After a two-year process, the Oklahoma City Zoo has welcomed home 23-year-old, female Sumatran orangutan Negara. The Zoo had to apply for permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, while Australia had to follow its government’s permitting protocol. Almost a full year passed before both permits for Negara’s move were approved. Laura Bottaro, OKC zoological curator, worked diligently with colleagues to write Negara’s permit and a company that specializes in transporting domestic and exotic animals across the world.
“We worked with the Orangutan Species Survival Plan, US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Perth Zoo in Australia,” said Bottaro. “The SSP approved Negara as a breeding companion for our 15-year-old, male Sumatran orangutan Elok. We hope Negara and Elok will enjoy each other’s company, and will increase the population and add genetic diversity to the species in North America. Orangutan numbers are very low in zoos. The Zoo’s partnership with the SSP acts as an important hedge against extinction for orangutans.”
The Journey Begins
So exactly how does an orangutan travel from Australia to the Sooner state? Usually when traveling with zoo animals, a keeper accompanies them so they are comfortable and see familiar faces along the way. The Perth Zoo was not able to send a staff member with Negara so the OKC Zoo sent me to travel with Negara on the 22-plus-hour journey back to the United States. I spent three days at the Perth Zoo watching Negara in training sessions and learning about her personality. I became familiar with Negara’s diet, favorite enrichment items and interactions with the Perth Zoo staff. I also learned that Negara likes T-shirts, blankets, juices and exotic fruits, such as mango, jackfruit, kiwi and durian.
After this important bonding time, Negara and I began the travel phase of the journey. Perth Zoo staff had engineered a traveling crate, following specific requirements from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the International Air Transport Association and Australian governing partners. Some of Negara’s keepers accompanied us to the airport to bid farewell as we boarded Qantas Airlines. The ground crew as well as the pilots made sure Negara was safely secured in the cargo hold and that the temperature was a comfortable 68-70 degrees. From Perth, the flight landed in Sydney for a layover where I had the opportunity to check on Negara to make sure she was well and comfortable before proceeding on to Dallas, Texas. Negara did great during the trip and even enjoyed a snack.
Welcome to the U.S.A.!
Once the plane landed in Dallas, Negara’s quarantine began. When animals relocate within zoo environments, they go through a quarantine period to ensure they are free of any illnesses or parasites that could potentially pass on to the animals living at their new zoo home. Because Negara came from a zoo outside the United States, her quarantine process was more involved and she had to be quarantined at a Center for Disease Control-licensed facility. We asked our neighbors at the Sedgwick County Zoo in Wichita, Kansas, which is also accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to temporarily keep Negara at their new facility during the quarantine period. Some of the Zoo staff helped me drive Negara from Dallas to Wichita in a specially equipped vehicle to start her quarantine process. Zoo staff members also traveled at various times during Negara’s quarantine to be with her during wellness exams and to continue the bonding process.
The Road Home
A few weeks later, associate vet tech Gretchen Cole and hospital technician Michael First drove to Wichita to finally bring Negara home. She traveled well and is currently acclimating to her new surroundings at Great Escape. In Perth, Negara was only familiar with other orangutans. Here, in her new home, Negara will also see and hear chimpanzees and gorillas, providing her with a more enriching environment.
You may not see Negara, Elok, and Toba together on exhibit for a while. Introductions are a timely, multiple-step process and can take many weeks to complete. The Great Escape team takes their cues from how the orangutans interact with each other before moving on to each step. The goal is to ultimately and carefully create an enriching family group for all the animals. We also hope Negara and Elok are compatible mates that will result in successful breeding, which will be exciting for not only our Zoo but also for the overall population of orangutans in the wild.
Guests will soon notice that the Zoo has made some changes to the trees in the orangutan’s habitat yard, which will help Negara further adjust to her new home by being able to climb on tall structures. Thanks to a wonderful donor, the Zoo is building a new climbing structure for the orangutan yard so all the orangutans can climb as they naturally do in the wild, being primarily “arboreal” apes, which means “living in trees”.
You Can Help
Sumatran orangutans are considered critically endangered in the wild. Globally, 60 percent of primate species are now threatened with extinction and 75 percent have declining populations. This condition exists due extensive habitat loss, increased bushmeat hunting and illegal trade. The Zoo is playing an increasingly critical role in saving wildlife, including orangutans. In 2016, the Zoo partnered with Rainforest Trust to buy and protect over 200,000 acres of forest in Sumatra, which provides habitat for orangutans and is the only reintroduction site for orangutans in the area.
If you are interested in helping wild orangutans, you can do so by becoming ZOOfriends’ members. Membership dollars are used to fund the Zoo’s major conservation efforts. Also, at any gift shop or food stand, you can ask to “Round Up for Conservation” which simply rounds up your total amount to the nearest dollar. This Round Up for Conservation program generated more than $112,000 in 2016, a portion of which helped fund the purchase of the rainforest acreage in central Sumatra. Your “small” amount of change is combined into a conservation fund that helps the Zoo donate to different causes around the world.
– Robin Newby, Great EscApe assistant curator