Post-release monitoring research update

Suzanna Tabin

In 2006 the Appeal set up the post release monitoring project to identify any deficiencies which existed in the current rehabilitation process.

A trial was set up to establish the best method of monitoring the youngsters and six recently released orangutans were chosen to be followed in the Kabili reserve surrounding Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre. After six months we had learnt a lot and were ready to start Stage 1 of the research in earnest.

Six new youngsters were identified for release and given thorough health checks. Unfortunately, two of these individuals were not considered strong enough to take part in the project. The remaining four were released into Tabin, a protected reserve twice the size of Singapore, with a mixture of virgin and secondary forest.

The research camp had been built and the Malaysian research assistants had been taught to record the youngsters activities and to use GPS tracking equipment. It was all systems go: Brock, Toby, Suzanne and Tompong were helicoptered into camp and prepared for their release.

Over the following two years a lot has been learnt. Both Brock and Toby experienced falls (at different times) and suffered broken legs that required veterinary treatment. Tompong caught malaria and had to be returned to Sepilok for a while but Suzanna sailed through the whole experience having adapted well to her new found freedom.

The results of Stage 1 were compiled by the Surrey University at Roehampton for us and have shown that the youngsters needed more climbing practice in forest conditions prior to release. As none of the youngsters were able to build their own nests, more exposure to older orangutans is essential to enable youngsters to learn this vital skill.

In November 2008 the Appeal’s Chairperson and Trustees travelled to Sabah for discussions with the Wildlife Department on our future collaborations to take this vital research project forward. As a result a decision was made to recruit Dr Marc Ancrenaz, a famous wildlife researcher in orangutan conservation, as a scientific advisor to the Project. We are delighted to say Dr Marc has agreed.

Stage 2 of the Project starts with a survey of the area surrounding Tabin camp to ensure that there are still sufficient fruiting trees to support the next study group. When this has been completed the research assistants will undergo expert training with Dr Marc on an improved methodology for collecting data. The Appeal will also be looking to recruit a primatologist to lead this stage of our groundbreaking research. Brock, Toby and Suzanna have now been returned to the Kabili Reserve where they are happily living free.