Orangutan: From illegal trade to conservation
Nani Afrida, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta - 28 October 2008
Nine-year-old Yuni held on tight to her mother's hand as a large orangutan approached an enclosure window of the Smutzer Primate Center in Ragunan Zoo, South Jakarta.
"Mama, it's a giant orangutan ... bigger than the orangutan pictures in my animal book," said the little girl excitedly.
Yuni is indeed lucky to see a real orangutan up close; it is quite possible that in the years ahead, children will no longer be able to see this species alive.
Experts estimate that orangutans could become extinct in the wild within 25 years. At present, there are an estimated 54,000 Kalimantan orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus) in Kalimantan, and approximately 6,600 Sumateran orangutans (Pongo Abelii) in Sumatra.
Numbers are getting smaller though, due to illegal animal trading and Indonesia's dwindling forests; a direct result of illegal logging and "slash and burn" agriculture.
In some pet markets in Jakarta, certain traders secretly sell orangutans at expensive prices. The purchase of such animals is not easy; a lot of money is required to bribe authorities and pay for the issuance of documentation to avoid arrest by police.
Irma Haerawati from the Animal Advocacy Institution said she believed many traders still sold orangutans, but they were more careful than before.
"Traders sell orangutans secretly. Customers have to make a down payment first before they buy the animal," Irma, who also works for Profauna Indonesia, a non-governmental organization concerned with the protection of wild animals and their habitats, told The Jakarta Post.
She said the government should investigate the issue further.
"They should find the 'mafia' behind this activity. Usually the government only arrests the small traders," Irma added.
Profauna Indonesia regularly conducts investigations into illegal orangutan trading. The organization has found that around 1,000 Kalimantan orangutans are smuggled into Java and overseas every year; 95 percent of them are very young.
The smugglers deliver them by passenger or cargo ships from Kalimantan that dock in Semarang, Central Java, or Surabaya in East Java before being transported to Jakarta or overseas.
The traders have also been known to transport orangutans overseas on planes departing the international airports of Soekarno-Hatta, in Jakarta, and Sam Ratulangi, in Manado, North Sulawesi.
Irma criticized the country's poor law enforcement, which had a "non-deterrent" effect. Article 21 of regulation number 5/1990 on natural resources conservation, she said, states that trade and ownership of protected animals is prohibited and carries a maximum 5-years prison sentence or a Rp 100 million (US$10,000) fine. However, perpetrators get off with lighter sentences.
"The last case was in 2004, when an orangutan trader was sentenced to only 6 months after he had sold three orangutans overseas," Irma said.
Even though it is widely known that orangutans are a protected species, ownership of the animal, in some circles, is considered prestigious. According to one orangutan trader, most of his customers are wealthy people with certain political power.
A number of entertainment groups also exploit orangutans in animal-attraction shows.
"We seized 13 orangutans that were performing at Ancol in 2007. They were delivered to a conservation center in Kalimantan, because all of them were from that area," said Irma.
When Profauna discovers orangutans living outside their natural habitat, the organization coordinates with the Animal Rescue center (PPS) from the Natural Resources Conservation Agency.
"We work together with this agency to evacuate orangutans, because they have the authority to conduct raids and confiscate the animals," Irma said.
Since November 2007, PPS Tegal Alur in Jakarta has rescued seven Kalimantan orangutans.
The orangutans PPS rescues receive an intensive examination; many of them are found to be infected by tuberculosis and hepatitis, therefore require serious treatment before the center can send them to a conservation center.
Orangutans that have lived with humans for a long time also take on human behaviors, Irma said. The group have encountered many orangutans that smoke cigarettes, drink beer and even act like human beings.
Besides working together with NGOs, PPS deploys some of its members to work undercover to find people who keep orangutans in their homes or who trade them at the pet markets.
"We persuade the orangutan owners to give the animals to us," said Mujiastuti from PPS.
PPS often requests police assistance if the owners refuse to hand the animals over.
"We also rescue confiscated orangutans from foiled smuggling operations to overseas destinations," Mujiastuti added.
She said the number of orangutans known to be smuggled had declined in recent years, as indicated by the small number of confiscated animals.
"The number is lower compared to previous years," she said.
Orangutans free from diseases are taken to conservation centers in Sumatra and Kalimantan or to Ragunan Zoo. The chief of Ragunan Zoo's conservation center, Bambang Triana, said the center had 55 kalimantan orangutans in its Smutzer Primate Center; 28 of them are male, and the rest are female.
"Since 2005, five baby orangutans have been born here. This is a success story for the conservation center," Bambang said.
"Another female is still pregnant, maybe in two months she will have her baby," said Heriyanto, a keeper from Smutzer.
The conservation center also receives orangutans from people who "donate" them without revealing their names.
"Most of them know that keeping an orangutan is against the law, so they probably didn't want their names known," Bambang added.
No one knows what could happen to orangutans in the years ahead if illegal trading of the animal and illegal logging are allowed to continue in the country unabated.
Hopefully these beautiful creatures will still exist; otherwise children like Yuni would only be able to see them in picture books.