Saving Julius

February 23, 2012

As Indonesia steps up the fight against the illegal wildlife trade, one baby orangutan confiscated from the pet trade in Sumatra prepares for a return back to the wild.

With their soft features and high intelligence, orangutans have long been sought after on the illegal pet trade—one of the major causes of this great ape’s decline. Laws in the animals’ two homelands, the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, haven’t deterred the most stalwart orangutan traders. While the apes have been strictly protected under Indonesian law since 1924, authorities there have confiscated more than 2,500 illegally held orangutans since the early 1970s.

But recently, the country has made progress, handing down a seven-month prison sentence to an illegal Sumatran orangutan owner and trader in Medan, the capital of the North Sumatra province. It’s just the second actual prosecution of an illegal orangutan owner in Indonesia, following one that occurred on the island of Borneo in 2010.

The case began with the confiscation of a young male orangutan named Julius last July in Mardinding, part of North Sumatra’s Karo District. The owner was allegedly trying to sell the orangutan, believed to be 3 years old.

The raid was conducted by the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry’s Directorate-General for Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA), working in conjunction with WCS’s Wildlife Crime Unit and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (SOCP). SOCP has operated the only orangutan rescue center in Sumatra since 2001. So far, the group has reintroduced over 150 confiscated ex-pet orangutans back to the wild.

Conservationists believe Julius’s mother was killed at the time of his capture. The youngster is now being cared for at SOCP’s quarantine center near Medan, alongside some 50 fellow orangutans that are also being prepared for an eventual return to the forest. The socialization cage he lives in allows him to adapt to the presence of the other animals. Though the road to full rehabilitation may be a long one, Julius is making excellent progress.

The trader’s sentence reflects an increase in recent action to combat the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia. In the last two years, authorities have made more than 20 arrests for illegal possession or trading of protected wildlife, including the critically endangered Sumatran tiger and pangolin. The prosecution is in full compliance with the Indonesian government’s National Orangutan Conservation Strategy and Action Plan, launched in 2007.

Many young orangutans end up in the pet trade after their forest homes are cleared for palm oil plantations, or when conflicts erupt between farmers and orangutans that raid crops in converted agricultural areas. Orangutans are rarely hunted specifically for food or trade in Sumatra, but many have become refugees from forests that no longer exist. Relatively few are actively traded in Sumatra. However, the SOCP and PHKA still confiscate around 30 orphaned orangutans from illegal pet owners each year.

WCS is actively trying to reduce the damaging impact of the illegal wildlife trade.

“We commend Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry’s Directorate-General for Forest Protection and Nature Conservation (PHKA) for taking a hard stance on wildlife trade, which is threatening to destroy the country’s natural resources,” said Dr Noviar Andayani, Director of the WCS Indonesia Program. “We are hopeful that this prosecution sends a clear message that illegal wildlife trade will not be tolerated in Indonesia.”

To learn more, read the press release.

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