Illegal trade devastates Sumatran orang-utan population

16 April 2009 Science News


Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

- Lack of law enforcement against illegal trade in Indonesia threatens the survival of orang-utans and gibbons on Sumatra, a new study by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC shows.

A Sumatran orang-utan confiscated in Aceh stares through the bars of its cage Click photo to enlarge © Chris R. Shepherd/TRAFFIC Southeast Asia  

Despite considerable investment in wildlife conservation, numbers of the critically endangered orang-utans captured mainly for the pet trade exceeded the levels of the 1970s. A lack of adequate law enforcement is to blame, TRAFFIC says.

Records of orang-utans and gibbons put into rehabilitation centers serves as an indicator of how many of these animals were illegally held. Meanwhile numbers continue to decline in the wild, with the most recent estimate of just 7,300 Sumatran Orangutans surviving.

Orang-utans, which can weigh up to around 90 kilograms and reach 1.5 metres in length, end up in such centers after they become too old and big to be held as pets. But owners of the reddish-brown coloured apes do not face any legal consequences.

"Confiscating these animals without prosecuting the owners is futile," said Chris R Shepherd, Acting Director of TRAFFIC Southeast Asia.

"There is no deterrent for those committing these crimes, if they go unpunished. Indonesia has adequate laws, but without serious penalties, this illegal trade will continue, and these species will continue to spiral towards extinction."

An estimated 2,000 orang-utans have been confiscated or turned in by private owners in Indonesia in the last three decades but no more than a handful of people have ever been successfully prosecuted.

Between 2002 and 2008, for example, the newly opened Sibolangit rehabilitation centre in Sumatra took in 142 Sumatran orang-utans, while its predecessor, Bohorok rehabilitation centre accepted just 30 animals between 1995-2001 (when it closed), and 105 orang-utans between 1973-1979.

"When the first rehabilitation centres were established for orang-utans and later for gibbons it was hoped that with more apes being confiscated, levels of illegal trade would fall," said Vincent Nijman, a TRAFFIC consultant and author of the report, based at Oxford Brookes University.

"But with hundreds of orangutans and gibbons present in such centres, and dozens added every year, it is hard to view these numbers as anything other than an indictment against Indonesia's law enforcement efforts," he said.

The report also documents the 148 Sumatran gibbons and siamangs and 26 Sumatran orang-utans kept in Indonesian zoos.

"Proper enforcement of laws protecting orang-utans is critical in Indonesia" said Wendy Elliott, species manager at WWF International. "If the situation continues, the Sumatra orang-utan could well face extinction."

The report recommends that the root causes of trade be examined and that laws be better implemented for the protection of orang-utans, gibbons and the island's other wildlife.

Sumatra's wildlife is also threatened by habitat loss due to deforestation, logging, land conversion, encroachment, and forest fires.

An assessment of trade in gibbons and orang-utans in Sumatra, Indonesia (PDF, 613KB)is the first TRAFFIC report to examine the trade in apes in Sumatra. It follows earlier reports published in 2005 into such trade in Kalimantan: Hanging in the balance: An assessment of trade in orang-utans and gibbons on Kalimantan, Indonesia and in Java and Bali: In full swing: An assessment of trade in orang-utans and gibbons on Java and Bali, Indonesia.

Under national legislation, penalties for illegally possessing orang-utans include a fine of up to IDR100 000 000 (USD9000) and imprisonment for up to five years.

In July 2007, the Supreme Court of Indonesia hosted the country's first national "Judiciary Workshop on Wildlife Crime and Prosecution" as part of a government commitment to step up its fight against organized poaching and trafficking of wild animals and plants.

Article originally appeared on TRAFFIC (

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