Games to stimulate apes still in case

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


As Hong Kong's orang-utans spend their days swinging through a concrete enclosure that animal rights groups say is inadequate for their needs, a tablet computer that could enrich their lives lies sealed in a metal case, out of reach of the creatures it was meant to help.

The HK$12,000 touchscreen computer is loaded with games designed to stimulate the creatures. The Botanical and Zoological Gardens in Mid-Levels says its methods of stimulating orang-utans are in line with international guidelines.

'Orang-utans are such intelligent creatures ... they need stimulation,' said Adrienne Watson, president of Masarang Hong Kong, a conservation group dedicated to orang-utan welfare, which donated the computer last autumn.

'Computers will enrich the orang-utans' lives,' said Dr Willie Smits, a scientist and conservationist who runs a sanctuary in Borneo which is home to more than 600 of the endangered primates and works with Masarang Hong Kong.

'In the forest, their whole life is a complicated 3D puzzle ... they have so many problems to solve,' he said. 'It's one big intelligence challenge.'

The games were developed by Dr Hanna Wirman of Polytechnic University's school of design, and handed over by Masarang Hong Kong in April last year. But since then the charity has heard nothing.

A spokesman for the Leisure and Culture Services Department, which runs the zoo, said it had consulted the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which said its current forms of environmental enrichment for the orang-utans - providing cardboard boxes and palm fronds to play with, and hiding food inside bags to simulate foraging - were 'fine and equally effective'.

Masarang Hong Kong says that is not enough to keep the intelligent creatures happy. It points to zoos around the world that have made good use of similar technology.

At Zoo Atlanta, a touchscreen programme is built into a tree-like structure and is used by researchers to study the animal's cognition.

'The objective with any enrichment programme is to provide animals with challenges, something to occupy their time, having to forage with their food, trying to present them with the sorts of challenges they might need in the wild: to keep them occupied, busy, entertained,' said Lori Perkins, director of animal programmes at Zoo Atlanta.

But she said only about half of the orang-utans had shown any interest in the technology.

Mara McCaffery, of Orang-utan Aid, has previously described Hong Kong's orang-utan enclosure as falling far short of international standards. She agreed that technology alone may not solve the problem of enrichment in zoos. 'But it has to be tried ... If it's not going to cost anything, why not try it?'

Go to to watch a video of Willie Smits' visiting the orang-utans in Hong Kong