Delegates at the Asia for Animals conference in Kuching on Malaysian Borneo heard about the horrors of the dog meat trade, the decline in animal populations, and the devastation being caused by forest fires, but they were also told about the growing popularity of pets as therapy and the global increase in awareness about animal cruelty.
After two days of challenging and often heart-rending presentations, delegates were treated to some music and comedy – and a demonstration of body painting – in an afternoon session on Thursday that was focused on the future of Borneo’s animals.
Opening the session, Marc Ancrenaz from the Hutan/Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Programme in Sabah, Malaysia, spoke about the huge drop in animal numbers over the past fifty years. “We have lost half of the animals on the planet over that period, and some scientists estimate that, over the next 100 years or so, we’ll lose another 50 percent of the existing species.”
Borneo Futures, which is an initiative launched by a group of scientists, organised the conference event to convey “a message of positivity and hope”; to lift the spirits of those dealing with the huge challenges in wildlife care and conservation.
In its mission statement, Borneo Futures says it is “dedicated to changing and improving the well-being of all living things in Borneo by sharing accurate information and raising awareness of the need to preserve its unique and natural environment for future generations”.
The speakers on Thursday afternoon included two teenagers – 17-year-old Emily Meijaard and 16-year-old Azalea Roseli – who shared their thoughts about the environment in an impassioned rap-style presentation. “I think I speak for most urban youth when I say that we do care for the environment,” Roseli said. “We are aware that this is our future; this is our world.”
When young people contribute to environmental destruction, it’s not a lack of information or a lack of knowledge that is to blame, Roseli says, “because it’s right there at our fingertips, on our phones”; it’s a lack of personal physical connection with nature.
Meijaard talked about the lack of places in Asia where young people can see wildlife in an appropriate setting. She spoke of fast-food style zoos in Indonesia, where you “sit in your car, drive through the zoo, and see animals through your windscreen”; where you take a selfie and you’re done.
There are zoos in Indonesia, Meijaard says, “where animals are starving to death in small, dark enclosures”.
After the presentations, music by the Amir Yussof Project, and the body painting by airbrush artist Herman Duang, comedienne Jo Kukathas presented a hilarious sketch, written especially for the conference, which portrayed the shock and upset of her character when confronted by the destruction of the rainforest. She wanted, she said “to curl up like a pangolin”. Why, she wondered, did people use the word deforestation when talking about the mass cultivation of oil palms. “Wouldn’t infestation be more appropriate?”
The horrors of the meat trade
In Thursday’s morning session, delegates heard more about the terrible cruelty to which animal are subjected, and the horrors of the dog meat trade.
“Back in 1985, when I started investigating the dog meat trade, primarily in China, there were a lot of dog farms, but our investigations over the past few years show that there are no large operating farms in China anymore. In almost 100 percent of cases the traders are stealing these dogs. They are stealing them from the streets; they are stealing them from people’s loving homes.”
Animals Asia has called on the Chinese government not to legalise the dog meat industry, but to ban it.
The treatment of dogs in the slaughter houses in China is appalling, Robinson says.
The message today is no longer only about the cruelty, Robinson says. While people are very often unconcerned about animal welfare, they do care if their dog is stolen, and do see that the dog trade is a public health issue.
“When many of these dogs are stolen, they are also poisoned. Right outside our bear rescue centre, we’ve had about ten dogs that have been stolen and some of them have been poisoned with cyanide; a disgusting death for these dogs. That toxic meat is entering China’s food chain. People are eating the dog meat from animals that have died from leptospirosis, distemper, parvo, and potentially rabies as well.”
Robinson told speakers about vigilantes in China who have taken matters into their own hands. “I don’t advocate violence in the community, but people who are having their dogs stolen in both China and Vietnam are fighting back. They are going out, just grabbing these thieves and beating them up.”
Robinson showed delegates a photo of one of two dog thieves who had killed some dogs. “According to the Chinese press, they were beaten up for nine hours and then the dogs that they’d killed were strung around their necks, with the bottoms facing towards their faces so as to make those guys lose face. You’d never have seen something like this even five years ago.”
A man prays for forgiveness at a dog meat market in China. (Photo courtesy of hugchina.com)
Even in Guangzhou, which 20 years ago was known as the dog-eating capital of China, things have changed dramatically, Robinson says. One of the most famous restaurants serving dog meat has closed down because of lack of business. “We are finding more restaurants that are either closing down because of lack of business or because of illegal activities.”
Robinson told delegates about Tuffy, a puppy who was brought to Animals Asia’s bear centre in China recently after being treated with horrendous cruelty.
Tuffy’s owner was so angry when the puppy chewed on his mobile phone that the man poured boiling water over the dog’s body and threw him from the fourth floor of an apartment block onto the concrete below.
