A closer look at 8 weeks of volunteering at Tasikoki

Dutch volunteer Myrte Voormolen reports about her experience in the animal rescue and education center, where she stayed this summer.


After seeing the Dutch television program called ‘The Reunion’, where Willie Smits was a guest, I was so enthusiastic that June 20th 2011 I got on a plane destined for Indonesia to volunteer at Tasikoki for 8 weeks. The day after I arrived safely in Manado, Nort-Sulawesi, where Billy from Masarang awaited me to take me to the park with his car.

Just another day at the park

The days at Tasikoki are, certainly when you spend there a couple of weeks, quite similar, but never the same. At 5.30 AM the alarm clock rings for most of us, that is for the people that need a cup of coffee or toast before they start working at 6 AM. The first shift is from 6 to 8 o’clock. The activities vary according to the team you’re in. When there are enough volunteers, let’s say at least 6, you’ll be working in three teams: ‘Primates’, ‘Borneo’ and ‘Birds’.
Team ‘Primates’ is in charge of the 44 macaques and Betty, the Siamang. In the mornings you hand out browse (vegetation) to all of them. Browse is a term that confuses most of us at first, but is something you grow accustomed to in the next days. The animals get browse twice a day: low vegetation in the morning, higher vegetation in the late afternoon. The good thing about browse is that the park itself foresees in this. Team ‘Borneo’ is responsible for the orangutans, the sunbears and the gibbons. The volunteers don’t have to clean all the enclosures, the keepers will mostly take care of that. However, the cleaning of the sunbears’ enclosure is part of team Borneo’s tasks. This is quite tough work in the early morning. Even though there’s only two of them, they make a remarkable mess every day. A substantial dose of bear dirt on an empty stomach, well that’s just all part of the deal! Being in team ‘Borneo’ demands a little more effort because you have to feed all the animals, not by means of ‘throwing the food over the fence’, but by seriously hiding or scattering the food around. One of Tasikoki’s main philosophies is namely extending the foraging and eating-proces. In the wild animals would forage for hours a day. In hiding the food or putting it in complicated constructions we try to approach that process. A positive side-effect is that, since it takes them longer to actually get to their food, it prevents animals from getting bored, aggressive or frustrated, things that easily happen in ‘normal’ zoos.
Then there is team ‘Birds’, taking care of around 120 birds. The birds are divided in different aviaries. There’s one big flight aviary with two ponds where the sulphur crested cockatoos, eclectus parrots, magpie geese and crown pigeons are in. Every other day you clean one of the ponds, so there’s always a fresh one. The food is scattered around on special feeding platforms or is pierced on nails. There are some smaller aviaries as well, where the other cockatoos and lorikeets are. They too get browse in the mornings.
After breakfast all the teams start working on the enrichments. This could be anything varying from bamboo puzzles to frozen ice cubes, from new swings for the birds to blowing bubbles for the orangutans. Every day we have a special enrichment meeting where both the afternoon and the next day’s enrichments are determined. These enrichments are handed out just before lunch. After lunch there is a second round of feeding, you work on the other enrichments and you hand out the browse. Work finishes at 4 PM. Time to relax a bit!

Other things worth mentioning

I was lucky enough to be, next to the daily routines, involved in some bigger projects. Together with the keepers we managed to construct a new macaque cage. Currently there are 44 macaques, some in solitary cages and some in family groups. With this new enclosure it’s possible to shift the different families and to move at least 10 solitary macaques to a new family group. That’s great news, not only because the animals have more space than before. Also, living in a group is way more natural.
Already in my second week I had the chance (together with two friends) to go to Tomohon to meet Willie and get a tour around the Masarang Palm Sugar Factory. We arrived at a somewhat unusual moment: Willie was about to confiscate an eagle from two poachers, that had taken the bird form the nest to sell it. We ourselves took the bird back with us that night to Tasikoki, where we put her in a quarantine cage. Despite the fact that the bird -under the circumstances- seemed to be alright, there was no proper cage for her. After I left, the remaining volunteers and an enthusiastic group of schoolchildren started building the eagle a flight cage, which should be (nearly) finished by now. Of course we all hope to release the bird back to the wild again in the future.
Some other good -rather extraordinary- news is that they are currently installing a touch-screen for the orangutans. In the past studies with computers involving other ape species showed remarkable results. In theory this means that in the future Bento and Is can actually skype with other orangutans.

Characteristics of an average volunteer

The entire time I spent at Tasikoki’s, there were mostly Dutch volunteers. This is mainly because of that television program hosting Willie, the reason I went there myself. The next months there’s still a large amount of Dutch volunteers getting on a plane to Tasikoki, especially now that the episode is broadcasted again in August. Besides people from the Netherlands, there are many different nationalities, including British, Australian, French, German, Belgian and so on. Apparently people do know how to find Tasikoki! Age and background truly differ, which makes it even more interesting. Naturally there are people with a background in animal studies or environmental studies, but I myself am a historian. A lot of young people that have just finished high school are willing to give up their summer holiday for this good cause, before attending university. Even a few retired people enjoyed contributing for a few weeks.

General information

Momentarily the staff of Tasikoki consists of around 12 local people. They work at the office, as animal keepers, or as cooks/housekeepers. The staff and volunteers really need each other a lot: one couldn’t work without the other. Although you might experience some difficulties concerning the language barrier, there is a very strong bond between them. Often volunteers and staff invite one another for parties/festivities.
To be able to fully run the park both financially and workwise, Tasikoki needs an average of 12-14 volunteers a time. When I was there, we almost always reached that number. This has been different in the past, especially when Tasikoki first started working with volunteers. At the moment there are even two volunteer coordinators. This saves a lot of time and effort from the managers, that could really spend their time in a better way. Next to the paying volunteers, there’s an increasing number of schoolchildren from neighboring villages that help out a day or more. This ensures enough ‘hands’ to work on bigger projects and it is an opportunity to educate children about the importance of the park and about animals and nature preservation in general.
Unfortunately a lot of the animals can’t be released for different reasons. That’s mostly because so many of them are confiscated from (inter)national smuggle routes, which means that they are non-endemic. Releasing them on Sulawesi is then no longer an option. Concerning the animals that are bound to stay at Tasikoki, they try really hard to build enclosures that are suitable in the long term. Luckily enough some of Tasikoki’s animals are candidates to be released into the wild again. The hornbill for example is almost ready to leave, just after they have determined that she can take care of herself. Concerning the last group of animals, they try to avoid too much human contact/interaction.