This morning 14 orangutans were repatriated to their native Indonesia after a seven-year ordeal of poaching, abuse, and bureaucratic limbo.
The trafficked orangutans, two of which were infants, were contained in steel crates and loaded on to an Indonesian Air Force carrier along with banana supplies, two veterinarians, and members of Freeland partner organization Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (WFFT).
The sizeable great apes weighed between 4-100kg, and were not sedated for the trip. A CITES representative explained that the orangutans had been acclimatized to the crates over the past week through intermittent exposure, and feeding them treats while inside. Despite this, the larger orangutans banged and shook the crates, while others cowered quietly – unaware that they were about to be flown one step closer to freedom.
Of today’s 14 ‘flying orangutans’, 11 were initially noticed in miserable conditions at a Phuket zoo back in 2008 – about seven months after their suspicious, undocumented arrival to the resort island. After complaints to the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Conservation (DNP), the orangutans were discovered on the side of the road in mid 2009, most likely abandoned by the perpetrator for fear of prosecution. This not only resulted in a woeful lack of convictions for the crime, but also had tragic implications for these unfortunate, formerly wild, animals.
Thai law mandates that found property must be kept for five years to allow opportunity for the owner to claim it. This law even extends to living, intelligent, sentient beings. In keeping with this, Thai officials transported the 11 orangutans from Phuket to Khao Pratab Chang Breeding Center, where they joined another illegally smuggled orangutan seized from Chomporn Province. This is where they lived out the next five, long years.
Two orangutan infants were born at the facility, where medical care and food was provided for the animals. But conditions were far from ideal. “Seven of [the orangutans] were in an open field with a few trees, but no drinking water. The other ones were in cement enclosures with nothing to do and no cover,” says WFFT founder Edwin Wiek. “Since they were born in the wild and taken to captivity, mentally their overall condition is bad, of course.”
Following the four-hour flight to Jakarta, there are still some hurdles to overcome before the smuggling victims can be rehabilitated into the wild. First they will be quarantined for two months, after which the hope is they will be transferred either to the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme or a rescue facility in Borneo – depending on their subspecies. The WFFT is determined to follow up on the animals’ welfare, but question marks remain regarding their fate.
“Some of them will be in semi-wild conditions, but some – such as the older males – I find hard to believe they will be released back into the wild. But the promise by the Indonesian government is that they will be,” says Edwin.
Hopefully, these 14 magnificent, endangered animals that have endured so much will once again be able to swing in the trees of their native range, as they had prior to being poached. But sadly this would constitute a rare success in a sea of smuggling. With its high tourist influx and proximity to both Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand is a focal point of wildlife trafficking, including orangutans. In 2007, Freeland played an integral part in the repatriation of 48 orangutans that had been forced to perform daily Thai boxing matches for tourists. In 2007, four more trafficked orangutans were repatriated. And the tide of illegal wildlife trade shows no sign of abating.
“The truth is orangutans are still being smuggled into Thailand. I found another four in the last few months: two in Bangkok, and two in Phuket. It keeps on going, and the only way we can beat illegal trafficking is if NGOs work together with governments exchanging data on confiscated wildlife all over the region,” says Edwin.
With raging fires currently charring vast expanses of Indonesia’s prime orangutan habitat, these animals are being pushed closer to human settlements – and the danger of capture. Current estimates peg total populations at less than 60,000 individuals. Whether this majestic species survives the dual onslaught of ecological calamity and rampant trading is a decision that lies squarely, and quite literally, in the palm of our hands.
We must be vigilant and report wildlife crimes such as smuggling, exotic animal sale, and abusive zoo performances by using hotlines and apps like WildScan, and we should also help secure the orangutan’s future by donating to conservancies and rehabilitation centers. Because without our concerted efforts, Asia’s only great ape – and one of our closest living genetic cousins – may well be cleared from the planet completely.
Written by: Alex Andersson