'Gober,' is an elderly, blind, female Sumatran orangutan who has never seen her 18-month-old twins. Thanks to groundbreaking cataract surgery, the ape will hopefully see her babies for the very first time.
The surgery on the orangutan, performed last Monday by Dr. R. Arie Umboh, a "human" eye specialist from Samarinda, took 40 minutes and is believed to be the first such operation of its kind in Indonesia. The patient, an elderly female red ape, was captured in 2008 for her own safety, after it was discovered that cataracts had caused her to lose her sight.
Gober now resides at the at the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme's (SOCP) quarantine center near Medan, in North Sumatra, Indonesia. "Based on the condition of her teeth we estimate she is probably well over 40 years old," said SOCP veterinarian drh Yenny Saraswati in a press release to Digitial Journal. Ïf we hadn’t brought her here she would have been killed by local farmers, as she was raiding their crops to survive." the vet added.
Photos copyright Alain Compost
Cataract surgery for orangutans is still very rare and this is probably the first such operation in Indonesia.
What makes Gober's situation unique, is that she has 18-month-old twin babies that were born at the facility to a blind orangutan father named Leuser. Leuser lost his sight after being shot 62 times by an air rifle (twice in one eye and once in the other). The SOCP vet explained that "Normally we don’t encourage orangutans at the center to breed, as there are already far too many orangutans in captivity in Indonesia."
In fact, the center prefers breeding to occur once the apes are again living free in the wild. "We made an exception in Gober’s case," said Saraswati, "since we knew she was a good mother and felt that being blind, it would dramatically improve her quality of life." Gober was introduced to Leuser hoping that they would breed. "We were all very surprised when she produced twins," added the vet, a male named 'Ganteng' and a female, 'Ginting.'
Dr. Ian Singleton, Conservation Director of the Swiss based PanEco Foundation and head of the SOCP, explained that twin orangutan births are not unheard of. "I have heard of some 10 to 15 cases in my career" he said, "but twins whose parents are both blind is totally unique."
Because both parents are blind, neither ape has been able to see the babies they produced; still, Gober has by all accounts been an exemplary mother. So "When an opportunity arose to operate and perhaps restore her sight," said SOCP, we "jumped at the chance."
Photos copyright Alain Compost
Gober will regain a large amount of her sight, allowing her to see her 18-month-old twins for the first time.
Dr R. Arie Umboh, who was assisted by Ms. Juliana Sasambe, and SOCP vets drh Yenny and drh Rachmad Wahyudi, performed the surgery last Monday, and so far all appears to be going as planned.
"We found no evidence of any damage to the retina of either eye," said Dr Umboh, "so I am very hopeful that Gober will regain a large amount of her sight." If everything continues on this track the specialist added, "There’s every chance she will finally be able to see her twin infants for the first time very soon."
The SOCP are thrilled with the results. "Its absolutely fantastic that we were finally able to do this for Gober," they said. "We had to wait until the twins were big enough to be separated briefly from their mum but now that we have done it, all being well, it will change each of their lives. We are extremely grateful for the help of Dr Umboh and also to the Orang-Utans in Not foundation from Germany for covering the logistical costs of the work."
The Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme is dedicated to all aspects of orangutan conservation in Sumatra. They confiscate and reintroduce illegal pet orangutans to the wild and conduct field research to monitor remaining wild Sumatran orangutan populations.
It is an ongoing battle to preserve the orangutan in the wild. The forest on the coast of Aceh province, Indonesia, has one of the largest remaining populations of wild orangutans in the world. Palm oil companies and illegal operations have decimated their habitat, burning up the forests to plant saplings for palm oil. The principle ingredient of this oil, is found in approximately half of all packaged goods sold on grocery store shelves.
Last June, SOCP estimated that there are now only 200 orangutan left at Rawa Tripa areas, compared to 1990, when almost 2,000 of the great apes were registered. As fires continue to burn, the status of orangutans in the area has reached a critical stage.
To date, the SOCP’s quarantine center near Medan has received over 150 illegal pet orangutans, of which over 180 have been returned to the wild in Jambi and Aceh provinces. But SOCP, which also works on rainforest habitat protection and conservation education and awareness, relies on public help.
"Donations are always needed to care for and reintroduce the SOCP’s orangutans," said the programme. People can donate via paypal at Sumatranorangutan.org or by contacting the PanEco Foundation directly (firstname.lastname@example.org).