Tuffy suffered burns over 60 percent of his body. “By the time he came to us he was an absolute mess,” Robinson said. “Vets had put him on a drip, but he hadn’t had pain relief for two weeks.”
The puppy is still recovering and, despite everything that has happed to him, is one of the friendliest dogs on the planet, Robinson says, and one of the most forgiving.
Pets in therapy and diagnosis
While Robinson’s presentation painted an extremely disturbing picture, she also talked about positive development such as pets as therapy (PAT dogs) and such projects as Dr Dog in Hong Kong, Japan, and Malaysia and projects in children’s homes organised by the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).
There are now about 1,000 dogs involved in Dr Dog projects in seven countries across Asia.
Robinson told delegates about Max, who was the first dog she took into the Duchess of Kent children’s hospital in Hong Kong and the effect he had on a paraplegic patient. “It was one of the most life-changing moments for me as well. Max walked over to that boy. He got up on his back legs, put his huge golden paws on the bed, and that boy’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. From that second, Doctor Dog was born.”
Dr Dog work is done with children with Down’s syndrome. Robinson cites the case of one Malaysian girl with Down’s syndrome who had been raped multiple times in the street. When she came into care, she was understandably quiet and withdrawn, Robinson says. “She sat in a corner and wouldn’t talk to anybody; she just wouldn’t respond at all – until a Doctor Dog came along and then suddenly she started to reach out to the dog; she started to talk to the hospital staff and to the volunteers.”
Doctor Dogs are also cheering up the elderly and providing therapy for those with dementia, who can remember very little, but remember the dogs’ names even if they only meet them once.
Dogs are also being used in Professor Paws programmes in China and Hong Kong to enhance children’s reading abilities. Children are far less embarrassed about reading to a dog than they are when reading to a teacher, Robinson says. In China, the reading is all about the environment and children also learn about approaching dogs safely; how to recognise a dog’s body language. In Hong Kong, at the end of the four-week lesson, the children give feedback. “My favourite statement was from a ten-year old kid who said his interaction with his Professor Paws was better than a cup of chocolate milk,” Robinson told delegates.
Robinson also talked about studies indicating that dogs are able to determine the difference between cancerous and non-cancerous cells. In one study in Italy involving 900 patients – 360 with prostate cancer and 540 that didn’t have cancer – dogs detected the presence of prostate cancer with 93 percent accuracy. A study in Buckinghamshire in Britain has had similar results.
How, Robinson asks, can animals with such relevance in our society, and such intelligence and sentience, still be being treated – in their millions – as meat dogs in markets across Asia.
The tide is changing, however, Robinson says. “When I started, there was one animal welfare group in China and now there are 150 and I am sure that’s happening everywhere across Asia.”
Scientist Eric Meijaard focused on Borneo, described the island as “an amazing place that really stands out globally as a place of very, very high biodiversity, great threats, and great opportunities”.
Meijaard talked about hunting, which is says very few people recognise as a real big issue in conservation in places like Borneo. In areas that are still forested, Meijaard says, you were six times more likely to see an orangutan 150 years ago than you are now.
“We now estimate that about 1,500 to 2,500 orangutans are being killed annually in the Indonesian part of Borneo alone. Half of that is for meat.”
The destruction of forests by big industries is an important issue, Meijaard says, but humans taking wildlife out of forests, mostly for meat, is as big a factor.
Extinction and its causes
The Sumatran rhino has long disappeared from Sarawak on Malaysian Borneo and was recently declared extinct in the neighbouring state of Sabah.
The rhino was declared extinct in Kalimantan, on Indonesian Borneo, in the 1970s, but Meijaard is convinced there are still rhinos there. There may, though, be only ten rhinos left in the whole of Borneo, he says.
There used to be herds of rhino on the Indonesian island of Java, but there are now only about fifty of them left in the world.
“If these animals weren’t being killed, they would be grazing on river banks, probably in large groups,” Meijaard said. “Killing is something that is underestimated as a factor in driving these species towards extinction.”
Extrapolating from a study carried out in one village in East Kalimantan, Meijaard estimates that about 200 million kilos of bush meat are being extracted from the Bornean forest annually.
Meijaard says people go to very remote parts of Borneo to collect animals with commercial value, like pangolins and helmeted hornbills.
Land use change is also a huge factor, Meijaard says. A lot of land is being lost to plantations and irresponsible logging practices, and to fire, and it’s not just the big industries that are to blame.
“We can link about half of deforestation to the presence of large companies. The other half is a very complex process of fires, smallholder agriculture, and illegal logging, so it’s not just about big plantations and industries.”
Development and land allocation are very complex issues, Meijaard says, and the costs of the effects of development are hard to assess, but, he says, “no-one needs to kill an orangutan because they are hungry or they are being attacked”. Orangutans, Meijaard says, are by and large not an aggressive species.
Further coverage to follow.
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