Ongaeshi Project aims to give back to nature

by Winifred Bird

Asahiyama Zoo’s Jack, Lianne and 3-year-old Morito have whispy red fur, long graceful hands and eyes that are as searchingly intelligent as many a pair on the other side of their cage. These Borneo orangutans are likely the most frequently viewed members of their species in Japan — yet until last year, the zoo had no direct link with Borneo itself. Then they received a visit from Toshinori Tsubouchi, director of the nonprofit Borneo Conservation Trust Japan.

“We were talking about how a lot of people saw the Borneo orangutans here,” recalled zoo director Gen Bando. “He asked me, ‘Is the point of a zoo just to entertain people? The zoo is doing nothing for orangutans.’

“I was really troubled by that point. We’d become very famous, but financial success isn’t what we had originally been after. So I told him, ‘I don’t know how much we can do, but we’ll try.’ “

In March 2009, Bando, orangutan keeper Akihiro Ouchi and educational event coordinator Shinichi Saga visited the Malaysian state of Sabah on the island of Borneo. There, they saw vast expanses of rain forest and equally vast tracts of palm plantations. The plantations produce palm oil, which makes its way into products in Japan ranging from soap to coffee creamer. This, in combination with hunting and trade, has reduced orangutan populations there by 50 percent to 90 percent over the past decades, according to wildlife biologist Marc Ancrenaz. Borneo elephants are also critically endangered.

“Everything was beyond my imagination,” said Ouchi, who glimpsed a wild orangutan on the trip. “I want to communicate what I saw and felt there and to make the zoo enclosure more like their habitat in Borneo.”

On returning, Bando started what’s called the Ongaeshi Project. “Ongaeshi” roughly translates from Japanese as “paying back a debt.”

“Conservation means protecting a certain cycle, but right now Japan is just continuously robbing other countries. We’ve got to give back,” said Bando. “The crucial question is how zoos relate to the wild habitats that their animals originally came from.”

The goal is to build a wildlife rescue center, primarily for elephants, in Sabah. Special vending machines have been set up both around Asahiyama Zoo and in major cities, with a portion of proceeds going toward the project.

“I want to build this center not with donations from a big company but with involvement from everyone. That’s a type of conservation that we, as a zoo, can do,” said Bando.