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Southeast Asia

Efforts afoot to save orangutans from extinction
By Richel Dursin

JAKARTA - Animal rights activists are lauding a current crackdown on the illegal trade of orangutans in Indonesia, but they say authorities must now start putting offenders in jail to show that the government is really serious about protecting the endangered primates.

While a few arrests have been made in recent months, activists note that not one trader or buyer of orangutans has landed behind bars yet. This is despite Indonesia's 1990 conservation of the biodiversity and ecosystem act, which says a person keeping or trading protected species such as orangutans should be sent to jail for five years or pay a fine of 100 million rupiahs (now about US$10,000).

Just recently, authorities caught a student at a private university selling a 2-year-old orangutan for 3 million rupiahs ($319). Much fanfare also accompanied the arrest last August of a bird trader who was trying to sell a baby orangutan to an activist posing as a Western tourist.

''Selling orangutans is a crime because they are a protected and endangered species,'' says Chairul Saleh, senior project officer of World Wide Fund (WWF) Indonesia. But he adds, ''We have to set a precedent so the people will stop trading or keeping orangutans.''

Orangutans are found solely on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. In 1993, there were about 25,000 of them in Indonesia. Today, authorities say, the orangutan population has dwindled to just 12,000. The rampant illegal trade in the animals is one of the major reasons for this. Indeed, some sellers even advertise openly in the papers. In Pramuka market in East Jakarta, meanwhile, baby orangutans are being sold from 2 million to 3 million rupiahs ($212 to $319) each.

But Samedi, head of the trade and traffic wildlife control sub-directorate of the forestry ministry, says, ''The illegal trade of orangutans in Indonesia is very difficult and complicated. It is like the trade of illegal drugs. Orangutan traders in the black market are clever,'' he adds. ''When we are there, they don't sell the animals, but when we are no longer there, that is the time they sell.''

The buyers come mostly from middle-upper class families, including politicians and military officials, who cage the animals as pets. The forestry ministry has also reported that timber exporters illegally ship orangutans out of the country to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Korea, and Japan.

''By keeping the orangutans as pets, the people think they are protecting them, but in fact they are not,'' Saleh says. ''They have a wrong idea about animal conservation.''

Activists say that the economic crisis has exacerbated the problem, with poachers increasing efforts to get their hands on baby orangutans. This almost always means killing the mothers first, say experts.

''Behind every one of those pets, you see the ghost of their mothers,'' says Kathryn Monk, a British researcher who has spent five years on the development program of the Gunung-Leuser National Park in North Sumatra.

Female orangutans mate just once every eight years. Experts say mother orangutans would rather give up their lives than one of their offspring. ''When people want to have a baby orangutan, they should kill the mother first,'' says Saleh. ''So, it means if you see a single baby orangutan being traded, one adult female orangutan has been killed.'' Experts note that adult female orangutans are found at higher densities than adult males, and are thus more likely targets of hunters.

Fortunately, activists report that the campaign against the illegal trade of orangutans is now gaining support from some celebrities like popular child singer Sherina Munaf who stars in a film focusing on the smuggling of orangutans from Indonesia to Osaka, Japan. The film, being produced by the WWF to raise public awareness on orangutan conservation, documented the journey of four orangutans smuggled to Japan through Bali and their trip back to the forest in East Kalimantan.

The four orangutans, already up for sale in a pet shop in Japan, were brought back to Indonesia last February by authorities and animal rights activists. Admits Samedi: ''Some government officials connive with wildlife smugglers to augment their salary.''

There have been cases, however, in which the government officials simply did not know that the orangutans happen to be endangered or are a protected species. This has prompted the WWF to put together a manual to help officials distinguish which animals are endangered or protected. Saleh remarks, ''The police, customs and immigration officials don't have enough knowledge about wildlife.''

But it is not just the illegal trade that is menacing the orangutans in particular. Habitat loss, mainly due to illegal logging and forest fires, has also endangered the lives of the primates. Nowadays, illegal logging outstrips legal timber production. According to a recent report by the Indonesia-UK Tropical Forest Management Program, illegal logging accounts for 32 million cubic meters of timber every year, compared with an official production of 29.5 million cubic meters. This is equivalent to 800,000 hectares of forest being illegally logged each year.

''Our forest is dying a painful death,'' says Longgena Ginting, campaign coordinator of the non-governmental Indonesian Environmental Forum (Walhi). ''The root of the problem is the extraordinary increase in the capacity of the national logging industry.''

For a long time now, fires of varying magnitude have been a common occurrence in the Indonesian forests. Every year, thousands of hectares are burned down by local farmers, spurred by foreign multinationals, to satisfy international demand for wood and make space for more profitable palm oil plantations and rice fields.

''Rampant forest destruction prompts many orangutans to flee from the forests and seek refuge in rehabilitation centers,'' Saleh says. For instance, there are now some 400 orangutans at the Wanariset Samboja rehabilitation center in East Kalimantan. In 1996, the center played host to just 100 orangutans.

Experts say the widespread deforestation is having a serious impact not only on the animals, but also on the local farmers as hungry orangutans go to the fields and eat their crops.

(Inter Press Service)



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