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Illegal trade devastates Sumatran orangutan population, TRAFFIC Report Says

Weak Law Enforcement and Low Penalties Encourage Trade

Washington, DC, April 16, 2009 – Lack of law enforcement against illegal trade in Indonesia threatens the survival of orangutans and gibbons on Sumatra, a new study by the wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC shows.

Despite considerable investment in wildlife conservation, numbers of the critically endangered orangutans captured mainly for the pet trade exceeded the levels of the 1970s. A lack of adequate law enforcement is to blame, TRAFFIC says. TRAFFIC is a joint program between WWF and IUCN.

Records of orangutans and gibbons put into rehabilitation centers serve 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.

Orangutans, which can weigh up to around 200 pounds and reach five feet 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 colored apes do not face any legal consequences.

“It is futile to confiscate these animals without prosecuting the owners,” said Crawford Allan, Director of TRAFFIC North America.

“There is just nothing to deter people from committing these crimes if they are not punished,” Allan added. The laws are in place in Indonesia, but unless they are upheld the illegal trade will continue and the species will spiral toward extinction.”

An estimated 2,000 orangutans 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 orangutans, while its predecessor, Bohorok rehabilitation centre accepted just 30 animals between 1995–2001 (when it closed), and 105 orangutans between 1973–1979.

“When the first rehabilitation centers were established for orangutans 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 centers, 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 orangutans kept in Indonesian zoos.

“Tackling this crisis requires investigating the root causes of trade and stricter enforcement of laws for the protection of orangutans, gibbons and the island’s other wildlife,” said Ginny Ng, WWF Program Officer for Borneo and Sumatra.

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

WWF is working to reduce the destruction of wildlife habitat in Sumatra by working with industry to ensure High Conservation Value Forests are not converted for agriculture, empowering local communities to manage natural resources in a sustainable way, and providing alternatives. 

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NOTES

An assessment of trade in gibbons and orangutans in Sumatra, Indonesia 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 orangutans and gibbons on Kalimantan, Indonesia and in Java and Bali: In full swing: An assessment of trade in orangutans and gibbons on Java and Bali, Indonesia.

Under national legislation, penalties for illegally possessing orangutans include a fine of up to $9,000 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.