Death at Dehiwala

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Critically endangered and rapidly on the decline orangutans are a much talked about species these days. Orangutans are great apes native to the rainforests of Indonesia and Malaysia. They are now found only in parts of Borneo and Sumatra, but during the Pleistocene they ranged throughout Southeast Asia and South China.

The National Zoological Gardens Dehiwela had two male Indonesian baby orangutans until the sudden and untimely death of one last month. While the sudden death of the four-and-a-half year old baby on 22 April 2022 sent shock waves among environmentalists and animal welfare activists the question that now remains is what went wrong and who is to be held responsible for the baby’s death. The baby’s mother had apparently died last year. 

Second death

Environmentalist Nayanaka Ranwella said that as per the information revealed about the death, a baby orangutan had fallen into a water hole in its enclosure at the Dehiwela zoo and drowned. “As environmentalists we are very sad to hear such news. Special awareness has to be given to orangutans around the world as they are a fast declining species. Within the last few years their numbers have dropped drastically around the world,” Ranwella explained.

He said within the last five months this is the second death of an orangutan reported at the National Zoological Gardens. “This baby orangutan should not have been put on display in an area where it could cause harm to the animal. Those who took a decision to put this baby orangutan on display for the public and those who didn’t take care of the animal properly should be held responsible for his death. We request for a partial inquiry to be held and those responsible to be punished,” Ranwella said.

“The baby had not gone into the den that night. The keeper should have emptied the water hole as a precautionary measure. Now some officials at the zoo are trying to cover up the mistake they made and are saying the baby died due to breathing problems and not by drowning,” environmentalists said.

Commenting on the death of the baby orangutan, senior officials from the Dehiwela Zoo said they are waiting for the results of the post mortem to determine the cause of death. “Tissues of the lungs and brain have been sent to the Peradeniya Veterinary Hospital for the post mortem. The animal keeper was interdicted pending an inquiry and the two curators were transferred to another section of the zoo. After the death of the orangutan a committee was appointed to look into the shortcomings of the other animals at the zoo,” senior zoo officials said.

Committee appointed

They added that the committee consisting of three veterinary surgeons, two scientific services officers, and a few curators will check if the other animals at the zoo are under risk in their enclosures. “The committee will check if there are electric wires going through the enclosures and if there are areas where animals can escape from their enclosures among others. The report will be submitted on 6 May 2022 to the Director General,” senior zoo officials said.

Currently, there are three species or orangutans; the Bornean, the Sumatran, and the recently confirmed new species (as of 2017), the Tapanuli. These great apes are only found in the wild on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.  All three species are critically endangered, with just over 100,000 Bornean, fewer than 14,000 Sumatran, and less than 800 Tapanuli orangutans left.

Orangutans are incredibly dexterous and use both hands and feet while gathering food and travelling through the trees. Young orangutans stay with their mother until they are about seven years old. They spend this time learning everything from her – including what’s good to eat.  Infants are so attached to their mums that they ride on her body and sleep in her nest until they develop their own skills to survive on their own.  Because of this long learning curve, orangutans only have young once every seven to nine years, which is the longest birth interval of any land mammal.

By Risidra Mendis

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