I had the pleasure of participating in Orangutan Foundation International’s Eco tour in July 2010 together with eleven others from the US and UK, organised by Irene Spencer and led by Dr. Biruté Mary Galdikas.

During our tour of the Orangutan Care Center we were introduced to an orangutan called Rosemary and her daughter Rodnee, who were in an enclosure together. Unlike the majority of young orphaned orangutans in the Care Center Rosemary was a mature female. Unfortunately, Rosemary had been removed from the wild as she was blind in both eyes (from cataracts). Rodnee, who was born in the wild, was kept with her mother, as young orangutans may stay with their mothers until they are at least 7 or 8 years old.

Preparing the operating room and testing the                                             equipment for the operations
Preparing the operating room and testing the equipment for the operations

Whilst standing next to Rosemary’s enclosure, Dr Galdikas told us about her efforts to help Rosemary. This had included contacting a high profile veterinarian from Beverly Hills as well as a Phaco machine manufacturer who had conditionally offered to donate a machine (necessary for cataract operations). Both these attempts for help were not successful. The Beverly Hills doctor wanted first class airline tickets to Borneo for himself and his spouse and also imposed other onerous conditions while the machine manufacturer wanted placement for the machine in a prime time television show.

I was very moved by Rosemary’s predicament and was concerned that her medical condition would prevent her and Rodnee from ever being released back into the forest.

During Dr Galdikas’ briefing, Rosemary picked up a stick and hit it against the bars of her enclosure as if to say “Why doesn’t anybody help me?”

That sound was still ringing in my ears when I arrived back in Australia. I started to see if there was anything I could do for Rosemary.

After some research, I found Dr Izak Venter, a renowned animal opthamologist from South Africa, who in 2007 had carried out the world’s first eye surgery on an orangutan to remove cataracts. The operation was successfully performed on a then 19 year old male orang-utan called Aman at the Matang Wildlife Centre in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

I contacted Dr Venter and he agreed to carry out the operations on Rosemary’s eyes. And so started a journey that was to take two and a half years and end with Rosemary being able to see again with one of her eyes. Her well being and the prospect of her being released back into the forest immediately improved. But that’s getting ahead of the story!

Rosemary's face before surgery on the operating room table
Rosemary’s face before surgery on the operating room table

With the first stages of planning in motion, we decided that it would be necessary to do a fact-finding trip to Borneo to determine if there were other orangutans with ocular problems who could be helped. Dr. Venter also needed to determine what facilities and equipment were available at the Care Centre for the operation, for example, medical grade air, oxygen, anaesthetic machine, sterilising equipment, proper theatre table, etc.

There was a long period of time before that could happen. There was much preparation to be done. Also, co-ordination between the different members of the team turned out to be quite complicated. Team members included people in Australia, South Africa, and Borneo, as well as North America where Dr Galdikas spends several months a year teaching.

The initial fact-finding Borneo trip eventually proceeded in March 2012. During this trip Dr Venter examined Rosemary and a number of other orangutans with eye problems including Malcolm, ESRI, Gagag, Ginny, Patricia, Roman, Rimba, Montana, Karan, Omry, and Johannes.

Four of those with eye problems were found to be crossed eyed. This was puzzling as the cause was unknown. One hypothesis put forward was that, if these four were victims of the pet trade, their condition may be the result of them, while confined in their “homes”, sitting too close to the TV for long periods! This hypothesis was unlikely, provided a smile or two, and has never been tested.

However, in all probability, only one orangutan “pet” in ten thousand gets to sit in front of a television screen in his/her owner’s living room. Most captive orangutans are chained to outside walls or kept in dark, filthy boxes or cages nowhere near a functioning TV.

BBC unit filming during Rosemary's eye operation
BBC unit filming during Rosemary’s eye operation

During this trip Dr Venter and I also had the opportunity to visit camps in areas of forest where OFI released orangutans for the day (so-called soft releases).On one of these visits, after we left the soft release camp, it started raining and the road became wet. This particular part of the track was muddy and we got bogged down. Eventually a passing truck pulled us out after we had spent hours trapped in the mud trying to free our vehicle. The experience of this ride to a nearby OFI field camp typified the difficulties we seemed to face at every turn while working in Borneo.

But our difficulties were not limited to Borneo’s roads. As with all medical projects like this, our project continued to have other challenges
Dr Venter had a phaco machine in South Africa which is necessary for cataract operations and which he used in his surgery there. Unfortunately, the unit was bulky and weighed 40kg (88 pounds) and the cost of transporting it to Borneo and back was prohibitive.

