A villager found the headless, bloated body of an orangutan floating in a river in Indonesia’s Central Kalimantan province in early 2018.
The Bornean orangutan had been shot 17 times with a pellet gun, had multiple broken ribs, and had been decapitated with a machete. Two rubber farmers, who claimed they acted in self-defense, were arrested and convicted for the illegal killing. They were sentenced to six months in prison and fined 500,000 rupiahs, or about $35.
Those penalties didn’t come close to the maximum allowed. That’s because orangutan-related crimes are “seen as a non-issue compared to other environment [and] forest crimes that the government deals with,” says Taylor Tench, policy analyst for the U.S.-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). Indeed, according to a 2020 report by the scientific consultancy group Borneo Futures and the conservation nonprofit Wildlife Impact, less than one percent of reported orangutan-related crimes end in conviction.
The reason for this is simple, says Vincent Nijman, of Oxford Brookes University, in the U.K., who has studied the orangutan trade: Indonesia’s government, like others around the world, has decided that “wildlife is not on the top of their list” of priorities. It’s “vital that law breakers are being prosecuted to the maximum extent of the law,” he says. And if that doesn’t happen, conservationists “should start making noise.”
All three species of orangutans in Indonesia—Bornean, Sumatran, and Tapanuli—are critically endangered. The number of Bornean orangutans fell from nearly 300,000 in the 1970s to 55,000 in 2016; Sumatran orangutans number about 13,800; and fewer than 800 Tapanuli orangutans, identified as a separate species in 2017, survive today, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
But, Tench says, officials have “given sway to industry and profit,” allowing orangutan habitat to be cleared for logging and industrial-scale palm oil plantations. Nearly two million acres of habitat have been destroyed in Indonesia since 2016, according to an October 2021 report by the EIA.
Wildfires destroy forest too, sometimes driving orangutans into areas occupied by people. The EIA estimates that more than 2,000 orangutans are hunted each year—from fear, for sport, or for meat—and orphaned babies often are sold into the pet trade.
Enforcement of Indonesia’s conservation law, which prohibits the capture, injury, transportation, or trading of orangutans and other protected species, usually falls to local police and to the Ministry of Environment and Forestry’s Natural Resource Conservation Agency. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of 100 million rupiahs (about $6,750). “In theory, orangutans are perfectly protected in Indonesia,” Nijman says. “There's good legislation for it.” But inflation has driven down the value of the maximum fine to an insubstantial amount, he says—100 million rupiahs used to be worth a lot more. “The fine no longer really reflects the seriousness of the crime.”
During the 30 years Indonesia’s conservation law has been in place, no one has served the maximum sentence for illegally trading, possessing, or killing orangutans. Authorities confiscated 440 orangutans from the pet trade between 1993 and 2016, but only seven cases resulted in prosecutions. Most penalties involved less than eight months of jail time, and the maximum sentence imposed was 2.5 years, according to Nijman's research.
“The only time you really see any serious law enforcement action for orangutan killing is if the particular case is especially violent and some compelling images are released of the injured orangutan that then make sort of the international media headlines,” Tench says. Otherwise, “it will go unnoticed.”
Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry did not respond to requests for comment.
Orangutans and the pet trade
Indonesia has a thriving local trade for pet orangutans—one that depends on a steady supply of babies, says Julie Sherman, the executive director of Wildlife Impact, a U.S.-based conservation nonprofit. Prospective pet owners may be told that the babies are orphans, leading them to believe they’re “saving the baby” by taking one in, she says.
But in reality, because orangutans need their mothers for six to nine years, the only way people can get them is if the mothers are killed. This means that every pet orangutan represents two crimes, Sherman says—illegal hunting and trade. The infants may be kept as pets locally or smuggled abroad to other countries in Asia and to the Middle East and Europe.
As babies, orangutans are “darling,” Sherman says—but it’s illegal to keep them as pets, and they’re difficult and expensive to care for. They have complex dietary needs, are strong, and sometimes bite in self-defense.
As a result, rescue centers are overrun with more than a thousand orangutans, according to the 2020 report by Borneo Futures and Wildlife Impact. They often arrive at nonprofit rescue centers malnourished and in urgent need of medical care.
When pet owners or traffickers surrender orangutans to Indonesian rescue centers, they almost always do so with no consequences. “People are not deterred from [owning or trading orangutans] again by surrendering the animal,” Sherman says. “Essentially, everybody gets away with it all the time.” Instead, she says, those giving up their orangutans should at least be given a warning and be made to sign a declaration promising never to own a pet orangutan again and acknowledging that if they do, they will be penalized.
Those surrendering pet orangutans “are not necessarily poor people,” Nijman says. They’re often city-dwelling and upper class, with the resources to buy orangutans, pay to care for and house them, and occasionally bribe officials. To them, he says, “even a theoretical fine of $7,000 is absolutely nothing.”
In 2007, the government set a goal to empty all rehabilitation centers by 2015 by re-releasing them into the wild. But the numbers have remained fairly constant, according to the study in 2020. “There's just too many to release” and “not enough well-protected habitats,” Sherman says. “To empty the centers—it was never possible to meet that goal, given intake rates.”
Development ‘should not be stopped’
During the 2021 global climate summit, in Glasgow, Scotland—days after more than a hundred countries pledged to end deforestation by 2030—Indonesia’s environment minister, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, tweeted that business development “should not be stopped in the name of carbon emissions or in the name of deforestation.”
The rhetoric is “shocking,” but the sentiment is not, Tench says. Indonesia’s 10-year plan for national orangutan conservation expired in 2017. A new one was formulated in 2019, with the goal of conserving 45,590 Bornean orangutans, even though populations were estimated in 2016 to be at least 55,000. The 2019 plan, which later was shelved, revealed a “willingness to accept” orangutan deaths, according to the EIA.
The 10-year plan set a goal of stabilizing wild populations by establishing wildlife corridors and new conservation areas and improving enforcement of orangutan protections. But during that time, swaths of orangutan habitat were converted to oil palm plantations, and no new protected areas were established.
It’s unclear why orangutans seem to be such a low government priority for protection, Sherman says. Analysis of conservation strategies suggests that protecting and patrolling orangutan habitat are the most effective ways to save the species, according to a November 2021 paper she co-authored. In contrast, between 2005 and 2014, Indonesian authorities conducted 619 investigations into tiger poaching and convicted more than 90 percent of suspected poachers and traders. “So the resources appear to be there” but “orangutans don’t seem to be given the same amount of attention,” Sherman says.
“Why?” she asks. “We’d love to know.”
Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.