Orangutan to get new home soon on Big Isle
By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau
HILO, Hawai'i Rusti the orangutan should have a new home on the Big Island within a matter of months.
Rusti, a 22-year-old orangutan that was rescued in 1997 from a crowded private exhibit in New Jersey, has been biding his time at the Honolulu Zoo while negotiations between the Orangutan Foundation International and Hawai'i County were wrapping up to allow a new sanctuary next to the county's Pana'ewa Rainforest Zoo.
Yesterday's groundbreaking for the $6 million privately financed facility marked the end of a long wait for both Rusti and backers of the 28-acre refuge who faced many setbacks over the past nine years of planning, including the murder of one of its key supporters.
Gordon Granger, 73, a leader of the Friends of the Zoo, had personally promoted the project, holding receptions at his Hilo home before he was found slain from a knife attack in May 1997.
Just last week, the Hawai'i Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors cannot subject suspect Christopher Wilmer Jr. to a second trial because of prosecutorial misconduct in his first trial.
The orangutan sanctuary also came in for some bad publicity when former state Sen. Andy Levin, now an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, was successful in obtaining a $987,000 appropriation for the preserve at the same time the 30-member Hawai'i Island Veterans Memorial was denied support for a veterans center.
The money for the orangutan sanctuary was never released by Gov. Ben Cayetano, but the hard feelings have persisted.
Another difficulty was years of tough negotiations with former Mayor Steve Yamashiro, who wanted assurances that no county money would be committed to either the construction or maintenance of the project.
At the end of it all, the Orangutan Foundation International obtained a 60-year lease for the sanctuary on state-owned land controlled by Hawai'i County, which took over the area in the 1970s to build the Pana'ewa zoo.
Although Rusti will be the refuge's first resident, the facility eventually will host up to 20 captive-born orangutans that lack the foraging skills and behaviors necessary to live naturally in the tropical rain forests of Asia, according to foundation scientists.
Along with orangutan enclosures with fruit trees, the site will have visitor walking paths, a Rainforest Education Center and research facilities.
Work crews from Kulani Prison will help build the sanctuary, which will be constructed in several stages over three to five years, said spokesman Steven Karbank of Kansas City, Mo., a real estate developer and foundation spokesman. A home for Rusti should be ready by the end of the year.
At yesterday's groundbreaking, Levin called the project "a tremendous asset to the Big Island for our children."
In a written statement, Paula Helfrich of the Hawai'i Island Economic Development Board stressed its value as a visitor attraction. "It's a perfect fit" for Hilo, she said.