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For the love of Orangutans: A Q&A with OVAID

For the love of Orangutans: A Q&A with OVAID
Husband and wife team Nigel Hicks and Sara Fell Hicks have swapped the picturesque English countryside for the harsh tropical rainforests of Indonesia in an effort to save critically endangered orangutans.

Nigel and Sara founded Orangutan Veterinary Aid (OVAID), a UK-based charity, in 2014 after multiple volunteering stints at orangutan rehabilitation centres in Borneo.

This experience revealed the desperate need these centres had for urgent medical supplies and equipment.

“Having asked one vet in charge of three rescue units to show us what equipment he had to treat rescued orangutan…” Nigel explains.

“He showed us a small rucksack, which contained hardly anything. It was at this moment we realised we needed to help by providing aid to orangutan vets to enable them to save more lives.”

OVAID creates awareness of the plight of the orangutan through public speaking and education engagements in the UK, and raises funds for vital veterinary supplies.

Regular visits to Indonesia allow Nigel and Sara to volunteer with the veterinary teams to assist with both the clinical workload and mentoring of junior Indonesian vets.

The charity has grown to include a team of passionate volunteers both in the UK and Australia, enabling funding and sourcing of equipment from across the globe.

In the following Q&A, Nigel and Sarah share with us a little about OVAID and their experiences in the jungles of Borneo and Sumatra.

Palm oil crops reaching as far as the eye can see.  

Photo: JulesduncPhotos

How did you become involved with orangutans in Borneo?

After qualifying as a vet in 1973 Nigel established his own veterinary practice in Devon, UK. Sara spent many years managing show kennels and later worked for seven years in Nigel’s veterinary practice as a nurse assistant.

Nigel participated in a two-month volunteer programme at an orangutan rescue centre in Malaysia in 2009. This rekindled our long-standing interest in orangutans. Here we came into contact with a UK charity which later offered us the position of veterinary surgeon at this centre for three months. This subsequently extended to six months and a long-term commitment to return to the centre each year for a few months.

In 2013, after recognising the more urgent situation for orangutan in Indonesia, we resigned our positions with the UK charity and travelled independently to Indonesia to volunteer at rescue centres.


 What is the reality of the situation for orangutans in Indonesia and Malaysia?

The vast scale of deforestation is incomprehensible to anyone who has not witnessed it firsthand. Flying across Malaysian Borneo you see vast expanses of palm oil stretching to the horizon, rarely will you see forest. In addition to deforestation for palm oil, both legal and illegal logging and coal and gold mining also contribute to the problem.

Orangutan rehabilitation centres need to send out their rescue teams on a weekly basis to attempt to rescue just a small proportion of the displaced orangutans. When we were in Sumatra in 2016, more than 16 orangutans entered the rescue centre in as many weeks, most severely injured.

At the other end of the scale, whenever we are at the rescue centre, we must walk past cage after cage of orangutan waiting to be released. As the forest continues to disappear, safe suitable release sites become more and more difficult to find and the release teams must often travel for days or utilise expensive helicopters to enable them to access suitable areas for release.

“Having asked one vet in charge of three rescue units to show us what equipment he had to treat rescued orangutan he showed us a small rucksack, which contained hardly anything. It was at this moment we realised we needed to help by providing aid to orangutan vets to enable them to save more lives.”

Nigel Hicks, Co-founder, OVAID

The realities of the wait for release.

Photo: JulesduncPhotos

Tell us how the orangutans come to be in the rescue centres and some of their veterinary needs.

Some will need to be rescued because they have been forced into an unsustainably small area of forest and, if healthy, can be translocated. Or, as is often the case, if starving taken to the rescue centres for treatment.

On arrival at the rescue centre each orangutan needs a full veterinary assessment and emergency attention to injuries, which can include anything from lacerations, broken limbs, shotgun injuries, burns, malnutrition and dehydration. Orangutans are extremely clever so even something as simple as getting medicines down can often be challenging.

As the forest is cleared, individual mothers with babies will often be killed and the baby taken as a village pet or to sell into the illegal wildlife trade. These young babies will often sustain injuries at the time of capture and suffer the mental trauma of seeing their mothers being killed in front of them. This mental trauma can be equally as lethal as severe physical trauma. The longer a baby is in captivity before being rescued the more damage is done.

Infants suffering from mental trauma need empathy, compassion and comfort. This sometimes needs the individual attention of carers specifically allocated to them.

