Orang-utans getting closer to mum

PUBLISHED : Friday, 10 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 10 February, 2012, 12:00am

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Starting today, the public will be able to see a boy-girl pair of Borneo orang-utan twins at the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens for the first time since the birth of the great apes in July.

For the past seven months they have been taken care of by human hands indoors while their mother, Raba, lives in a separate enclosure outside - a move that animal-rights groups have questioned since day one but had yet to receive any clear answers about, until now.

Senior zoo veterinarian Dr Eric Tai Hing-fung said Raba had rejected her babies.

On the day they were born, the first-time mother had held her children but not fed them.

The zookeepers decided they had to take Wan Wan and Wah Wah away to feed them. It was no small feat: they first had to anaesthetise the 75kg Raba.

It has proved an even greater task reintroducing the babies to their mother.

A few days after the birth, the zookeepers brought the twins to the border of Raba's enclosure but she ignored them, choosing instead to stay up in the metal rafters of her cage.

The zookeepers tried several times since then but kept the twins behind a mesh fence because they were unsure how Raba would react.

They feared she may hurt them, perhaps by dropping them from a high bar. The twins have been seeing their mother once a week, for 15 to 20 minutes each time. But she has remained disinterested.

But at the beginning of this month Raba went up to the fence to smell and touch her babies for the first time.

'Progress,' Tai said.

He said it could take years for Raba to fully accept her twins. If she shows any real interest, the zookeepers want to reunite the family.

'For teaching them to be orang-utans again, no one is as good as the mother,' Tai said.

Animal rights groups say they cannot comment on the specifics of what the zoo is doing as they had only learned of the reunification efforts yesterday.

Mara McCaffery of Orang-utan Aid Hong Kong welcomed the zoo's efforts but said it should be more public with its information.

'For the last seven months they have not explained the actions or what they were doing, that they were trying to get them together,' McCaffery said, though she had written to request information.

She and other animal activists had wondered why the babies were separated from their mother and some still believe the babies would be better off being reintroduced to the wild.

Questions persist. Why would a mother not want her own children? Does Raba not have maternal instincts, as Tai says happens sometimes at other zoos and even in the wild? Would she really hurt her children if they were brought inside the enclosure?

When asked whether 15 to 20 minutes of exposure a week outside the cage was enough for Raba to form a true bond with her babes again, Tai said he did not know.

The zoo was consulting primatologists around the world, he said.

Unfortunately, Raba herself cannot explain.