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Operation attempts to restore sight of endangered orangutan shot by air rifle

Aan, a critically-endangered orangutan who was blinded after being shot more than 100 times with an air rifle. Picture by Orangutan Foundation/Press Association 
Jemma Crew, Press Association

A CRITICALLY endangered orangutan who was blinded after being shot more than 100 times with an air rifle is to undergo an operation that could restore her sight.

The plight of Aan captured the hearts of animal-lovers across the world in 2012 after it was revealed that she had been shot 104 times with an air rifle on a palm oil plantation in Indonesian Borneo.

A three-hour operation saw around one third of the pellets removed, but the dozens which hit her eyes blinded her left eye permanently and damaged her right.

Unable to forage for food or protect herself, the critically endangered primate has since been cared for by the Orangutan Foundation in an enclosure in the Lamandau River wildlife reserve in Borneo.

While Aan's left eye is beyond repair, a British volunteer veterinarian ophthalmologist believes there is a possibility that her sight could be restored in the other - with a simple cataract operation.

Claudia Hartley initially felt nothing could be done after seeing X-rays showing the lead pellets that had riddled Aan's underweight body - 37 of which were lodged in her head.

During a visit in September, the 44-year-old, from Cambridge, discovered there was a "good chance" that the primate could regain enough sight to survive outside captivity.

She said: "I'm really hopeful that actually we may be able to give her vision, and then, even though she will only be one-eyed, she will be able to be released because primates can still forage one-eyed.

"She's a wild animal that's currently in an enclosure, and that's quite miserable for an animal that's as intelligent as an orangutan.

"It's akin to a human being in a prison cell, and that's her life 24/7 - it's the best that the charity can offer her because it keeps her safe, it keeps her fed."

There are approximately 56,000 orangutans estimated to live in the wild in Borneo. They are critically endangered and reproduce slowly, on average only once every seven to eight years.

Enclosure staff have described Aan, estimated to be between 10 and 12 years old, as a "clever" primate.

While pellets lodged near her ears initially prompted fears that she could become deaf, she has now become very sensitive to noise which can cause her to shriek and exhibit fearful, panicky behaviour.

Ms Hartley's team of four is planning to fly out in the first week of February with 265lb (120kg) of equipment in an attempt to restore Aan's sight.

The procedure is similar to cataract surgery in humans, and is expected to take around 20-30 minutes, although administering general anaesthetic and positioning will take longer.

Ashley Leiman OBE, director of the Orangutan Foundation, said the news was "incredibly exciting".

She said: "As a blind orangutan, she was going to spend the rest of her life in a cage.

"If it happens it will be absolutely amazing. She will be able to be released into the wild, she will be able to survive perfectly well with one eye."

Ms Hartley said she will know "pretty much straight away" when Aan wakes up if the procedure has worked.

She said: "It's very difficult not to judge people who wilfully go out and hurt another species, especially one that's so closely related to us, so I think that touches on people's heartstrings.

"The joy for me is feeling that I can perhaps right a wrong that other humans have done. I can't right it completely but I can give her something back and make it a little bit less bad."

"I'm fairly certain I can make the eyeball see, but it's whether that will get through to the brain is the crux of it," she added.

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