Tue, 11 Apr 2000

Man's nearest relative going the way of the dodo

By William Furney

JAKARTA (JP): There have been increasing reports in the media concerning the fate of man's nearest relative, the orangutan. Most of the reports center on the demise of the tree-dwelling creature as forest fires and forest conversion to oil palm plantations continue to eat into its natural habitat.

Little seems to have been done to correct the fate of the primate which, by all accounts, is fast heading toward extinction.

A recently completed survey by the World Wide Fund for Nature has reportedly caused environmentalists to call for the orangutan to be classified as critically endangered. The report says that the orangutan population has fallen by about 1,000 per year in Sumatra since 1998 due to logging and forest conversion.

The orangutan population in Sumatra is now estimated at 5,500.

It is not taking into consideration Kalimantan, the only other part of Indonesia they live in. It is more difficult to estimate the population there due to the impenetrability of the island of Borneo. Scientists, however, believe that the death rate there is higher as Borneo was affected by worse forest fires than Sumatra.

One activity which has not been getting as much coverage in the reports is the illegal trade in orangutans, which continues to flourish amid tales of corruption.

"Critically endangered" means precious little to the people who deal in orangutans, or the officials who continue to accept bribes to aid in the passage of the creatures.

Pramuka bird market in Central Jakarta is one place where young orangutans can be found for sale.

Last weekend there was the usual variety of birds on offer at this market, including the rare cendrawasih (bird of paradise) from Irian Jaya. Delving deeper into the bird market complex reveals monkeys, lizards, bats, bears, snakes and otters for sale.

If a prospective buyer at the market is deemed by the sellers to be trustworthy and rich enough and expresses an interest in acquiring more exotic and rare animals, there is a slew of sellers who will take you to certain areas in the complex where you can view the animals.

When I indicated that I was interested in monkeys and wanted to see what else was on offer, one man approached me and said that if I kept quiet he would show me the orangutans he had for sale.

Assuring him of my discretion, I followed him out of the market area to his house which was by a canal and opposite a mosque.

The man told me to wait on a bench outside his house and shortly afterward returned with a six-month-old orangutan which he said was from Kalimantan.

The animal was clearly distressed and was shaking as the owner placed its arms round my neck. While continuing to shake and whimper, the young orangutan urinated over me, much to the amusement of those now gathered round. The owner then placed the orangutan on the ground, where it held out its arms to be picked up and continued to cry.

When asked, the owner said he took the orangutan out of Kalimantan by bribing local police officers. He said the amount of the bribe depended on the value of the animal, with the lowest bribe being about Rp 200,000.

The price tag on this orangutan was Rp 4.5 million.

The owner then brought out a frail-looking two-month-old orangutan, which he said was also from Kalimantan and came with the same price tag.

When I inquired as to where the mother of this baby was, he laughed hard and said she was "already married again".

It seems that the nouveau riche here consider it chic and prestigious to own such animals. However, as with young children, they quickly tire of looking after them and find it difficult to cope with them when they grow bigger.

Hollywood celebrities have long known the advantages of associating their names with worthy causes, and the plight of the orangutan is no exception. In the PBS television program In the Wild, Orangutans with Julia Roberts, the star gets down and dirty as she heads to the jungle and communes with the orangutans of Tanjung Puting National Park in West Kalimantan.

Roberts meets Birute Galdikas, a woman who lives in Kalimantan and who has devoted her entire life to protecting and studying the orangutans of Borneo.

In the West, there are many organizations purportedly acting in the interests of the orangutans, but a trip last year to the rehabilitation center at Tanjung Puting showed that there is little being done there to care for these animals. It is also evident that whatever money is being raised back in the West through "Adopt an Orangutan", campaigns and other efforts is not making its way to the centers that are meant to be caring for these most human-like of animals.

There are a number of camps at Tanjung Puting and as we stayed for a few nights at the first one, we observed firsthand what was being done for the orangutans: precious little. There was a "clinic" at that time with three tiny baby orangutans. But the clinic was filthy and in the mornings the vet would take the animals out and leave them to forage in the bushes.

The other staff at the camp seemed altogether indifferent to the orangutans that were either being rehabilitated therein or just passing by.

A couple of young orangutans staked out our hut from the moment we arrived, and whenever there was an opportunity they would run in and take all our food and cigarettes. If there was any resistance they would bite us. And they bit hard.

When I asked the Balinese veterinarian why these usually docile creatures were attacking people, he shrugged and said he didn't know.

So, while international organizations are crying out to save the orangutan, the fact is that little is being, or is likely to be, done. The fate of the orangutan, it seems, is destined to follow that of the dodo.