BUKIT MERAH, Malaysia (Reuters Life!) - Deepa peeks out from a gunny sack while Fatt Fatt swings from grills as visitors watch the young orangutans at a Malaysian resort that is also trying to increase the population of the endangered species.
Orang Utan Island, a 35-acre island part of Bukit Merah Laketown Resort in Perak state, is a tourist attraction and conservation center that is home to 23 orangutans which resort officials say will eventually be released into the wild.
But some animal welfare experts have criticized the concept, saying rearing the animals outside their natural habitat, and separating the young from their mothers, is just wrong.
“I don’t believe the orangutan should be kept in isolated places, like a penal island,” said Malaysian Nature Society senior member Neal Nirmal Ariyapala.
“I want to know ... how successful the Orang Utan sanctuary in Bukit Merah is. Bukit Merah is a commercial enterprise and I think money takes precedence more than environmental concern.”
Orangutans, a great ape species native to Malaysia and Indonesia, are highly endangered due to destruction of their rainforest habitats and poaching.
They are not endemic to western Malaysia, where Bukit Merah is located, but roam free in the eastern states of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island.
There are several orangutan conservation programs in Malaysia and at Orang Utan island, five acres are used for the project that started in 1999 with three animals brought in from their native Sarawak.
“We have a specially designed rehabilitation program. Only then will we release them to the wild,” said resident veterinarian Dr. Sabapathy Dharmalingam, adding it may take roughly five to six years.
A short boat ride takes visitors from the Bukit Merah resort to the island, where baby orangutans sleep in cribs, clutching dolls and wearing diapers just like human babies, with medical attention from a team of 20.
Adult orangutans spend their time in the forest outside, observed by visitors from an enclosed pathway.
Twelve orangutan have been born on the island and are healthy, according to Dr. Sabapathy, but the time of their release has not been fixed so far and there is no guarantee the return to the wild will be smooth.
This is one of several concerns voiced by conservationists.
“Rehabilitation and tourism don’t mix,” Helen Buckland of the Sumatran Orangutan Society told Reuters.
“In many documented cases, there is a strong probable disease transmission link between humans and primates.”
Editing by Miral Fahmy