“When we tried to confiscate it, the family wouldn’t allow it,” Panut Hadisiswoyo, founding director of the Orangutan Information Center, told the Jakarta Globe in a recent interview.
When they checked back a few days later, the OIC team discovered that the regional military headquarters in Medan knew about the issue, even though the law does not allow people to own orangutans.
“This is proof of just how difficult it is to enforce wildlife protection laws,” Panut said.
“The authorities don’t consider orangutans to be important, so there’s very little being done to follow up on cases of people trading in them.”
Orangutans that live with humans are either captured as they’re driven out of their ever-shrinking habitats, which are increasingly under siege by logging and plantation interests, or specifically targeted by poachers for sale into the illegal wildlife trade.
Only 20 to 35 of the animals are seized from human owners each year, according to the OIC. When found out, the owners are only admonished.
The threat is particularly acute for the Sumatran orangutan, which is listed as critically endangered. Only around 6,600 of them are left in the wild, mostly in the Leuser forest ecosystem that straddles North Sumatra and Aceh.
Bornean orangutans are more numerous, with 45,000* of them left in their habitat. Still, the species is listed as endangered. (*The Orangutan Conservancy believes this number to be substantially lower)
For illegal traders, however, the days of acting with impunity might be coming to an end, as highlighted by a recent case in Kabanjahe, North Sumatra.
On Feb. 9, the Kabanjahe District Court sentenced Samsul, a local resident, to eight months in prison and fined him Rp 7 million ($780) for conspiring to sell an orangutan stolen from the Gunung Leuser National Park, a protected part of the Leuser ecosystem.
The punishment was lighter than the one-year sentence and Rp 10 million fine sought by prosecutors, and far more lenient than the punishment proscribed under the 1990 Natural Resources Conservation Law.
But that the case even went to court, Panut said, was a huge breakthrough.
“On one hand, it’s a big concern because the law stipulates a maximum sentence of 10 years and fine of Rp 100 million,” he said.
“But on the other hand, it’s a relief because this is the first time ever that a court has tried someone for the illegal trade of Sumatran orangutans.
“This marks an important milestone for conservation in Indonesia and in Sumatra. [The sentence] may be lenient, but we hope people will become aware of this forest crime and that it will have a deterrent effect.”
He said he hoped authorities would follow up on the case and go after the people Samsul was dealing with.
Ian Singleton, Director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, also welcomed what seemed to be a step forward for the state.
“It’s just fantastic, although a bit late,” he said.
“I hope that Sumatra’s law enforcement [officials] can really enhance their enforcement efforts to prevent the extinction of the species.”
Courtesy of The Jakarta Globe/Fidelis E. Satriastanti | February 29, 2012/Photo by Sutanta Aditya