We proceeded to search for a smaller, more portable phaco machine that we might be able to source from contacts in the area.
Dr Venter spent a considerable amount of time tracking down one of his associates, Mr Ricky Pratadaja, who was travelling in Indonesia. Dr. Pratadaja had such a machine which one of Dr Venter’s past graduate students, Dr Amilan Sivagurunathan, who was now operating as a vet in Malaysia, was using. Eventually, the end result was that the Malaysian insurance company refused to insure the unit being flown from Malaysia to Indonesia (even though there was no problem when it travelled in the opposite direction!)

Eventually a phaco expert in Sydney, Lee Morris, was found. Mr Morris, through the company he worked for, Abbott Medical Optics, offered to supply a portable phaco machine together with his services without asking anything in return!

This was a huge breakthrough!

Not only had we secured a vital piece of equipment but Mr Morris now had the technical side of the operation process sorted out, allowing Dr Venter to concentrate on his area of expertise, the actual eye operation. We were now in a position to continue planning the trip to Borneo which involved a great deal of co-ordination in scheduling between Dr Venter and Mr Morris.

In the early stages of planning, we thought it might be worthwhile to film the proposed eye operations for documentation purposes. Operations on orangutan eyes were rare enough that we thought the film footage would be especially valuable for educational purposes.

Initially, the intention was to organise the filming ourselves but later the BBC expressed an interest in the story. The BBC engaged a local film crew including a local (of French origin) photographer and videographer of some renown with extensive experience filming wildlife and environmental stories. This was another piece of the puzzle solved.

Dr.Prima checking vital signs while Dr. Venter looks on
Dr.Prima checking vital signs while Dr. Venter looks on

At the end of January 2013, Dr. Izac Venter, Lee Morris, myself, and the local film crew arrived in Pangalan Bun, Central Indonesian Borneo. We met up with Dr Galdikas and her team including senior OFI intern Ruth Linsky and OFI intern Rachel Arbaugh as well as the Care Center veterinarians, Dr. Popo and Dr. Prima, senior administrator Ibu Waliyati, and other Orangutan Center staff.

After setting up the operating theatre, Dr Venter proceeded to examine the eyes of the orangutans selected on our earlier trip as well as those who had recently come to our attention, in their sleeping enclosures, on location.

As part of the examinations and prior to any surgery taking place, Dr Venter and the team identified that a significant number of the orangutans found to have cataracts also had retinal degeneration in those eyes. Dr Venter said that, in these cases, prognosis to regain retinal function (and sight) was hopeless. No cataract operations were carried out on those orangutans.

This retinal test used a highly sophisticated electroretinography machine, which produces a graphic representation of the electrical changes in the retina as a response to a flash directed into the retina.

Results from this test prevented the orangutans from going through cataract operations that would not have been successful and saved them from associated trauma and possible complications. This was the case with Ginny, Gagak, Siswi, and Malcolm. This was also the case for one of Rosemary’s eyes and one of ESRI’s eyes.

Some of these animals had been rescued from palm oil plantations. Dr Venter commented that the retinal degeneration was suspicious for possible blunt ocular trauma. The orangutans might have suffered this trauma when falling out of the canopy and hitting the ground when their mothers were killed. Or perhaps the orangutans had been hit and hit hard during the capture process.

Over four days of examinations and operations, Dr Venter and the team were able to perform successful cataract operations on one of ESRI’s eyes, and one of Rosemary’s eyes. ESRI’s operation was not straight forward as the vets had trouble with the anaesthetic in that they could not find a vein in one arm and the other arm was missing below the elbow. Even though she had cataracts in both eyes, her right eye had a radial tear and the lens could not be replaced but the cataract was removed. The left eye cataract operation was successful which meant a great improvement in that some sight was restored in the eye.

Other good news was that on examination, it was found that Rimba, Patricia, and Roman, who were found to be cross eyed when examined on the earlier trip, had all experienced different levels of improvement. Rimba had presented earlier with a history of not seeing as well as the other orangutans and hesitant when climbing trees. It was a surprise and joy to know that his strabismus had completely corrected itself!

As with other aspects of the project, we did experience unforeseen difficulties during the four days we spent in the operating theatre. On day 2, after Ginny and Gagak had been examined, the power (from the local authority) failed and the back-up generator was not working. It was fortunate the power failure did not happen during surgery.

We also wanted to examine Siswi, another orangutan that we suspected might have a problem in one eye. Bringing Siswi, a large mature female, to the operating table to examine her eye was also more complicated than happened with the others as she was located in the Camp Leakey forest where she was the dominant adult female. It was known that she had not been seen near camp for the last four days so there was a possibility we would not be able to find her. There is a special caterpillar that wild orangutans love to eat, that had just appeared in the forest. The caterpillars are only seen every few years, which explained Siswi’s relatively extended absence.

