Our New Sepilok Vet – Dr Jason Parker

The dark depths of the late English autumn can be enough to make any of us dream of blue skies and sunnier climes. Thus it was that having condemned yet another Cornish farmer to losing a good chunk of their dairy herd through bovine TB I conducted a survey of the veterinary journals looking for something a bit more constructive. I stumbled across a small but perfectly formed advert looking for an experienced vet to work with orangutans in Borneo and thought “that’s the one for me!”

My practice in the UK, Westpoint Veterinary Group, were extremely generous in allowing me a 6 month sabbatical to take up this post and after the usual bureaucratic headaches obtaining permits and the more unusual one of weaving through ash clouds I arrived here in Sepilok in late April.

First things first, folks – it is hot out here. No, seriously . . . IT IS HOT OUT HERE! I did not eat or sleep during my first two days in Sepilok. However, acclimatization gradually kicked in and now I am as one with the climate to the extent I have risked a bit of football for the Sepilok Invitation XI.

Even as a newcomer it is immediately obvious and heartening to see how much influence and impact the Appeal has had here at Sepilok. Whether it is through infrastructure projects such as the exercise cages, the excellent work of my predecessor Dr Nigel in encouraging western standards at the Orangutan Treatment Clinic or innovative research projects to monitor the success of rehabilitant orangutans after their release, your generous donations really do make a difference. This applies equally to the immediate care of orphans and sick orangutans brought in to the clinic as well as the longer-term viability of the entire orangutan population here in Malaysian Borneo.

In addition, the exchange of expertise with the local staff and visiting students is an important aspect to our work, so for example this week I am mentoring a group of veterinary students from Kuala Lumpur who are here with us. Fortunately their English is better than my Malay.

A couple of early cases in my tenure hopefully illustrate some of the interesting diseases we do not see the like of back in the UK but cause problems here.

One of the older male orangs at large in the Reserve had been observed to have diarrhoea by the rangers; examination of a faeces sample revealed Balantidium, a protozoan parasite typically picked up in the environment, usually on food. This necessitated me filling a syringe with the appropriate medicine and multivitamin syrup (to mask the taste) and then enticing my patient to suck the medicine from the end of the syringe. As the sub-adult males can be unnervingly large when up close this did, I confess, fill me with a certain amount of trepidation. Fortunately the lure of tasty food and drink is hard to resist for an orang so my patient was delighted to see me on a daily basis, which for a vet is not a typical state of affairs!

A second case involved an individual undergoing a routine check before relocation. Here our patient was to all intents and purposes well but the blood taken as part of the screen revealed he was carrying malaria, which most of you will be aware is passed on by the bite of an infected mosquito. Interestingly, it is possible for orangs to carry low levels of malaria in the wild without any apparent problem. It is clearly impossible to tell which individuals will go on without issue and which will become ill, however, so as there is the possibility that any illness with malaria will be fatal we always treat any cases we find. This individual responded well to treatment, subsequently re-tested clear and is now enjoying himself at the Tabin Reserve in the far East of Bornean Malaysia.

From a professional point of view the opportunity to work with orangutans, monkeys, elephants and sun bears is something I never dreamt would be possible and is a real pleasure and privilege for me to experience. Personally the chance of visiting Borneo and savouring the exotic flavours, exotic sights and exotic wildlife is a real treat – mix that with the friendliest people on the planet and you has a winning combination from my perspective.

Dr Jason Parker MRCVS