Indonesian Orangutans Focus of Thai Smuggling Case

BANGKOK, Thailand, October 18, 2004 (ENS) - The Indonesian government is insisting on a speedy repatriation of more than 100 orangutans that are believed to have been illegally obtained in Indonesia and smuggled into Thailand. The endangered apes currently are being held in Thailand at Safari World, a zoo in suburban Bangkok.

Thailand was criticized by conservationists and Indonesian forestry officials attending a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which ended on Thursday in Bangkok, for failing to speed up the repatriation of the orangutans.

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

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Orangutans about to kickbox at Safari World in Bangkok (Photo courtesy International Primate Protection League)
The forestry police placed a ban on orangutan boxing at the zoo while authorities investigate whether the park's 110 primates were illegally purchased.

Thailand began DNA tests on the zoo's young orangutans in September to find out whether or not they were the offspring of 14 original adults at Safari World. The Safari World management then admitted it had illegally acquired 47 of the orangutans.

Safari World owner and managing director Pin Kewkacha has been charged with animal smuggling.

Eight of the orangutans have died since August.

"The apes are now left to die in totally unsuitable and inadequate living conditions," objected Edwin Wiek, director of Wildlife Friends of Thailand.

Thai Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Suwit Khunkitti has said the Safari World case is going through "due process of law," and repatriation of the apes depends on the outcome of trial proceedings.

Meanwhile, the apes, which had been crammed into tiny cages at Safari World, will be held in Thailand until the courts have decided the case. "We've started to prepare a place for the orangutans, one option is in Chiang Mai," Khunkitti told reporters at the CITES conference.

A group of Indonesian activists demonstrated outside the Thai embassy in Jakarta on Thursday, demanding an immediate repatriation of the endangered orangutans.

"It is time for justice to be served and for the orangutans to be allowed to go home," Wiek told reporters on the sidelines of the CITES meeting.

The DNA check of all the remaining apes will still be pursued by the Forestry Police Division under command of Police General-Major Swake Pinsinchai with the financial assistance of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation, the Wildlife Friends of Thailand and the Thai Animal Guardians Association.

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Professor Birute Galdikas with wild orangutans Siswi and Sampson in Borneo, Indonesia (Photo by Susan Thornton courtesy NREL)
Indigenous to Borneo and Indonesia, orangutans are listed as endangered species under CITES Appendix I, which prohibits international trade.

To date the Thai authorities have not spoken out in favor of the repatriation of the apes to Indonesia even if is determined that they were illegally obtained from the wild, said Wiek.

The decision whether or not to let the orangutans leave Thailand ultimately belongs to the director-general of the Department of National Parks. Although CITES, of which Thailand is a signatory, has guidelines and recommendations on the repatriation of confiscated wildlife, this does not mean that the country is obligated to follow them.

Representing the Indonesian Minister of Forestry, the Indonesian CITES chief Dr. Widodo Ramono has said repeatedly that it is in the best interests of the orangutans for them to be relocated to the Indonesian wildlife rescue centres that are adequately equipped to care for them and have the necessary expertise. Space for a total of 120 orangutans is available at two rescue centres in Indonesia.