Orphaned orangutans blamed on palm oil

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

It's a long way from the Bombay Hills and pet food to the jungles of Borneo and an endangered species - but animal lover vet nurse Samantha Boston is excited about her latest challenge.

Boston, who has a degree in wildlife management, is about to spend two and a half months volunteering at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Malaysia's Sabah province, on the island of Borneo.

The centre was opened in the 1960s and was the world's first official rehabilitation project. Around 60 to 80 of the apes are usually in residence and it has become a popular visitor attraction.

"A lot of the orangutans they work with are young orphans whose parents have been killed," Boston says. "They need to learn how to forage, how to look after themselves, build nests to sleep in and how to interact with other orangutans."

Once they have gained these skills, the primates are released back into the wild, into areas of protected forest.

The biggest threat to the apes is destruction of their environment by man, with huge areas of rainforest cleared for palm oil and other plantations. The species' plight first came to Boston's attention when she was working as a primate keeper at Auckland Zoo, where she was involved in the zoo's anti-palm oil campaign in the 2000s.

"There was a lot of press coverage about palm oil at the time and a lot of products which contain it were identified, which caused a bit of a backlash. We started up a consumer awareness campaign and created a palm-oil-free shopping guide," Boston says.

"The main reason orangutans are endangered is because of this forest being destroyed - and it's going on every single day. We wanted to highlight that people can slow the demand for palm oil by being careful with what they buy."

Boston's "day job" is as pet advisor for Bombay Petfoods, which produces the Jimbo's brand, and says her employers are supportive of her desire to work with endangered species.

"We're very limited in New Zealand when to comes to working with animals. After working as a vet nurse and at the zoo, I wanted to go overseas and do some work at a wolf sanctuary. I decided I needed to find a job here that could support that kind of work, where I could go off every couple of years and do something like this."

Boston says while the orangutan work is not as relevant to her job as her time with the wolves, it is still in keeping with Jimbo's animal-based philosophy and the company's stance against palm oil.

After a stint doing volunteer work with elephants in Thailand, Boston got in touch with the Sepilok sanctuary in 2012 in the hope of an opening becoming available. She jumped at the chance of the two-and-a-half-month stay, even though the centre is isolated and she expects facilities will be basic.

There will also be only a small team of around 10 volunteers, which she hopes will become "tight knit" through their experiences.

"I'm looking forward to spending some quality time away from the rat race, living very simply and immersing myself in the environment," Boston says.

She is also looking forward to positive feedback from her "clients": "I love orangutans because they are very much like people. With a lot of the work you do with animals, they don't really thank you themselves...Primates and especially the great apes are so different - they really connect with you and share their appreciation for what you are doing."

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