Having empathy for an orangutan that has suffered so much, you will do all you can to help them to be pain free, to heal, to survive and become healthy both mentally and physically.


Can you share any memorable stories of how OVAID has helped?

There is not always a happy ending to every story, but this is the story of Dina…

Rescued via a raid on an illegal wildlife trafficker. She was eating well and considering her ordeal at the hands of the trafficker, it seemed she would settle in well. The next morning, she was found lying at the bottom of her cage lifeless. The vet team hurriedly got her on a drip and placed her on the critical care monitor provided by OVAID. This is where she stayed for the next two months.

She was taken for CT and MRI scans. Seeing her tiny body in such a huge machine brought home to us how fragile she was and how we had to help her in any way possible.

OVAID sought help from international specialists and the conclusion was that Dina had suffered from meningitis secondary to cerebral malaria, leaving her with a permanent degree of blindness and incapacity.

OVAID played a significant part in Dina’s care. Physiotherapy and massage as well as veterinary care were important. Through her illness Dina still had that fight, that will to live, she never gave up. The vet team and keepers fought alongside her throughout those desperate times. We would take her for walks in the forest to stimulate her, strapped to our chests. She may not have been able to respond much, but with the sunshine on her face and the familiar sounds and smells of the forest, we felt we enabled her to escape the constant beeping of the medical monitors and the smells of the veterinary clinic. The forest was her world and it was important to stimulate her senses.

On OVAID’s visit to Sumatra in 2016 to donate more life-saving equipment, there in forest school was beloved Dina climbing the trees. A sight we had only ever wished for. That’s what keeps us going, humbled honour to continue to save as many lives as we can and do what is right for the orangutan.


What are OVAID’s goals for 2018?

We have two missions for 2018. Firstly, we are aiming to fundraise a minimum of $30,000 to facilitate the purchase of a digital X-ray for one of the major orangutan rescue centres in Indonesia.

Secondly, for longer-term impact, we are in the process of establishing an ongoing training scholarship for new graduate Indonesian vets. This will enable selected vets to undertake several months further training at university and with specialist orangutan zoo vet teams.

We would like to think OVAID’s assistance can be capacity building, encouraging young Indonesian vets to improve their skills and, in turn, pass these on to future vets, ensuring orangutans will always receive the best possible care.


What are your hopes for the future and how can people help?

It sounds strange to say, but our hope is that one day there won’t be a need for OVAID or orangutan rescue centres, as our dream would be for orangutans to be left in peace, safely living in their wild habitat. However, the reality points otherwise if rainforest destruction continues at the horrific pace it’s going right now.

Until the Indonesian government realises that the value of its remaining forest is greater than the income that can be gained from selling concessions, then sadly things will not change for the orangutan and the many other endangered species.

We know we are simply the sticking plaster to what is a huge issue, but while the issue exists we will continue to do all we can to help orangutan vets save orangutan lives.

Our goal is to continue to provide vital life-saving veterinary equipment to rescue centres and teams until all their extensive wish lists are fulfilled.

We believe that education and awareness are vital for progress so we ask supporters to spread the word and promote the orangutan cause.

Of course, we cannot continue to do the work that we do without finance so our fundraisers are our lifeblood.

Since 2014 OVAID has donated about $50,000 worth of essential medicines and equipment to seven major orangutan rescue centres. Supplies such as bandages, antibiotics, anaesthetic machines and critical care monitors are crucial if centres hope to successfully rescue, rehabilitate and release their patients back into the wild.

The harsh climate and remote locations means equipment needs constant maintenance and replacement, not to mention the damage caused by the orangutans.

“Orangutans have no care for how much a piece of equipment costs, if it’s in their way then it’s fair game,” Nigel says.

So, if these gorgeous animals have captured your heart, like they have mine, then supporting OVAID is a great way to help them. Every little bit counts as not all life-saving equipment is expensive.

“Sometimes an intravenous drip set, which costs just a few pounds, can save the life of a dehydrated orangutan.”

Click here for more information and to donate.

About The Author

Julie Duncan

Julie Duncan is passionate about conservation and animal rights. She’s a keen traveller and photographer and has volunteered at many animal rescue centres across the world, including five times in Borneo. She hopes to spread awareness of the issues facing our planet and the animals in it. Julie is a trained nurse and lives in Melbourne. Follow her stories on Instagram @JulesduncPhotos.