Monday, August 23, 2010

Laws flaunted: Flourishing pet trade threatens orangutans' survival

A baby orangutan living as a pet. Photo by Chris Shepherd (TRAFFIC Southeast Asia); used with permission. Originally printed in TRAFFIC publication "In Full Swing..." listed below.

Pet trade threatens orangutan survival
"Having a pet orangutan is a status symbol," I was told by my Indonesian friend Ria, who lives and works in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. Doesn't matter if the animal lives in a small, dirty cage behind the house, which most do; it's still a social asset to have one.

A baby pet orangutan, chained to its cage in the backyard. Photo courtesy of Orangutan Foundation

That's too bad, because the local, national, and international demand for young orangutans as pets is a major threat to the survival of both species: the Bornean orangutan and Sumatran orangutan.  Since both are endangered, they are theoretically protected by law from commercial trade.  However, in Indonesia, these laws are mostly ignored.

Habitat loss remains the single biggest threat to orangutans, but as it turns out, the pet trade and deforestation are closely linked.

At the market, I was offered an orangutan and a leopard
Almost every Indonesian city has a bird or wildlife market, where legal and illegal species are sold by independent vendors to anyone who can pay. I went to 4 of these markets during my Asian travels, including Indonesia's biggest market - Pramuka, in downtown Jakarta. I hired an Indonesian from "ProFauna Indonesia" (a wildlife conservation NGO in Jakarta) to go with me as my guide and translator.

Below, a frightened baby macaque for sale at Pramuka. Photo by Sally Kneidel

A greater slow loris (a primate) thrust in my face by a market vendor. Photo by Sally Kneidel

We saw plenty of wild-caught primates, birds, reptiles, and small mammals at Pramuka. But we didn't see any orangutans. We were, however, offered a baby orangutan for the price of 20-25 million IDR ($2200-2800) and an adult orangutan for 30 million IDR ($3300). Pramuka is famous for its network of homes behind the market (referred to as "in the back") where especially valuable or illegal animals are kept safely out of sight until a sale is made.

A baby orangutan for sale. Photo by Chris Shepherd (TRAFFIC Southeast Asia); used with permission

Vendors often keep photos of their illegal (endangered and thus protected) animals on their cell phones, to show interested buyers. For example, we were shown a photo of an available baby leopard that the vendor said was "in the back." The leopard was offered to us for 80 million IDRs ($8800), although the vendor called it a "Javan tiger" to justify the price. [Javan tigers are actually extinct, although many potential buyers may not know that.]

The baby leopard that was offered to us at Pramuka.

The majority of vendors would not talk to us about orangutans they might or might not have, because I was not in one of the demographic groups that typically buy animals (Chinese and Koreans are likely to buy, they said. Australians, Europeans, and Americans just look.) But this one vendor did talk to us about orangs - the one who quoted us prices. He said that he didn't have an orangutan on the spot, but "could bring it directly," if we had the money. Since we didn't slap down the money, we didn't get to see it.

For forest-dwellers, orangutans are valuable trade commodities
Although orangutan sales in the past may have been concentrated at wildlife markets, nowadays sales often occur at other locations. Pet orangutans may be moved from the interior of the country to  more developed coastal towns, or professional traders may travel to a remote area and buy or order young orangutans to transport to populated areas. According to TRAFFIC's Vincent Nijman, most forest-dwelling people in Indonesia know the commercial value of an infant orangutan. Given the absence of effective law enforcement, few will resist the opportunity to obtain an infant to sell  In a country where more than half the population survives on $2/day or less, young orangutans are regarded as valuable trade commodities.

Unchecked timber industry yields orangutans for market
The hunting and capturing of orangutans for the pet trade is, in a way, a by-product of the timber trade and the conversion of forests to palm-oil plantations. As roads are created to provide access to not-yet plundered forests, these arboreal red apes become more accessible to humans with guns. Newly exposed mothers are often shot to obtain their infants. As trees are felled, orangutans may be killed or they may become stranded and vulnerable to capture.

Up to 15 orangutans die to get one live infant to market
TRAFFIC published a number of estimates of the "loss rate" - the number of orangutans killed in order to get one live orang to a village or city where it can be sold. Quite often both mother and infant are killed if the mother is shot from a tree and falls, so another mother is shot to try again. That's a loss rate of 3. And in shipping the infants, 5 may be packed in one crate in hopes that one animal will arrive alive. If 4 die, that pushes the loss rate to 7. Some researchers estimate average loss rates as high as 15! (See the 2009 paper listed below for more about loss rate assessments.)

 A young orangutan smuggled for the pet trade, dead on arrival. Photo courtesy of

The situation is frustrating, and even incomprehensible in some ways. What is the Indonesian government doing to stop this "harvesting" of orangutans like they were ears of corn?

Indonesia a trade center due to lax enforcement of wildlife laws
Here's a fact that surprises most Americans: the illegal trade in animals and animal parts is the 3rd biggest blackmarket in the world, behind drugs and arms.

Indonesia is an epicenter of this illegal trade, because of the country's rich tropical biodiversity and because of the laissez-faire attitude of the Indonesian government. Although the country has enacted a range of laws and regulations to protect species and limit deforestation, the government fails to enforce these laws effectively. Indonesia is also a Party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and both orangutan species are listed in Appendix I, which prohibits all international commercial trade of these species among contracting Parties. Yet this treaty, like the local legislation, is generally ignored. I was told by several Indonesian conservation workers that if an Indonesian is found to possess a pet orangutan, the chances of having the animal confiscated or of facing prosecution are extremely low. Rather, the pet owner can, upon discovery of his pet, probably obtain a permit from the government that will allow him to legally keep the orangutan.

