Orangutans Seized in Bangkok Will Be Returned to Indonesia

BANGKOK, Thailand, April 18, 2006 (ENS) - After two years of investigation and DNA testing, 54 orangutans that were forced to entertain tourists at a private zoo in a Bangkok suburb, will be returned eventually to their homeland in the Indonesian rainforest.

Schwann Tunhikorn, deputy director-general of the National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department (DNP), said recent DNA tests by a Kasetsart University veterinarian confirmed that 54 of the 69 apes seized by Thai forestry police from Safari World in 2004 belonged to Indonesia.

Safari World Zoo's Managing Director Pin Kewkacha also admitted that the zoo illegally obtained the endangered apes from Borneo and Sumatra islands.


Orangutans about to kickbox at Safari World in a suburb of Bangkok (Photo courtesy International Primate Protection League)
But Pin is likely to escape legal punishment as the country's wildlife protection law does not cover a case involving non-indigenous animals, forestry police officers said Tuesday.

Former Forestry Police Chief Major General Sawek Pinsinchai, who headed the investigation of the high-profile case, said the police had filed two charges against Pin after evidence showed that the orangutans were illegally smuggled in from overseas.

He was charged with violations of the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act and the Customs Act.

But the officers later found that the wildlife law did not cover cases of non-native animals. So, Pin's only charge was illegal smuggling of goods under the Customs Act.

However, as the accused had already handed over the orangutans to the relevant state agencies, he could now walk free, said Sawek.

Under the Customs Act, he said, wrongdoers would not face any legal actions if he or she could settle the case with the Customs Department by agreeing to hand over the smuggled goods.

"We can say that the case is closed," said Sawek. "At least, the animals are now under the protection of wildlife experts and will not have to suffer in the zoo again.""Wild animal smugglers hardly ever go to jail because our wildlife protection law contains serious loopholes," he said.

"The decision [to return the orangutans to Indonesia] reflects Thailand's responsibility as a member of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which aims to crack down on the cross-border illegal wildlife trade," Schwann said.

Indigenous to Borneo and Indonesia, orangutans are listed as endangered species under CITES Appendix I, which prohibits international trade.

The decision to release the orangutans was based on the DNA testing and discussions with CITES officers in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand as well as wildlife experts, Schwann said.

Edwin Wiek, the Thai representative of Indonesia's Borneo Orangutan Foundation, criticized the department for dragging its feet in investigating the case and bringing the wildlife smugglers to justice. The zoo operator, he said, is still at large despite apparently breaching wildlife protection laws.

Schwann dismissed Wiek's comment, saying that the delayed judgement resulted from the time consuming legal process and the DNA testing.

Wiek, a Dutch born wildlife activist who has been working for release of the orangutans, calls this case "the world's biggest illegal wildlife case involving great apes." He runs the acclaimed Wildlife Friends of Thailand Rescue Center 160 kilometers south of Bangkok.

Over the past 10 years, the illegal trade in wildlife has grown exponentially throughout Thailand, Wiek says.

DNP and forestry officials have been aware for several years that Safari World was collecting orangutans in large numbers and did not act on any complaints, Wiek alleges.

"Her Majesty the Queen asked for a crackdown on the illegal wildlife trade on her birthday, August 12, 2003," Wiek explained. In response, the then newly appointed Commissioner of the Thai Forestry Police, Major General Sawaek, undertook a raid on the zoos and slaughterhouses, which revealed the orangutans at Safari World.


Orangutans inhabit areas of Indonesia and Malaysia. (Photo courtesy Government of Indonesia)
At the time Pinsinchai vowed to eradicate the trade within three months. "Thailand has unfortunately become one of the world’s largest centers for the illegal trade of wildlife. This has to stop," he said.

In 2004, the Indonesian government insisted on a speedy repatriation of 110 orangutans believed to have been illegally obtained in Indonesia and smuggled into Thailand.

After being hit with a host of conflicting stories about the number of orangutans missing, ill or dead, in August 2004 the Thai forestry police found only 69 of the 110 orangutans. Police found 36 of the apes in seven small cages behind an orangutan kickboxing arena at Safari World.

The forestry police placed a ban on orangutan boxing at the zoo while DNA testing was conducted. Eight of the orangutans died between August and October 2004.

Yet in late 2004, the director-general of the DNP informed the Forestry Police commander that he felt no laws had been broken, and the orangutans should stay with Safari World.

Now, the fate of the orangutans appears to have been resolved in favor of returning them to Indonesia, although no date has been set for their repatriation.

The Bornean orangutan, Pongo pygmaeus, occurs in Central Kalimantan of Indonesia and Sabah in Malaysia, with smaller populations in West and East Kalimantan and Sarawak, Malaysia. By 2004, the area of Bornean orangutan habitat remaining was around 86,000 square kilometers in total, supporting an estimated 45,000 to 69,000 animals.

The Sumatran orangutan, Pongo abelii, occurs to the north of Lake Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The latest population estimate in late 2002 is about 3,500 and declining.

Although the DNA tests by Kasetsart University confirmed that the 54 orangutans were smuggled in from another country, authorities need to find out where exactly they came from by matching the DNA samples with those from apes on Sumatra and Borneo islands.