Curious Case of Orang-Utan Deaths at Dehiwala Zoo


The Department of National Zoological Gardens recently announced the untimely death of a four-and-a-half-year-old baby orang-utan at the Dehiwala Zoo. According to the Department, the baby orang-utan died after falling into its own pool. The authorities, however, have yet to accept that the baby orang-utan died as a result of the water pond.

Despite the fact that Dehiwala Zoological Gardens has made it their mission to house and display a diverse healthy collection of wild animal populations under the utmost care, through a code of best practices, state-of-the-art technology, and expertise on par with modern zoo concepts, it is unfortunate to say that the Zoo have failed to gain the people’s trust in animal conservation.

The Dehiwala Zoological Gardens has been a contentious topic in recent months due to poor management. However, following the death of the baby orang-utan, people’s attention has returned to the zoo.

Suspicious death?

Newly appointed Department Director General Dr. Tilak Premakantha lamented the death of the precious creature in the enclosure. He said that the post mortem is being performed by Peradeniya University’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Science.

He claimed that because the baby is nearly five years old and has spent that time in the same enclosure, the possibility that he drowned in his own pond is suspicious. He noted that an in-depth post-mortem is being performed to determine whether the baby orang-utan died before falling into the pond or whether the baby orang-utan died after falling into the pond.

The baby orang-utan has been in his cave for four years and knows everything there is to know about it. The orang-utan is known for having one of the hardest grips in the animal kingdom. It is heart-breaking to learn that the baby had died. “We conducted a post mortem at Dehiwala Zoo and for further clarification, we sent the baby orang-utan’s remains to Peradeniya,” he explained.

Was it the Animal Handler’s fault?

When asked if the Department’s top officials believe the animal caretaker made a mistake that had put the baby orang-utan in danger, he said the caretaker has been with the baby orang-utan since the day it was born. When the baby orang-utan’s mother died last December, it was this animal caretaker who fed the baby.

“The baby adores the caregiver. The caretaker is a well-experienced professional who has been in the industry for a long time. He fed the baby orang-utan as if it were one of his own children. But we still do not know what happened,” he said.

Speaking on the matter, Minister of Wildlife and Forest Resources Conservation Wimalaweera Dissanayke said that in order to conduct a transparency investigation, they had to temporarily terminate the animal handler.

Last December, the mother of the baby orang-utan died, exacerbating the situation at the zoo.

However, many animal rights activists demanded an impartial investigation into the creature’s suspicious death.

Is the impartial investigation completely impartial?

Minister Dissanayake, who was recently appointed, first suspended the animal caretaker’s duties to conduct a more thorough investigation. He also highlighted that he was supposed to receive the interim report on the death last week.

He said that this was not acceptable in a sanctuary for captive animals. He also stated that a thorough investigation will reveal the cause of death.

Is Dehiwala Zoo actually violating animal rights?

According to environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella, the orang-utan is an endangered species that is gaining worldwide attention and is currently considered one of the world’s rarest animals.

He claimed that the way the Dehiwala Zoo authorities handled such animals is very unfortunate and called for a formal scientific and independent investigation into the placement and proper care of animals in a dangerous environment.

He emphasised the importance of swift and just punishment for all those responsible.

“An adult orang-utan died a few months ago as well. In the last five months, two such rare orang-utan   deaths have been reported. There are three species of orang-utans, all of which are critically endangered, with just over 100,000 Bornean, 14,000 Sumatran, and 800 Tapanuli orang-utans remaining. Although they have similar fluffy ginger fur, Bornean orang-utans have darker red coats and rounder faces than Sumatran orang-utans. Adult male Sumatran orang-utans have a beard and moustache, and adult female Sumatran orang-utans also have beards,” he said.

In response to the suspicious death, he stated that orang-utans are extremely intelligent creatures with the ability to reason and think, adding that their resemblance to humans is uncanny.

“Baby orang-utans cry when they are hungry, whimper when they are hurt, and smile when they see their mothers. They express their emotions in the same way we do. If you watch an orang-utan for a few minutes, you will swear they are just like us,” he said.

Speaking about the Dehiwala Zoo and its work, Panchali Magdalena Panapitiya, Spokesman for the Rally for Animal Rights and Environment (RARE), said the visitors who contribute to captive animals should be held accountable for the death of the baby orang-utan.

She noted that the zoo’s veterinarians should be more attentive and always supervise animals in their enclosures.

“We hope that all of the above individuals are immediately arrested and that an impartial investigation is conducted by the Wildlife Minister and the newly appointed Director General of the Zoological Department, and that justice is served for the orang-utan baby. In the event that they fail, we will go to court to seek justice for this murder,” he claimed.

What is next?

Even though it is heartbreaking to report that the rare baby Orang-utan had to say goodbye to the world in such a short period of time, Dr. Premakantha said what must be done now is to protect the other animals that are still alive. He said that a committee has been formed to analyse the risks in the zoo and prepare a risk management plan to maintain and oversee animal welfare. He stated that everyone in the Department should learn from the case of baby orang-utan and close all other risks.

“The zoo has some areas that need concerns. Similarly, if a tree falls into the den of a black jaguar, there is a good chance that the jaguar will come over the tree to the visitor’s side. We will see to this in the near future,” he said.

Meanwhile, he said that the Department has formed a risk management committee, and that the committee is analysing the risks in each enclosure. “They will be in charge of risk management, which is important for a zoo”.

By Thameenah Razeek


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