Illegal orang-utan trade in Thailand still goes unpunished

opinion June 02, 2012 00:00

By Edwin Wiek
Special to The Nat

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Our organisation was informed recently that 11 orang-utans that were found illegally kept in a zoo on Phuket island were not confiscated after a raid on a the zoo.



Instead the 11 orang-utans were “found along the highway” and taken in by the Department of National Parks (DNP) as “a donation”.

The Wildlife Friends Foundation of Thailand (WFFT) complained about three years ago about the illegal possession of the 11 orang-utans in the crocodile and tiger zoo on Phuket. Our investigation team had trouble at first locating all the orang-utans. We received a complaint from a tourist who had seen four baby orang-utans, but one of our staff, on a visit, also saw some sub-adults around the zoo. While interviewing one of the zoo workers we found out that there were 11 orang-utans in total, and that the zoo owners imported them from Indonesia. It took us a few visits to the zoo on different days to find and photograph all the animals.
We sent an official complaint to the DNP on December 16, 2008, but until the first week of January we did not see any action taken on their side. We decided to again send a letter and also send one to the Asean- WEN (Wildlife Enforcement Network) office. Two weeks went on without action, so we started to call the office of the DNP to ask them to urgently enforce the law. We were finally informed in February 2009 that a raid had taken place on the zoo but that not one orang-utan was found there. The officials from the DNP Region 5 office told us there never were any orang-utans at all. This despite the fact that we attached pictures of the orang-utans to the complaint and included a DVD with video images of the location were the animals were kept.
It was pretty clear that the zoo knew about the raid on their premises in advance, and therefore had time to move out the animals. A letter was sent to WFFT by the DNP to the effect that, unfortunately, the animals were not found and that the case was hereby closed. 
Our pictures and video, however, provide proof that the DNP is wrong. We again asked for an official investigation, and pushed for urgent action before the animals would be moved far away. With daily phone conversations between the WFFT and the local DNP on the matter, it took two weeks before we were informed that all 11 orang-utans were found and confiscated in early March.
The 11 orang-utans were moved to the Kao Prathapchang wildlife breeding centre of the DNP and were to be returned to Indonesia, their country of origin. I have asked the authorities on a regular basis for a copy of the criminal charges laid against the owner of the zoo on Phuket, and on several occasions I was told that the case was with the local police on Phuket. For over three years now I have been under the impression that the zoo would be prosecuted for illegal possession of protected wildlife and the illegal smuggling of CITES protected species. I was informed, however, only a few days ago (by the provincial police office) that charges were never filed as the 11 orang-utans were never found at the zoo, but instead were found “along the highway between Phuket and Phang Nga without any owner present” by DNP officials of Region 5. The animals were taken in as “donated”, even though the pictures of the orang-utans at the zoo in our complaint exactly matched the animals “found” along the road. 
Most worrying is that the Indonesian government, an active partner in the Asean community and a great facilitator of the Asean-WEN is not being told the truth of the origin of these orang-utans. In a letter from two years ago, they (the Indonesian authorities) were told that they would have to wait for a total of five years to receive the orang-utans back home, as the animals were found “along the highway” without any owner. The DNP told them that, under Thai law, they will need to keep these orang-utans for at least five years now, in case one day a person comes forward to claim ownership.
But we know who owned them. The videos and pictures show that they came from the zoo in Phuket. So why is this game being played?
In similar cases of illegal orang-utan possession – in Samut Prakan province with eight orang-utans (2004), and a case in Bangkok at a safari park with 78 illegal orang-utans out of a total of over 115 (2003) – there has been no prosecution at all. In both of these cases, no one ever faced a court, nor even had charges filed against them. 
We are still awaiting the confiscation of two orang-utans found in February 2012 in a wildlife trader’s house in Saraburi, without much hope, to be honest, that the trader will ever be prosecuted. 
The most important question here: What sense does it make, given the above facts, to investigate the illegal wildlife trade and complain to the authorities? Clearly the illegal trade in, and possession of, orang-utans that are protected under CITES, of which Thailand is a signatory, always has gone unpunished in Thailand. And it still does.
 
Edwin Wiek runs an animal rescue centre in Phetchaburi province. He is currently involved in a legal dispute with the Thai authorities over animals he has rescued, and other matters including the alleged lack of action to properly counter illegal trafficking in animals. For more information, see: Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand (www.wfft.org www.wfft.org) and www.wfft.org/wildlife-trade/illegal-orangutan-trade-in-thailand-goes-unpunished