The Illegal Pet Trade

Chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, gibbons, siamangs and orangutans have long suffered from hunting pressures, and their continued presence in the illegal wildlife trade is considered one of their biggest threats, while addressing these concerns is the focus of renewed attention (Shepherd, 2010). 

Chimpanzees are perhaps the most famous of all the apes, and have been traded illegally for decades, primarily for use as pets, and in the entertainment and bio-medical research industries. Although the trade in wild chimpanzees is illegal and most countries either have or are now moving towards a ban in the use of great apes in invasive scientific experiments, there are currently around 1,300 chimpanzees housed in US laboratories, and they are all either wild caught, or acquired from circuses, zoos or private collections (Project R&R). A further 113 are kept as pets in the USA, one of the few countries where keeping a great ape as a pet is legal. Although public pressure has seen the use of apes in entertainment decrease, until 2002, one of the most popular and successful advertising campaigns in the UK involved a group of chimpanzees, dressed as humans, drinking tea, a campaign which was voted the nations favorite in 2003 (Guardian, 2003), and a pet gibbon recently featured prominently in a successful US comedy series. Throughout South East Asia, orangutans and gibbons, the only apes native to this part of the world, are found in tourist areas, often being forced to take part in boxing matches, or seen drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes for tourists in nightclubs. Although proprietors claim these animals are captive born, they are more than likely poached from the wild (Daily Mail, 2010).

Perhaps the biggest threat to the great apes of Africa is the increasing trade in the animals for human consumption, known as the bushmeat trade. Communities in Africa living in proximity to forested areas have always hunted chimpanzees, gorillas and bonobos, and although there are local taboos, their meat has always been a staple of Central African diets. However, with the arrival of modern weapons, population growth, urban sprawl, and the opening up of Africa’s forests by timber companies, the consumption of ape meat has exploded from a purely subsistence activity, in to a large commercial enterprise (Peterson, 2001). Today, it is estimated that up to 8,000 chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas are killed each year to fuel this industry (Bushmeat Project, 2010).

Orangutans, like all the other great apes, are listed on Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which prohibits their unlicensed international trade, and, as signatories to CITES, Malaysia and Indonesia are required to adhere to this prohibition. Orangutans are also protected by national laws in both countries, initially introduced during their periods of European colonization, and amended upon independence. They are also members of the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network (ASEAN), and Indonesia is a signatory to the Kinshasha Declaration, which resolves to improve “the protection of individual great apes and their habitats everywhere by demonstrably improving where necessary the quality and enforcement of relevant laws, as well as the capacity of law enforcement agencies” (CITES/GRASP, 2006). Despite this, the trade continues.

The orangutan trade encompasses many forms, but at its heart is the poaching of orangutans from the wild, be it for food, to obtain infants for the pet trade, for traditional medicine or in response to crop raiding (Rijksen & Meijaard, 1999).

One of the most complex issues in orangutan conservation is the hunting of orangutans by local people for food, something conservationists have often shied away from dealing with, for fear of offending local sensitivities. Fossil evidence from the Niah caves of Sarawak in Malaysia indicates humans were killing and eating orangutans as early as 40,000 years ago (Bennett, 1998), and, although different cultures have different taboos, the hunting of wild animals for sustenance has been, and still is, an integral part of indigenous cultures and rural life throughout Indonesia and Malaysia, with historic hunting seen as the likely explanation for the large areas of suitable forest habitat throughout Borneo currently devoid of wild orangutans (Rijksen & Meijaard, 1999).  The introduction of both Christianity and Islam to the region has seen a modification in the beliefs and practices of many of the indigenous people, and today, most Muslim communities generally refrain from eating orangutan meat. However, there is still a large local variation in this activity, and whether or not orangutans are hunted is strongly linked with tribal and village identity (Marshall et al, 2006). Surveys in Kalimantan have shown that hunting for meat claims the lives of around 1,000 orangutans a year (Mongabay, 2010), and studies have found that sustenance hunting was the primary factor reducing orangutan density in areas of Kalimantan, that orangutans were being killed not just for their meat, but for their perceived medicinal benefits of their body parts, and that any drop in the levels of hunting were due to the scarcity of orangutans today, rather than to any change in beliefs (Marshall et al, 2006). Research conducted by CITES and the Great Ape Survival Project (GRASP) in 2006 found that although the hunting of orangutans for their meat was not as widespread throughout Indonesia as the bushmeat trade is throughout Africa, orangutans are still widely hunted, and in some rural areas, some restaurants would prepare dishes containing orangutan meat, although these dishes would have to be specifically requested and would not be offered openly. They also found that orangutan fat and skin is used as a form of talisman to protect houses against fire.

Land conflict between wildlife and humans is not a new phenomenon and has occurred throughout the world since time immemorial.  As a consequence of this conflict with population expansion and technology, the killing by humans has caused the extinction, or near extinction, of most large predators throughout Europe, North America and Australia. In the developing world, where large areas of tropical rainforest have been converted in to agricultural land, such conflicts are an increasing problem. Although conflicts usually occur with larger, ground dwelling animals poached orangutan-(c) IARlike elephants and tigers, as the rate of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia has increased, so have human-orangutan conflicts, as starving displaced orangutans raid crops and wander in to villages in search of food, where they are usually killed. One palm oil company in Central Kalimantan instigated a policy of paying local people 150,000 Rupiah (around $17) for every orangutan ‘pest’ killed (Buckland, 2005), and although a local NGO was able to form an agreement with this company in 2004 to rescue 52 adult and 11 infant orangutans found in their plantation, it is likely similar policies are in place in most other plantations. As firearms are not easily available, most orangutans in these situations are either beaten, hacked, drowned, set on fire, or buried alive (Schuster, 2007).

