The baby trade torturing orangutans to extinction

The baby trade torturing orangutans to extinction

The baby trade torturing orangutans to extinction

Updated 22 January 2018, 12:30 AEDT

A former orangutan smuggler shares the secrets of how gangs are slaughtering the great apes to steal their babies to sell as pets or status symbols, pushing an endangered species closer to the brink.

A former smuggler shares the secrets of how gangs are stealing baby orangutans to sell as pets or status symbols, pushing an already endangered species closer to the brink.

A horrifying, low groan stopped us in our tracks.

It was hard to work out which cage the noise was coming from. But then a long arm, with a massive human-like hand, reached out and gave us our first glimpse of a desperate and distressed ape.

This was Jono, an orangutan from Borneo. He had been alone in this cramped cage for five years.

Jono was abandoned by an NGO that had him as a pet. He'd been a cute baby but became too difficult to handle as he grew.

Now he is huge — adult male orangutans can weigh up to 130 kilograms.

Jono's dark eyes stared at us from behind bars. Even the floor of his cage is made of bars, ensuring cleaning is never required.

We first heard about Jono while researching the multi-million-dollar orangutan trafficking trade, a project that would take us to Jono's old jungle in Borneo, to Sumatra and to Thailand.

It took months of requests for Foreign Correspondent to gain access to the government-run animal rescue centre that houses Jono in west Jakarta. Perhaps Jono's obvious misery explained the rejections.

It's too late for Jono to be rehabilitated into the wild.

His plight symbolises the fast approaching extinction of his species, which shares 97 per cent of human DNA. Even the Indonesian Government admits orangutans will probably be gone from the wild in 50 years.

The destruction of Borneo's and Sumatra's jungles for palm oil plantations makes extinction a near guarantee. But wildlife smugglers, and people who buy the babies as pets, have sped up the process.

'The demand is always there'

A former orangutan smuggler, who is now working as an informant, told us how babies are ripped from their mothers.

He claimed at least three were being taken from the jungles each week and trafficked mainly through Thailand to third nations — particularly in the Middle East, where private ownership of an exotic rainforest animal is a big status symbol.

The informant told us the smugglers often use commercial flights and pay off corrupt officials — information backed up by other sources who spoke, on and off the record.

"The demand is always there, they always want orangutans," the former smuggler said.

"Each week at least I would send three orangutans — two females and one male. That demand was there every week."

A hunter will be paid about $50 to take a baby from its mother, who is typically shot or beaten to death.

The end sale price can reach tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for pets or performers in unethical zoos.

He told us how the babies are hidden in luggage and given pillows to hug, as a substitute for their mothers.

The former smuggler claimed one last brutal kill turned him off the trade forever.

"I looked at myself and imagined if it happened to me, to be separated from my child," he said

"After that I made an oath to myself, I felt that I had been trading human beings.

"Now when I see baby orangutans I think about my baby."

The two babies and the taxi

Two baby orangutans from Sumatra first drew Foreign Correspondent's attention to the trade.

Rescued during a police raid in Bangkok, they made headlines just before Christmas 2016, when they were found clinging to each other in a box in the back of a taxi.

The police had been tipped off by animal rescue group Freeland, which had used Facebook to pose as a buyer paying $US3,000 as a deposit.

A year on, Nobita and Shizuka — named after two Japanese animated characters — are now at a government rescue centre south of Bangkok, far from their jungle home.

The taxi driver was arrested but quickly released. No-one has been charged.

Reliable sources tell us police know who the perpetrators are, where they live and have bank account evidence against them — but still no arrests have been made.

"It's a well-oiled, very well organised criminal gang. It's mafia behind it," said Edwin Wiek, founder of the Wildlife Friends Foundation in Thailand.

Mr Wiek runs several sanctuaries and programs across South-East Asia. Originally from the Netherlands, he's a pioneer in wildlife protection.

The return of the babies to Sumatra is his ultimate aim, but rehabilitation of orangutans is arduous and costly. Even if they are returned one day, he worries about their fate.

"Unfortunately, we have found out lately that some of the orangutans that were shipped back to Indonesia that we actually rescued from illegal captivity and the trade have ended up in commercial zoos in Indonesia where they are being bred without any kind of system, without any plan, just only for commercial reasons," he said.

Gone in 50 years?

Wiratno, who goes by one name, is Indonesia's Director General of Natural Resources and Ecosystem Conservation and oversees orangutan protection.

He is a realist about the future of the species, which lives in the wild in only two places — Borneo and Sumatra.

"According to experts, they have maybe 50 years," Wiratno said.

"It's difficult to protect the orangutan in the wild.

"Considering the population and new cities and infrastructure, it's hard to save orangutans."

How you can help

But some predictions are the ape could be gone from the wild even sooner because of a lack of political will in Indonesia.

"Those government officials in Indonesia know very well what's going on," Mr Wiek said.

"They know who the hunters are. They know who the traders are.

"Without help from the authorities, you wouldn't get these animals out of the country."

Stephen Galster, who heads the Freeland group which helped rescue the babies from the Bangkok taxi, says Indonesia needs to enforce its laws and make police more effective in combating the trade.

"We need to see our police units, who are authorised and undercover, to dismantle these syndicates and that hasn't happened yet," he said.

"We need to see the counter-wildlife trafficking world evolve like the counter-drug trafficker world is.

"Where they have money, they go undercover … the profits are so high and the risks are so low, and that's a huge invitation for corruption."

Reclaiming freedom

One orangutan we met during our investigation, Oki, represents a sliver of hope.

Rescued from a run-down university zoo in Indonesia by the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), he's spent most of his 15 years in captivity

He's being given the rare opportunity to rehabilitate into the wild.

The people at COP have taught him to climb trees, find fruit and build nests. He is re-learning what it means to be wild.

COP and founder Hardi Baktiantoro invited us to witness Oki making the final journey back to the rainforests of Borneo.

"For Oki, it is something that he had never imagined before, to live his life in the wild," Hardi told us.

"His mother must have been killed, he suffered — and now he finally is able to return to the wild. It is an extraordinary experience for him."

Sedated and placed in a small box, Oki was taken to the Sungai Lesan Conservation forest in Borneo, a protected haven where he would be safe.

Our cameras capture the remarkable moment when, after seven years of intensive training, Oki reclaimed his freedom.

Watch Foreign Correspondent's The Baby Trade on ABC TV tonight at 8:30pm.