TRAFFIC researcher Vincent Nijman found that, in spite of existing laws and treaties, the number of confiscated orangutans being delivered to rescue centers and the number of new arrivals at local zoos has remained more or less steady over the last 15 years, suggesting that the brisk trade in orangutans is not decreasing.

What should be done?
"TRAFFIC: the wildlife trade monitoring network" is very active in Southeast Asia and has studied the situation closely and made several recommendations that seem to hit the nail on the head. Their published papers are excellent sources of information. (See "Sources" below.) When I got home from my journey, I sent TRAFFIC copies of all my wildlife-market photos and videos, in case they might be helpful. They're working hard; I want to help!

TRAFFIC's recommendations for reducing the trade in orangutans are as follows (I've condensed and abbreviated):

1. Better protection of the remaining forest is needed - through the Indonesian government, land concession holders (timber and palm-oil companies), and landowners.
2.Wildlife protection laws need to be enforced more effectively.
3. Handing out registration letters to make pets "legal" needs to be stopped immediately. Persons whose protected wildlife is confiscated should face legal charges as a deterrent to others.
4. The relationship between poaching of orangutans and illegal logging should be more thoroughly assessed.
5. The major ports of Indonesia should be monitored more stringently to curb international sales of orangutans.
6. Co-operation between the government and NGOs that work to protect orangutans and rehabilitate confiscated orphans should be increased.
7. Bold and innovative approaches are needed to educate the public with regard to buying, selling, and keeping protected wildlife as pets.
(See the 2005b paper listed below for more about these recommendations.)

Photo by Sally Kneidel

Coming up
In my next posts about s.e. Asia, I'll explore the causes of deforestation on Borneo and Sumatra, and why it continues unabated in spite of the considerable efforts of NGOs to stop or slow it.  I'll also post the pictures we took of wild-caught and protected birds in the bird markets of Jakarta and Singapore. Why are wild birds so popular as pets in tropical Asia?  I'll tell you what we learned.

My previous posts on orangutans in s.e. Asia: 
Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations  August 3, 2010

My search for a wild orangutan in Borneo and Sumatra  August 16, 2010

Published sources for this post and for additional information:

Vincent Nijman. 2005a. Hanging in the Balance: An Assessment of Trade in Orang-utans and Gibbons
on Kalimantan, Indonesia. A TRAFFIC Southeast Asia report.

Vincent Nijman. 2009. An Assessment of Trade in Gibbons and Orang-utans in Sumatra, Indonesia. A TRAFFIC Southeast Asia report.

Vincent Nijman. June 2005b. In Full Swing: An Assessment of Trade in Orangutans and Gibbons on Java and Bali. A TRAFFIC Southeast Asia report.

Serge A. Wich et al. 2008. Distribution and conservation status of the orang-utan (Pongo spp.) on Borneo and Sumatra: how many remain? Fauna and Flora International. Oryx 42(3):329-339.

Eric Meijaard et al. August 11, 2010. Hunting a key factor in Orangutan's decline. TRAFFIC home page.

Web sites for more information:

Traffic: the wildlife trade monitoring network

ProFauna Indonesia

Greenpeace Southeast Asia

Sumatran Orangutan Society

Orangutan Outreach

Save the Orangutan

Key words: orangutan, orangutans, Southeast Asia, primates, great apes, endangered, threatened, habitat loss, pet trade, TRAFFIC, wildlife markets, Pramuka, deforestation, timber industry, palm oil plantations


Pet Taxi said...

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Pet Taxi

Aylagh MacAnnadh, M. D. said...

God Bless you for bringing this issue to light. We are running out of time to save the Orangutan as it has been projected if the destruction of their habitat & the plundering of Orangutan infants & killing of their mothers continues the Orangutan will be extinct in the wild in 20 years.
What is wrong with Indonesia & their deforestation for Palm Oil plantations. I read most of these plantations are owned & operated by FOREIGN, European, Australian companies. Why do they continue to sell more & more of the priceless rain forest which, when it is gone, it is gone along with all of Gods greatest gifts, the rich animal life who call the rain forest their home. What kind of heartless excuse for a human being, human garbage I would say, is capable of shooting a mother dead to steal her baby? You have to be defective even if you need money there are other ways. There is something about killing a mother which is more heinous than killing an adult of the species. Killing a mother with her child in her arms, trying to protect child with her life is just despicable! There are a few organizations who take in the babies of these murdered orangutans & teach them & raise them as their mothers would have & actually release them back into the wild but there is so little land left the normally solitary orangutan now has to learn to live in troops like monkeys & other apes like chimps & gorillas.
Their is an organization called "M.O.M." Missing Orangutan Mothers which really says it all. They have actually raised two generations of Orangutan orphans & have released them back to the wild & are seeing these Orangutans now with babies of their own. They were successful the orphans are breeding with wild Orangutans. There is so much work to be done. the M.O.M. organization introduced a baby Orangutan who was missing most of her one hand & a good bit of one of her feet. It seems the poacher who killed her mother was a little over enthusiastic when killing her mother with a machete
he didn't look to see the babies hold on to their mother in front & in back, grabbing the mothers fur with both hands & feet. He hacked at the mother so harshly he cut the babies hand and part of her foot off as well when killing her mother. What kind of an cold hearted, inhuman monster could do something like this???
God Bless you for taking the time to give us such detailed information. We need more people like you who really care & want to help & actually make a difference.