Fourteen orang-utans illegally smuggled into Thailand were sent back to Indonesia yesterday, but the operation was not without incident - one of the powerful apes tore a wildlife officer's finger off when he tried to put them in cages.
Twelve of the orang-utans were smuggled into Thailand as babies and rescued seven years ago by police and sent to a wildlife breeding centre in Ratchaburi province. Two of the great apes were born at the centre.
“The animals were still babies when we got them and they should have been sent back right away,” said Edwin Wiek, director of Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand. “Now it’s too late for them to go back to the wild.”
Documents from Thailand’s Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conversation said the orang-utans originated from the island of Borneo in Indonesia.
The illegal trade in endangered orang-utans sees the great apes poached from Indonesian forests for food, to obtain infants for the domestic and international pet trade, or for traditional medicine. Between 2006 and 2007, Thailand returned 52 smuggled orang-utans to Indonesia.
The latest apes to be sent back to Indonesia were transported to Don Mueang International Airport on Wednesday and put in cages ahead of their five-hour journey to Jakarta, a department statement said.
One tore an officer’s finger off when he tried to put them in a cage, the department said. Around five years of age, an orang-utan has the strength of an adult male human, and by maturity will be as strong as five to seven adult male humans.
The orang-utans will spend 60 days in quarantine at a Jakarta safari park and will be moved to a rescue centre in Borneo, home to 2,000 orang-utans.
In Jakarta, preparations were under way to greet the returning animals.
“They will be greatly welcomed by the Indonesian government once they arrive back home. It is a homecoming,” said Eka W Sugiri, Indonesia’s environment spokesman, adding that the government was very serious about the conservation of orang-utans.
Orang-utans are native to the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra but they are often illegally smuggled throughout Southeast Asia, either for private zoos or as pets.
The 14 apes, who are travelling to Indonesia with their Thai keeper, will be taken to a safari park in West Java for checks before being reintroduced to the wild, said the Indonesian spokesman.
He added that officials still needed to determine whether the apes came from Borneo or Sumatra.
Despite their reputation as gentle animals, orang-utans are not suitable pets, to which the man who lost a finger can attest.
In recent months, many apes in Indonesia have fled their forest homes after illegal fires set to clear land cheaply for plantations.
The fires and resulting region-wide haze occur to varying degrees each year during the dry season, although in recent days persistent rain has doused many blazes and cleared the air across vast stretches of Southeast Asia.
This week, an animal-rights group said it had released back into the wild an orang-utan and her baby who were attacked by angry villagers in Indonesia’s West Kalimantan province after straying out of their forest home to escape the fires.
Some locals view the apes as pests and there has been an increase in human-animal conflict in the area.