OVAG 2021 Begins!

This year’s Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group (OVAG) Workshop is focusing on ape welfare, which is especially poignant as we are still dealing with the challenges of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The first live session of this year’s conference focused on three very important aspects in conservation organizations; communication, human-primate interaction, and mental health for veterinarians and conservationists.

Panel 1: Communication Strategy in Zoos

The first live panel session focused on Communication Strategy in Zoos, which included talks from the Surabaya Zoo in Indonesia and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in the United States. COVID-19 was especially challenging for zoological institutions worldwide, as various wildlife species were also susceptible to the virus. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park learned about this firsthand as a handful of individuals in their gorilla troop tested positive for SARS-COV-2. It is important for any zoologic institution to develop these protocols as they have the potential to directly affect the animals in their care, since they typically rely heavily on public support. This panel fostered discussions on how zoological institutions can more effectively communicate with the public and support missions to conserve wildlife. 

Panel 2: Human – Orangutan Interaction in Rehabilitation Setting

The second live panel consisted of talks by drh. Citrakasih M. Nente (SOCP/OVAG), The Enclosure Design Tool (EDT) Team (University of Birmingham), and Sabrina Brando (PASA/University of Stirling). The panel discussed the interaction between humans and orangutans in a rehabilitation setting from both an Asian Ape field programme perspective and an academic perspective. As stated in drh. Nente’s presentation, the primary objective of reintroduction is “to establish self-sustaining populations of great apes in the wild by re-establishing an extinct wild population or supplementing a wild population that is under carrying capacity or not viable.” With a secondary objective of “promoting conservation awareness, enhancing psychological or physical well-being for individual apes, enhancing protection and law enforcement efforts, and/or, when the following guidelines can be followed, freeing up sanctuary space.” With the many psychological, physical, and other health problems that come with ex-captive primates, rehabilitation is often carried out in a “Forest School”, where the primates can exercise, obtain forest skills, knowledge, social learning in secured areas, mentally develop, and be supported. At these forest schools, human intervention is vital, but must know what the lines of interaction are. From the field programme perspective, humans should organize and dehumanize orangutans; observe, wait, be patient, and persevere; identify wild orangutan behavior versus insecure behavior; build trust; and security-stimulation. 

Panel 3: Mental Health for Veterinarians and Conservationists

The third and final talk of day one came from Dr. Steve Unwin and Sabrina Brando and it focused on mental health in the conservation field. All too often, conservationists experience something called “compassion fatigue” which occurs when individuals experience great amounts of stress caring for or helping traumatized people or animals. Especially when considering the vast amount of animals that can pass through rescue facilities in Southeast Asia, this problem has the capacity to effect a multitude of caregivers. The introduction to this topic focused on how organizations can provide resources for their staff and how individuals can recognize the symptoms of this fatigue. Self health is just as important as the job at hand, especially out on the front lines of conservation. OVAG hopes to become a resource and support network for mental health among veterinarians. animal care staff, and conservationists alike.

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