KOTA KINABALU, April 12 ― Veterinarians like Diana Ramirez live for the moment when they get to release an animal back into the wild.
The chief vet of Sabah’s Wildlife Rescue Unit has seen thousands of animals injured, distressed, lost or dying and nursed many back to recovery. She has also been bitten and charged at more times than she can count.
“But it is all worth it for the moment when you get to return to the wild ― where they belong. That is the moment that leaves you speechless in joy. Everything you work for is worth it,” she told Malay Mail Online in a recent interview.
Unfortunately, this happy ending is not the case for many animals which she sees.
“These animals, particularly as a baby, can be irresistibly cute, and tug at the heartstrings so much that people end up rearing them,” said Ramirez.
A good example is Lilo. The affectionate gibbon with eyes you can melt in has become so dependent on humans after being kept as a pet most of her life that she will never survive if released back into the wild.
“Animals such as gibbons ‘imprint’ on their owners; similar to falling in love. They can get very aggressive towards people deemed a threat to this relationship. Also, once kept as a pet, it’s very unlikely they can ever be reintroduced back into the wild,” said Aaron Gekoski, a TV presenter who has worked with the Wildlife Rescue Unit as a volunteer for a web series Borneo Wildlife Warriors.
Gekoski fell in love with Lilo, the calmest out of some 17 gibbons that is being kept at the Potuki rescue centre to keep her safe, where she will likely remain.
The incident of protected animals being kept as pets is considerable. Although the number cannot be determined as it is often linked to illegal animal trade, it is likely within the hundreds in Sabah. Animals who have the “cute factor” like Lilo are particularly susceptible.
“People do not always mean to be cruel, but many are unaware or do not realise the harm it causes to keep a protected species,” said Benjamin Kotiu, a ranger of the Wildlife Rescue Unit.
“The man goes to see it and takes pity on the baby bear. He ends up bringing it home and rearing it. Last year, he finds out at a course or a forum that the sun bear is endangered and a protected species. He calls us up and surrenders the bear, saying he did not know it was illegal to do it.
“But by now, the bear is dependent on being fed. It will have to go through a lot of rehabilitation before it is able to fend for itself again in the wild,” Kotiu told Malay Mail Online.
Ramirez said that such encounters are high in Sabah because there are many people living near jungles and forests where wild animals roam.
Sometimes they chance upon them in the wild, but they can also be found sold at the tamu or Sabah’s open markets in the districts, and also sold discreetly in pet shops. In recent years, there has been a surge of cases of animals being traded through private social media groups.
“Social media is also a big factor, all those cute photos and other post of wild animals kept as pets, wildlife being actively promoted through private groups makes people think that is right and easy to keep them,” she said.
“People with good intentions sometimes buy them and hand it over to us. It’s good but sometimes we wish they would alert us so we can arrest the perpetrators instead. Otherwise, the supply will continue because they think there is demand,” said Ramirez.
Globally, the illegal wildlife trade is a lucrative one. Reports estimate it at up to US$10 billion (RM44.3 billion) worldwide.
Ramirez noted that in Sabah, the number of orphans orangutans has thankfully reduced. In the 1960s, the number of orphans numbered between 40 and 50 a year. Today, the number is about two a year, she said.
Orangutans are a popular choice for pets as villagers often find orphaned babies whose mothers have been killed or lost in the massive deforestation practices in Borneo. Their big eyes, keen intellect and human-like antics make them seemingly good companions and this has driven up the demand for exotic pet enthusiasts.
Birds like eagles and owls are a majestic pet to own. The predatory birds were made to fly and hunt and living perched and walking in a cage destroys their natural instincts and abilities and also physically incapacitates them. The rescue centre houses a blind owl and an eagle with clipped wings.
Others like the slow loris, bear cats, leopard cats, and clouded leopard are also wanted for their beauty or uniqueness.
Ensuring this does not happen is a tough job and few cases have ever been brought to court. State laws dictate that the punishment if convicted for possession of protected species, is a jail term of up to five years or a fine of up to RM50,000 or both.
“But it does not usually get that far because the cases are of the owners surrendering the animals. If we punish them, then no one will ever come forward,” said Kotiu.
As it happens, the rescue centre is busier than ever, with more members of the public surrendering their “pets”.
“There does appear to be more awareness. Social media plays a big part in this ― there’s the potential for stories to go viral very quickly and name and shame campaigns. There are also organisations doing fantastic work for conservation such as Danau Girang Field Centre, Green Semporna, HUTAN, BSBCC, Green Semporna, Scuba Junkie, Kudat Turtle Conservation Society and of course the Wildlife Rescue Unit,” said Gekoski.
“We hope, over time, this won’t be an issue, but this is a hard ask. I don’t think any wild animal should ever be held captive,” said Ramirez.