Tuberculosis strikes orangutans in sanctuary

The Jakarta Post: Elly Burhaini Faiza: 24/11/2011 
The Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF) has reported that tuberculosis infections have delayed the release of 650 captive orangutans back to their natural habitats.

Jamartin Sihite, the BOSF chairman, said on Wednesday that about 10 to 15 percent of a total of 650 orangutans currently kept in cages at the foundation’s rehabilitation centers in Semboja, East Kalimantan, and in Nyaru Menteng, Central Kalimantan, were infected, impeding efforts to reintroduce them to their native habitats.

“We have 650 orangutans in cages; however, we cannot yet release them due not only to the continuous destruction of their habitats but also because many suffer from tuberculosis,” Jamartin told journalists after the signing of an agreement on primate-genetics research between the BOSF and the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology.

The joint research on primate-genetics, which will take place in Central and East Kalimantan, was one of four agreements signed by Eijkman Institute chairman Sangkot Marzuki and the institute’s counterparts.

The BOSF is currently rehabilitating a total of 850 orangutans, comprising 220 orangutans in Semboja rehabilitation center in East Kalimantan and 630 in Nyaru Menteng in Central Kalimantan.

“We allow some orangutans to live in open areas but still keep the remainder in cages,” said Jamartin.

A series of lab tests, which include both culture tests and PCR diagnostics of mycobacterium tuberculosis, carried out at Persahabatan Hospital, show that some orangutans at BOSF rehabilitation centers have active tuberculosis. The source of the infections, however, remains unknown.

“Under the joint research agreement with the Eijkman Institute, we will try to reveal whether the disease-causing agent is carried by humans,” said Jamartin, adding that the study would also include DNA or genetic analysis.

Three species of orangutans now live in Kalimantan, namely Pongo pygmaeus morio in East Kalimantan, Pongo pygmaeus pygmaeus in West Kalimantan, and Pongo pygmaeus wumbii in Central Kalimantan.

The genetic analysis will help the rehabilitation centers in releasing the orangutans back to their native habitats without mixing up one species with another.

“To maintain the purity of their genetics, we should only release the orangutans among the same species to which they belong,” he said, citing a rule of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world’s largest global environment network, which has been ratified by Indonesia.

Tedjo Sasmono, a researcher in tuberculosis at the Eijkman Institute, said that the tuberculosis-causing agent carried by humans was easily transferred to animals since they had genetic similarities.

“It is possible that the transmission of the bacteria occurred when the orangutans were still living with their human handlers. Therefore, it’s important for us to first identify the strain of the tuberculosis,” he told The Jakarta Post.

“We want to know what has been infecting them,” he added.

Sangkot said that ecological changes in Kalimantan made it possible for humans to live closer with wild animals, especially primates with whom they had genetic similarities.

“So, we have to remain on guard against new infectious diseases, transferred from humans to animals and vice versa,” he said.

The BOSF plans to release healthy orangutans in a conservation area of 86,450 hectares in Kutai Timur, East Kalimantan, on April 22, 2012.

“This is the first time for us to release orangutans in the last eight years,” said Jamartin.


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