'I had to help orangutans'

When Sue Sheward went on holiday to Jersey, little did she realise it would quite literally change her life. Like many visitors to the island, Sue went to the world-famous Durrell Wildlife Park, which helps endangered species. And here she had her first encounter with an orangutan...

Sue (69) says, “They just melted my heart. They’re the only great ape that returns our gaze, and their eyes just pleaded with me. They reach out with their little hands and it’s so hard not to return the gesture.”

There and then Sue decided she wanted to find out more about these amazing creatures and so began a journey that led to her setting up her own charity. 

Today, almost 30 years on, she’s founder of the charity Orangutan Appeal UK. When we chat she’s busy organising her next trip to Malaysia, a journey she makes a few times a year, fuelled by her love of orangutans. Through her charity, Sue supports these fascinating creatures in the wild as well as at the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Malaysia, which cares for injured, orphaned or sick orangutans that come their way. 

“My first visit
to the centre was 15 years ago
this month," she recalls, "and they welcomed me with open arms. People still wave and shout hello when they see me coming.”

Sue refers to orangutans as “us with orange hair”, because they share 96.4 per cent of their genes with humans.

She wanted to join an established organisation, but was disappointed with her findings. “The bigger charities spent most of their money on offices, with only 15p from each pound going to the actual cause. I didn’t agree with that,” she says.

Happily, 80p of every pound raised by the Orangutan Appeal UK goes straight to the orangutans. But the founding of Sue’s charity happened quite by accident. She decided to continue her research while saving for a trip to Borneo in 2000, to volunteer at Sepilok and glimpse an orangutan or two in the wild. “I desperately wanted to see them in their own habitat, but it soon became clear how much help the centre needed.

“The babies were in little wire cat baskets. They couldn’t learn to climb or swing, but there wasn’t the budget for anything more.”

Back on UK soil, Sue convinced Chester Zoo to help her return to Sepilok and build new enclosures, with borrowed staff and equipment. The charity was founded in 2000, as Sue returned from that venture.

There have been many memorable visits since. One of the reasons Sue fundraises is to hire a helicopter and crew for releasing animals into the wild; a helicopter release takes them far enough away that they don’t try to return to the centre. Each trip costs about £10,000. 

Adult male Tom King was treated to a helicopter release. “He was so placid that we didn’t sedate him,” Sue remembers. “He sat next to me, in the carrying cage, and I gently stroked him all the way there.

“When we released him he looked around slowly, got out and shook his leg – he must have had pins and needles – then wandered off into the forest. Incredible.”

But Sue’s strongest bond was with Manu. “He came to us as a baby, suffering terribly with malaria,” says Sue.  “I was on duty when he arrived so the centre allowed me to nurse
him. I named him after our helicopter pilot.

“Whenever I returned to Sepilok, Manu would pop up everywhere. He always knew when I was back, and would come sit on my feet with his arm around my legs. We had a real connection. When he was eventually released that was really tough. I missed him very much.”

These days, the charity is on the up. Sue was awarded an MBE in 2012 and a TV documentary about Sepilok is due to air on wildlife channel, Animal Planet. One of Sir David Attenborough’s personal guides is even an official ambassador.

This bodes well for Sue’s future plans; she would like her research staff to educate locals on how best to interact with and understand orangutans. Her team is also at the forefront of research into monitoring released orangutans and there are hopes the information will aid further conservation.

Another project involves caring for orangutans that are too old or injured to return to the wild. “That’s a huge undertaking,” Sue explains, “because Orangutans can live for up to 40 years.” She shows no signs of retiring, working on up to ten different projects at any one time. “I’m not going anywhere! I’m in good health and I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I retired.”

Above all, Sue wants to share how special orangutans are with other animal lovers, and she’s keen for volunteers to show their support. “We’d be so grateful if readers would hold coffee mornings for us,” she says. “Every penny counts, and it would help raise awareness. We could even come and do a group talk, if that’s of interest.”

Tea, and the chance to help endangered animals. Who could resist?

  • For further information about the charity, and how you can help, call 01590 623443, visit www.orangutan-appeal.org.uk or write to: Orangutan Appeal UK, 11 Forest Hall, Lyndhurst Road, Brockenhurst, Hampshire SO42 7QQ

Did you know?

  • Orangutan numbers have fallen dramatically in the wild in the last 30 years, from more than 100,000 to an estimated 20,000
  • In the wild, orangutan babies stay with their mothers for up to six years while they learn the skills they need to survive in the forest
  • Orangutans are very susceptible to human diseases – so it’s important to keep contact to a minimum
  • Females may have only two or three babies in a lifetime, making conservation all the more vital
  • A male orangutan’s call can be heard across the whole forest, when he wants to be heard!

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Pic © Patrick Boyd Photography