willie smits

Beyond Ah Meng : Asia’s only – and fast disappearing – great ape

In Singapore, the Singapore Zoo has chosen the orangutan as its flagship species and oversees one of the world’s most successful orangutan-breeding programs.

Orangutans, for most of us, are a must-see at the Zoo, and if they are not saved from extinction in the near future, a Zoo could well become the only place to see them. To avert this, a number of organizations around the world are working tirelessly to rescue, protect, rehabilitate, breed and return these magnificent creatures to the rainforests where they belong.

For the longest time – right up to February 2008 in fact – the Singapore Zoo was synonymous with its famous Sumatran resident, local and international celebrity Ah Meng (genus Pongo, sub-family abelii).

Breakfast with Ah Meng was something everyone wanted to do; breakfast – and photographs – with Singapore’s first (and only) non-human ‘Special Tourism Ambassador’, a title she received from the Singapore Tourism Promotion Board in 1992. She posed and dined with them all – film stars, pop stars, heads of state, royalty, tourists, residents, families, children. Everybody loved her.

Ah Meng – once an illegal pet- made the transition from captivity to freedom (albeit in a zoo). In her own patient, equable way she became a spokesperson for the Singapore Zoo even as she drew attention to the plight of orangutans everywhere – these ‘men’ (and ‘women’) of the forest, in danger of extinction, confined to enclosures for their own survival.

What’s the problem ?

Genus Pongo – has been reduced to just two sub-species in the rainforests of Southeast Asia – pongo pygmaeus (in Borneo, ‘endangered’) and pongo abelii (in Sumatra, ‘critically endangered’), both on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Animals.

Humans pose the greatest threat to the survival of Species Orangutan; increases in human population inversely affect the numbers of orangutans in their natural habitat. Slash-and-burn techniques of clearing forest land for cultivation, shifting cultivation, mining, logging, forest fires, poaching, de-forestation and the illegal pet trade have all contributed to the dwindling numbers of these orange-red primates who once thrived in primary rainforests and lowland swamps.

Accustomed to unspoiled, tranquil and immeasurable spaces, these arboreal mammals – who eat, sleep, nest and travel in trees – are close to extinction. Their natural habitats are diminishing, or disappearing; many perish in forest fires and survivors face starvation.

Forced to move closer to human settlements, thousands fall victim to poachers. As forests disappear, the pet trade flourishes. Mothers are slaughtered (because the only way to get to an orangutan baby is to kill its mother), the animals are caged, chained and kept as curiosities in people’s homes in environments far removed from their natural haunts of forests and fruiting trees.

The Orangutan Reintroduction Project (ORP)

Years ago, while working on a film for the Indonesian Forestry Commission, we had to locate orangutans to film, ideally in their natural habitat. Balikpapan, Samarinda, Wanariset, Sungai Wain, the Mahakam river, Sulawesi, Kalimantan … the names and places were unfamiliar and exciting as we tooled around the Indonesian archipelago in a Bell 206, over sea and land, forests and towns.

Kalimantan, the Indonesian part of Borneo, occupies almost two thirds of the island. Thirty-eight kilometres north of Balikpapan (East Kalimantan), along the main road to Samarinda, is Wanariset, home to the ORP, headed by Dr Willie Smits who was to be our mentor and guide in all things orangutan.


He showed us around. When they come to the ORP, the often malnourished and/or ill animals (rescued from private ownership) are first quarantined, screened and vaccinated (to remove the risk of spreading contagious diseases), then transferred to large ‘socialisation’ cages to begin the long process of becoming a part of a social group, as well as apes with climbing skills and essential muscle tone.

A large, sectioned cage held a number of babies, curious, thoughtful, serious. Here, Dr Smits pointed out, was an animal accustomed to popping cans of soda and eating junk food; now being introduced to water and fruits and leaves of the forest. There, a female orangutan paired with an abandoned baby; learning how to be a mother.

In time (and the process may take years), with a clean bill of health, the ORP releases groups of primates into parts of protected forestland where historically orangutans once ranged. Since there are no wild orangutans here, re-populating it with rehabilitated orangutans fills an important ecological niche with no risk of negatively impacting a wild population. The animals are safe from attacks, and the forests offer them protection and a habitat, to settle down and ultimately reproduce.

We accompanied Dr Smits to the Sungai Wain, a lowland mixed dipterocarp rainforest with extensive swamp areas (and Protection Forest status), which the ORP crew visits twice daily with gifts of fruit. The orangutans come by for the fruit, giving ORP the opportunity to track their transformation into denizens of the forest. It gave us the opportunity to observe, and to later film them in their natural environment.

The first sighting of these abused, rescued, rehabilitated – and now free – animals was pure magic.

We waited quietly, patient, a little apprehensive. Nothing happened at first. Then the leaves in the trees began to move and soft rustling sounds preceded the appearance of the first orangutan. Some distance away, it watched us carefully, making its cautious way towards the familiar faces from the ORP and the bananas they had brought.

More orangutans began to appear. Dr. Smits warned us not to approach the animals or try and make contact. We stood motionless, almost breathless. I felt a tug, and looked down to see a little orange lady with blowsy hair and friendly, curious eyes pulling the strap of my bag, clearly communicating that I should open it, she wanted a look-see. One of the staff came over, distracting her before gently leading her away.

Contributions, sponsorships, adoptions : how you can help Grendon, Fio, Mimi & Casey   

IUCN’s Red List (2003) estimates there are about 7,300 Sumatran and between 45,000 and 69,000 Bornean orangutans in the wild, though the actual numbers have quite likely decreased significantly since then. Meanwhile, there are many rescued animals that need urgent help. For as little as USD $ 10.00 a month, you can make a difference in an orangutan’s life.

In Singapore, adoptions are not yet possible at the Zoo (that may change) but the website tells you how you can help.

Anyone who has looked into the eyes of an orangutan (or even a photograph) will immediately recognize their intelligence and it will come as no surprise to learn that orangutans share approximately 97% of their DNA with humans.

If we are to survive, they (and other endangered species) have to survive, so we have to act and act now.

Sumatran Orangutan Society
Enchanted Learning

Photographs by Anita Thomas.

Photograph of Ah Meng from http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_ujk9GTedwW8/R61nP3krdoI/AAAAAAAAGfY/aoVCTmw6Yiw/s1600-h/RememberingAhMeng2.jpg

Visit www.singaporeforkids.com