There are always a few people in every graduating class who are focused on a career trajectory into the tough field of zoological medicine. In my final year of vet school I had taken as many externships in zoos and wildlife hospitals as possible and even during my first few years out I maintained a keen interest in wildlife. I had completed short internships at Bristol and Chester Zoos in the UK and navigated the daunting sole-charge shifts at one of the largest wildlife hospitals in England, but nothing compared to my time in Borneo.
The Kawasan Wisata Pendidikan Lingkungan Hidup (KWPLH) sun bear education centre is the first and only conservation education centre in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) with a veterinary clinic. It is located at the border of the diminishing natural rainforests in East Kalimantan, where intermittent floods of rain are accompanied by flashes of lightning. Indonesian Borneo is home to some of the most rich and biodiverse rainforest in the world. It harbours a myriad of endemic species of flora and fauna and some of the world’s most unique and iconic endangered wildlife such as the orangutan, pygmy elephant, Sumatran rhinoceros, sun bears and the endemic proboscis monkey.
I was told that doing an internship in Borneo would be a stepping stone into the zoo work I coveted. I arrived with trepidation, laden with donated medications that occupied half my suitcase. At the sun bear education centre in Kalimantan, they house sun bears confiscated from the illegal wildlife trade, but also provide a shelter for stray cats and dogs that are found abandoned on the centre grounds.
On arrival, I still remember the sky was red and the air thick with smoke. Fires are not a natural occurrence in Borneo and these ancient tropical forests cannot recover from man induced fire damage. Desolation is left causing further fragmentation of the sun bear’s tropical hardwood forest habitat. Every hour 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being cut and burnt across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations that are used in everything from snack foods to soaps.
The drought and fires had been particularly devastating that year. Almost 80 per cent of orangutan habitat has disappeared in the last 20 years with the destruction of over 3.5 million hectares of Indonesian and Malaysian forest.
The temperature was routinely 30C and the humidity was always between 75-90%. The night brought a certain measure of coolness at 25C that allowed us to get a rest and prepare for the day ahead. When the numerous shelter dogs were silent and the cats dispersed there was a peace that hovered quietly beneath the canopy of the trees, which made the sometimes chaotic days bearable.
I worked primarily with a resident volunteer vet to take care of the numerous dogs and cats on site, and helped with the local free spay/neuter program for stray animals, in addition to caring for the sun bears and other wildlife at the centre. Most of the local staff had a deep love for the animals. It was a beautiful to see, especially in these relatively poor people who display more compassion in one morning than some others do in a lifetime.
The centre was founded by Gabriella, a Dutch biologist. She has been working tirelessly with the Indonesian people and local government since 1998 to establish management of the forest in order to save the fragile ecosystem and to develop the sun bear education centre.
Together, we cared for 7 sun bears who roamed a 1.3ha forested enclosure, as well as monkeys, hornbills, and any forest animals that needed veterinary treatment. I was on call 24 hours a day for the duration of my 2 month stay and I would not have had it any other way. Some veterinary procedures involved surgical repair of traumatic injuries, from basic wound management to fracture repair. In other instances, the safety of the anaesthetic as well as the impact re-release may have on all animals - such as other monkeys - had to be considered. The challenge was often to find the balance between providing adequate veterinary care and minimising the stress of capture, handling and hospitalisation on the patient. Therefore, routine monitoring, preventative care and behavioural enrichment also formed a significant portion of daily tasks.
Every day brought the promise of learning something new about the local people, their customs, language, and wildlife. I almost missed a wildcat capture and re-release emergency one day just because I took a lunch break! In between the routine of the day we also found ourselves hand raising a tiny bear cub whose mother was thought to have been driven away by bulldozers which were clearing land for palm oil. The bear keepers named him Sakti hoping that it would reflects his strength to survive. Sakti became the brightest part of my day and I watched his growth with the anxious eyes of a vet.
University trains you for ‘best practice’ medicine but it never prepares you for using expired medication because you have little else, or performing surgery in the dirt with nothing but a head torch for lighting. The main thing I learnt is that you have to make compromises some times. You treat as best as you can and you sterilise surgical instruments in a pressure cooker if you have to.
When I arrived in Borneo I didn’t think that I would last one day, but when it came time to leave I wanted nothing more than to stay. Zoo Medicine along with memberships and fellowships were once my goals, but I now believe that the warriors of conservation medicine are the vets ‘in the trenches’ who run in between bulldozers to save sun bears and tirelessly give their lives to ensure a future for animals that are becoming extinct at an all too rapid pace.
The sun bear population has decreased by more than 30% in the last 30 years.
We are losing over 6,000 orangutans a year.
There are now only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the world.
Improved conservation of the remaining forest is desperately needed to decrease further losses, as well as ecological restoration and reforestation to promote connectivity between fragmented forest areas. Many people ask dejectedly- well, what can I do? Veterinarians have the ability to make a huge difference in the field of conservation medicine and change the course of our World. Every speciality has its importance, and perhaps fame lies in zoo medicine and TV shows, but deep in the jungles you will find an honour and glory that is unmatched. It is far from an easy life but whether you give a moment or a lifetime to conservation, it is an experience that will flow in your veins forever.
Dr Prishani Vengetas BVSc CVA MRCVS
Prishani is a University of Sydney graduate who has worked in small animal and zoo/wildlife hospitals around the world. She has a keen interest in conservation medicine and has volunteered in Thailand, Borneo and the UK. Prishani has recently completed her certification in veterinary acupuncture and is now working towards emergency and critical care specialisation while practicing as a locum throughout Australia.
KWPLH Sun Bear Education and Conservation Centre www.beruangmadu.org
Pro Natura Foundation www.pronaturafoundation.org
Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme www.sumatranorangutan.org
The Centre for Orangutan Protection orangutanprotection.com
With Compassion and Soul: Palm Oil Investigations www.withcompassion.com.au/palm-oil-investigations