We made a one and a quarter hour speed boat trip to Camp Leakey and, much to our relief, were able to locate her. We noticed she had a large gash on her right cheek. Dr Galdikas hypothesized that the gash could have been from an encounter with a wild bearded Bornean pig or even from a clouded leopard. A clouded leopard had been seen in the area and was thought to have recently taken four young wild piglets. The long gash could also have been the result of a fight with another orangutan, either a wild adult female or a male. We simply didn’t know.

Because of her cheek injury it was decided not to examine Siswi at Camp Leakey but to take her back to the Care Centre where she could also have the injury stitched.

Siswi was high up in one of the trees. She knew what was going on. When Dr Galdikas’ pleading with Siswi to come down did not work, Dr. Galdikas used some psychology to tempt her down. This was in the form of feeding one of Siswi’s rival female orangutans in full view of Siswi. Siswi’s response was to peer through the trees with a look of envy that brought to mind an old adage (“if looks could kill”) but still she refused to budge.

When staff climbed into the tree and tried to catch her, Siswi easily escaped. Sometime later she was tracked down and one of the staff used a blow pipe to tranquilise her. The dart missed her on the first attempt but was successful on the second. On this occasion Siswi just pulled the dart out of her backside, looked at it with careless disregard, and then threw it down, almost contemptuously, from the branch where she was perched.
She then positioned herself in the fork of the tree at a great height, which acted as some support, even in her drowsy state.

After one and a half hours of trying to coax her down, she finally slid down the trunk of the tree and was put into a cage for transporting down river. At that stage it was dark. It was thought safer to take her a short distance down the river in the OFI speedboat and then locate a larger, but slower boat which would take her to Kumai. It felt unsafe to transport Siswi all the way to Kumai in a speedboat at night.

Although we could not operate on Siswi’s eye, nonetheless the Care Center veterinarians closed up the large gash on Siswi’s face. Eventually the gash healed but the scar remains.

Rosemary’s trip to the operating theatre was not without its drama either.
It was necessary to tranquilise her in order to get her out of her enclosure. perform the operation, and to relocate her back there. It was predicted but unavoidable that Rodnee was going to become extremely stressed seeing her mother collapse and carried out from her enclosure. This was the first time in her life that Rodnee was separated from her mother. Rodnee’s screams filled the Care Center as her mother was taken out of the enclosure for the eye operation.

After Rosemary’s operation (as with ESRI), the Care Center veterinarians had the great challenge of administering eye drops over a period of two weeks without totally securing Rosemary’s (and ESRI’s) co-operation. But the OFI veterinarians persevered and succeeded in putting eye drops several times a day into Rosemary’s and ESRI’s recuperating eyes.

After the operation, Rosemary’s sight was tested by putting a table of fruit just outside the bars of her enclosure, close enough for her to reach through, and select her favourite ones. This she did with great delight to herself and those of us keenly watching.

Rosemary’s story was featured on an episode of the BBC program “Operation Wild” which was first aired in 2014.

We were also very hopeful of the success of ESRI’s operation as well as being intensely interested to see her reactions after she came out of surgery. Even in the absence of the luxury of her being able to talk about it, it seemed ESRI’s operation was a success. Immediate evidence was in the form of her sitting in her enclosure holding a blanket over her head to block out the light, something she normally never did.

Another positive outcome of the project was Dr Venter intending to write an article for a professional journal, based on the results of readings taken on the eyes of the orangutans he examined. Undoubtedly, no data have ever been taken before on the eyes of so many orangutans, at any one time. These data may be invaluable for people coping with orangutan eye issues in the future.

We can take pride in the fact that all members of the team worked closely and very well together with a bond based on a strong common commitment to help wildlife.

A special moment came just before I left the Care Center. I went over to Rosemary’s enclosure to say goodbye. She extended her arm through the bars, taking my hand to give it a firm but gentle squeeze. For me, this gesture was more than just a goodbye but carried with it a multitude of emotions that will be long remembered.

At the end of the trip we were all satisfied that the project had been a success. Our main aim of helping orangutans and providing educational material alerting the public to the plight of these close relatives of ours was accomplished. Most of all, we were content to know that even during the first few hours after the operation Rosemary’s demeanour had brightened considerably and that her relationship with Rodnee had almost immediately improved. We had almost reached our ultimate goal which was very close to our hearts – to return her, with Rodnee, to the forest where they belong.

NOTE: When OFI rescued ESRI and brought her to the Care Center, she was already blind and her left arm severed at the elbow.

Rosemary and Rodnee returned to the forest in 2014. Soon it may be ESRI’s turn to return to the primary rain forest which is her natural birthright.

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