Saving The Orphaned Orangutans Of Malaysia

Often victms of human encroachment, these animals have been left without their mothers. But it is also humans who help teach them they can swing from branches.

Infant Malaysian orangutan
Infant Malaysian orangutan
Rémi Barroux

SANDAKAN — Chiquita doesn’t want to work. But after Bella, her 25-year-old Australian teacher, gives her a gentle scolding, the orangutan finally lifts up her arms and grabs the cable stretched between the trees. She swings across it three times, advancing rapidly, and lets herself fall into the grass. The instructor bursts out laughing and gives up. The lesson is over. The worried look on the three-year-old orangutan’s face is irresistible.

“We share 97% of our genome with them,” says the biology student, who will be working as an intern on Malaysia’s Borneo Island for two months.

At the rehabilitation center in Sepilok, a few kilometers from the city of Sandakan, orangutans are monkeying around. “Our mission is to prepare them to return to the forest,” says Diana Ramirez, a veterinarian who has been working in Sepilok for three years. “Because they’re orphans, the youngest ones don’t know they can climb trees or swing from them. They’re scared. We found Chiquita as she was wandering about alone in a palm tree plantation. She was barely six months old.”

Her mother could have been killed by a reticulated python or a clouded leopard, or maybe she drowned because these great apes don’t know how to swim.

“The orangutan population is estimated at around 11,000 in Sabah, for a total of 60,000 on the Borneo Island,” ays Marc Ancrenaz, director of the Hutan (“forest” in Malaysian) organization, which works with Sepilok and the Rainforest Discovery Center, an area accessible to the public, to discover the tropical forest. “They are the survivors of a population that was 10 times the size two centuries ago.”

Wildfires, palm oil plantations and forest exploitations are among the causes for the primary forest’s decline. Not to mention urban development. “Today, 80% of Sabah’s orangutan population lives in the protected area of the forest,” Ancrenaz explains.

Visitors forbidden

Around Chiquita, the rest of the class is having fun. Some of them, unwilling to exert too much effort, let themselves be dragged on the ground. Others, better pupils, swing joyfully from rope to rope. After the morning class, which lasts about 30 minutes, they end up together, with no human presence. “When it’s game time, the older ones teach the young. We have to keep human contact to a minimum. Visitors are forbidden from this part of the center, because the orangutans have to be ready to return to the forest,” says 31-year-old Mexican veterinarian Diana Ramirez.

Since 1964, when the center opened, some 700 orangutans have been educated. At the end of last September, the institute counted two babies under the age of six months, six young apes between one to four years old and seven “older ones” — up to seven years old, the age when monkeys must leave Sepilok for the forest. “In total, around 50 live in and around the center,” says Diana Ramirez. “Many don’t want to go too far because they know there is food here.”

Chiquita is not there yet. “She’s a very good student, but, like every resident, she has her moods and trusts only a handful of people,” Ramirez adds, all the while dragging the red ball of fur clinging to her boot.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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