumatra, Indonesia.

“Normally we don’t encourage orangutans at the centre to breed, as there are already far too many orangutans in captivity in Indonesia. We much prefer they do that after they have left, and are once again living free in the wild. But we made an exception in Gober’s case, since we knew she was a good mother and felt that being blind, it would dramatically improve her quality of life. We therefore introduced her a couple of years ago to another blind orangutan, a male named Leuser, who is blind in both eyes, as a result of being shot 62 times by an air rifle (twice in one eye and once in the other). But even then we were all very surprised when she produced twins”.

As predicted, despite her blindness Gober has been an exemplary mother to the twins and when an opportunity arose to operate, and perhaps restore her sight, the SOCP jumped at the chance. The surgery was performed on Monday 27th by Dr R. Arie Umboh, a “human” eye specialist from Samarinda, assisted by Ms. Juliana Sasambe, and SOCP vets drh Yenny and drh Rachmad Wahyudi. It lasted just 40 minutes and so far all appears to be going well. “We found no evidence of any damage to the retina of either eye and so I am very hopeful that Gober will regain a large amount of her sight, meaning that all being well, there’s every chance she will finally be able to see her twin infants for the first time very soon”, commented Dr Umboh.

“Its absolutely fantastic that we were finally able to do this for Gober. We had to wait until the twins were big enough to be separated briefly from their mum but now that we have done it, all being well it will change each of their lives. We are extremely grateful for the help of Dr Umboh and also to the Orangu
tans in Not foundation from Germany for covering the logistical costs of the work”.

Cataract surgery for orangutans is still very rare and this is probably the first such operation in Indonesia.  The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme is engaged in all aspects of orangutan conservation in Sumatra including:
1. Confiscation, medical quarantine and reintroduction back to the wild of illegal pet orangutans
2. Field research, surveys and monitoring of the remaining wild Sumatran orangutan populations
3. Rainforest habitat protection work
4. Conservation education and awareness raising
To date, the SOCP’s quarantine centre near Medan has received over 150 illegal pet orangutans, of which over 180 have been returned to the wild in Jambi and Aceh provinces.
Donations are always needed to care for and reintroduce the SOCP’s orangutans and can be made via paypal at www.sumatranorangutan.org or by contacting the PanEco Foundation directly (mail@paneco.ch).

Images and story from the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust

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