Orangutan doctor – David Irons

Glasgow Daily Record: Feb 24 2009 By Graham Keal

WHEN he's in Scotland, GP Dr David Irons runs an accident and emergency unit in Stranraer, but when he's in Borneo his patients are much hairier, and more orange.

That's because he's Medical Director of Borneo Orangutan Survival (BOS), and at their rehabilitation centre at Nyaru Menteng, he heads a team meeting the medical needs of around 650 orangutans and 200 staff.

About 150 of his young, hairy charges are playing around him as we chat.

He said: "It took me a while to answer my mobile because I'd left it out of the way - orangutans tend to pick-pocket you, so it's hard to sit near them without them robbing me.

"They're all around me at the moment, just messing around. It's just like watching a school playground."

Their loveable antics are one of the reasons to watch series two of Orangutan Diaries, which is presented by Michaela Strachan and TV vet Steve Leonard and starts on BBC2 this Sunday before reverting to a regular Wednesday night slot.

Yet many orangutans arrive at the world's biggest ape sanctuary in a pitiful state. Wild ones may be near death from starvation due to dwindling habitat and food sources, as vast tracts of forest are destroyed to make way for palm oil plantations, while orphans confiscated from the illegal pet trade have often been beaten and kept in cramped boxes.

Even when restored to health, orangutans awaiting rehabilitation into the wild are prone to the same health problems as humans. They share 97 per cent of our DNA.

"Basically they get whatever we get, and the drugs we use on them are the same," said David, 46.

"They get malaria, typhoid, coughs and colds. We've got one at the moment who might even have appendicitis.

"As far as I'm concerned they're as human as humans. They're intelligent, funny, and they need help."

The BOS centre was founded by Danish ex-airline stewardess Lone Droscher-Nielson in 1997 to rehabilitate around 100 infant and adult orangutans.

As the pace of forest destruction increased, the numbers have risen relentlessly.

But how did a GP and emergency medicine expert like Dr David end up combining his role as locum A&E manager at the Galloway Community Hospital in Stranraer with this extraordinary unpaid role nurturing orangutans in Indonesian Borneo? Especially when, before arriving in Stranraer four years ago, he ran a successful GP's surgery in Spain?

He said: "The surgery did very well and we had a good reputation. But a few years ago I decided to stop full-time working and do voluntary work for a while. I decided it had to be completely voluntary, paying all my expenses.

"It was the old cliche of wanting to put something back."

After a spell working in New Zealand, he came back via Borneo and had his first experience of orangutans at a small rescue centre.

David said: "That lit a bit of a fire. I have no problem working with humans, but they have plenty of care; their survival is not at risk. Orangutans will be extinct in 10 years the way things are going, and they need help."

David went on to work in an animal rescue centre in Thailand for five months (not with orangutans), then spent four months working to improve the health of impoverished children and mothers in Argentina. He was wondering what to tackle next when he saw a BOS newsletter appealing for £3000 to buy a tract of forest.

"I thought 'If I work over Christmas and New Year, I can earn that and donate it myself.' My family were a bit annoyed about it, but that's what happened," said David. Then he went out there on a trial basis as a volunteer. Now he's a fixture.

David's parents live in Bath, where he was born, but he is single and has no other family ties.

He said: "I don't have a wife and kids, so I'm in a situation where I'm flexible enough. I almost got married to a Scottish girl when I was 30, but in the end I decided against it. I guess I haven't met the right person yet."

Ask him about orangutans though, and the warmth is palpable.

"It's difficult not to have lots of favourites. There's Vanilla, she's a bit of a princess. There's one called Sulam, he has the cheekiest," David said.

"Adit is quite big now and very heavy, but he seeks you out and just has to have a cuddle. If Adit grabs me now I'll try to run away because I won't be able to speak to you. He doesn't like people taking my attention, but he's lovely.

"My overall favourite is Waru. He's extremely bright and a problem-solver.

He's got a different look on his face to most of the others. He's four or five, and always thinking of something."

When any of the orangutans are seriously ill, David delivers full-on intensive care, 24 hours a day. He said: "Every week we have some sort of collapse. We've had very serious cases of malaria and we've had kidney or heart failure because of infections. We pull out all the stops to save them."

But even such intense intervention has its failures. In episode two of the series, an ape called Sumanto falls 100 feet from a tree.

"He was a poor little soul, semi-wild.

He never felt comfortable with humans, yet he was too young to survive in the wild by himself.

"I kept him alive for about two weeks, but unfortunately he had only just been rescued and was already weakened when he had his accident, which is there on film. It was very sad."

David has been working at the BOS centre since 2007, returning to Stranraer every four months or so to earn enough money to sustain another spell out there. He doesn't miss home comforts, but he did miss having medical back-up when his own life was on the line last October after contracting para-typhoid.

He said: "It came home to me all of a sudden that you are in a place where, if you yourself can't treat the condition, there's no one else around. Medical services are minimal to say the least.

"Within about four hours I went from normal to not being able to think straight. I grabbed a load of syringes, needles and antibiotics and anything I could get my addled brain to think of and went to Lone, who's the founder and the heart and soul of this place.

"She's the only one I could ask to treat me. I had to get to her as soon as I could and say 'When I pass out, this is what's wrong with me, and this is what I need'.

"I've done thousands of injections but I really struggled to give myself an intramuscular injection. I thought 'If this doesn't work, I'm stuck.'"

He laughs now, but it was a close call.

Two weeks later, Lone herself was "at death's door" with a similar infection, but fortunately David had recovered sufficiently himself to treat her.

If the orangutans themselves are to survive, we'd better all hope that their carers manage to stay alive too.