The illegal pet trade is one of the biggest threats to orangutans, and is comprised of two components: the domestic market and the international market. The practice of keeping pets is widespread in many parts of Indonesia, and wildlife markets are a feature of most large towns and cities. Although illegal, the keeping of primates as pets is common (CITES/GRASP, 2006), and these primates, most often orangutans and gibbons, will often be kept by families, in good conditions, in the same way people in western countries keep cats and dogs. In some circumstances, orangutans are also kept as status symbols, indicating an owner’s social status or wealth. Orangutans are also acquired by people for the sole reason of being illegal, and therefore a way for the owner to demonstrate that he or she is above the law. Investigations in Sumatra have shown that possession of orangutans is usually by local politicians, senior military and police staff, and many of the orangutans confiscated by the police and junior military will be used to curry favor with higher ranking officials, with 60% of all orangutans in rehabilitation centers on the island having come from such sources (CITES/GRASP, 2006).

Like all great apes, orangutans have slow life histories, and for the first few years of their lives, are docile, sweet and gentle. However, at around 5 years of age, an orangutan already has the strength of an adult male human, and by maturity, will be as strong as 5-7 adult male humans, with an unpredictable and possibly aggressive nature that makes them unsuitable as pets. 

poached baby orangutan - (c) IARThe only way for an orangutan baby to be caught is for the mother to be shot, and the baby pried from her dead body. The route the baby then takes is entirely dependent on the intended form of trade, and how much money can be obtained. Almost every person living in a forested area of Kalimantan will know the value of a baby orangutan, so while poachers will sometimes keep orangutans for themselves, usually if the baby is kept by the poacher, or sold to a family in the same village, it is because the orangutan is a valuable commodity that can in time be sold or bartered (Nijman, 2005). Rather than being kept, it is more than likely that the baby will enter the illegal trade, usually sold to someone in another area, who will then sell it on for an increased price; the process become more and more professional and lucrative as it develops. The monetary value of an orangutan varies from place to place, and depends on whether it is being sold in an area where orangutans live in the wild. For example, in Kalimantan, orangutans can be priced between 243,000-1,007,000 Rupiah ($27-$112), while on the island of Java, orangutans will cost more, from 3,462,000 Rupiah ($385) (Nijman, 2005). Orangutans are also often acquired in exchange for other commodities, such as a wrist watch or an electronic appliance (Nijman, 2005).

Orangutans are also often poached from the wild to form collections for zoos and wildlife parks throughout the country. The origins of the orangutans and other primates kept in these zoos are often uncertain, and records are not always kept, but it is likely few are captive born (Nijman, 2009). Conditions at these zoos are usually appalling, and have a high mortality rate; of the six orangutans present at the Medan zoo in Sumatra in 2006, only 2 were still there in 2008 (Nijman, 2009).

The international trade in orangutans is strictly prohibited, but despite its illegality, research in to the illegal wildlife trade in Kalimantan and Sumatra has shown that orangutans are still being smuggled out of Indonesia in to neighboring south east Asian countries (Nijman, 2005; CITES/GRAS, 2006). Performing orangutans have always been extremely popular in South East Asia, and the similarities between infant orangutans and human babies have always made them popular household pets (Foead et al, 2005). In the 1980’s and 1990’s, the illegal trade was focused mainly in the affluent country of Taiwan, where demand for orangutan pets was high, and to where an estimated 1,000 orangutans were illegally imported between 1985 and 1990 (WWF). In recent years, the large numbers of orangutans in Thailand and Cambodia has brought renewed attention to the wildlife trade, and their use in highly publicized kick boxing shows, aimed at domestic and international, usually western, tourists, has been the focus of intensive lobbying by Kickboxing Performance at Safari World - (c) Daily MailNGO’s. In 2004, 114 orangutans were seized from the Safari World theme park in Bangkok, where they were forced to dress up and engage in Thai-boxing, and in 2006, 54 of these orangutans were returned to Indonesia. Unfortunately, the other 60 were believed to have died (Profauna, 2006). Despite the safari park being ordered to close, media reports surfaced in 2010 showing the park open and once again advertising orangutan boxing shows (Daily Mail, 2010). Orangutans are kept in similar parks in other areas of Thailand and Cambodia (Davies, 2005), with further groups of illegally imported orangutans known to exist in peninsular Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam (CITES/GRASP, 2006).  Like the domestic trade, these orangutans are poached from the rainforests, and transported to coastal towns, where they are often sold to crews of foreign owned ships, and, through a system of corruption, bribes and collusion, clear customs easily. Intelligence related to the illegal importation of one large shipment of orangutans from Kalimantan to Cambodia showed that a Thai fishing vessel had been involved (CITES/GRASP, 2006), and cargo ships are known to transport orangutans from the coastal city of Pontianak in west Kalimantan to Singapore (Nijman, 2005).

It is difficult to estimate the number of orangutans involved in the illegal domestic and international wildlife trade, or those lost to sustenance hunting, but it is evident that it is a considerable number. Between 1971 and 2004, 1433 orangutans were confiscated by forestry department officials in Kalimantan and placed in one of the  4 rehabilitation centers (Nijman, 2005); between 1973 and 2000, 226 orangutans were rescued and handed to the largest rehabilitation centre in Sumatra (Nijman, 2009). These numbers are likely just a drop in the ocean, but it is clear that if orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia are to survive, stronger law enforcement is needed, and current domestic and international laws and treaties banning this trade are obeyed.
 Information from: Orang Utan Republik Foundation