Commentary: Some Serious Law Enforcement Needed to Save Orangutans From Extinction


FEBRUARY 03, 2015

Killing of orangutans goes back a long time. 40,000 years ago, the people who lived in and around the large Niah caves in what is now Sarawak were regularly snacking on the species. In fact, throughout much of its fossil record, orangutans are quite often the second-most commonly represented species, after pigs.

Maybe this is not too surprising. Orangutans are big, meaty, and smart but relatively slow animals. They do live in trees, but with a decent weapon such as the incredibly effective blowpipe, they will drop out of trees pretty easily. Although, having said that, the naturalist Alfred Wallace, co-discoverer with Charles Darwin of the theory of evolution through natural selection and avid orangutan hunter, did comment on the annoying tendency of these animals to get stuck on tree branches after being shot.

Orangutans are very slow breeders, having one baby every 6 or 7 years, and as such hunting pressure has necessarily taken its toll. In the past 20,000 years, the species disappeared from China, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Peninsular Malaysia, Java — yes, there were once wild orangutans in the Jakarta area — and large parts of their remaining island ranges in Sumatra and Borneo. Climate and ecological changes could have played part in this demise as well, but it is pretty safe to say that human killing had a major impact.

Genetic analysis confirms these declines, with studies indicating that some populations declined possibly by as much as 100-fold in the past few thousand years. Think about that, 100-fold! And even within historic times, we can detect population declines, including in areas where no logging has taken place. At the time when Mr Wallace was trundling through Borneo’s forest, one was six times more likely to encounter an orangutan than now.

And the killing hasn’t stopped. Both in Borneo and Sumatra orangutans are regularly killed for meat, pet trade, because they are stealing someone’s durians, or simply because people feel like it. Our estimates published in several scientific papers indicate that in Kalimantan alone up to 2,500 orangutans are killed every year. On a population of give and take 50,000, such killing rates are far more than the species can deal with.

Now, I have talked about killing before, and many Indonesians tell me they don’t believe our estimates. I chatted with some local Dayak NGO people recently, who told me that such killings were really rare, and maybe happened once every two or three years in the villages where they are from. I explained that’s exactly the point. If each of the 4,000 villages in and around the orangutan’s range killed one orangutan every so many years, we end up with several thousand dead orangutans annually. Compared to the hundreds of pigs and deer each village consumes, the one dead orangutan may not count as much to the villagers, but to the orangutan species it is fatal.

People can deny whatever they like, but orangutan killing is a massive conservation problem that needs to be stopped if governments are serious about saving the species from extinction.

The tools are all in place. Orangutans have been legally protected in Indonesia since 1924 — that’s 90 years of full prohibition of anything that harms the species.

Indonesia has developed a range of rather toothless conservation strategies, including the most recent 10-year National Orangutan Action Plan, which has been lots of plan and little action, as I wrote before. Interestingly, killing of orangutans is rarely mentioned in these strategies, which primarily focus on preventing habitat loss and taking care of orphaned baby orangutans and releasing these back into the forest.

Luckily an update of the original plan, which is valid until 2017, is soon required. This provides an opportunity to develop a much-improved plan that, this time, really leads to action and succeeds in reducing orangutan losses.

What is needed, more than anything, is effective law enforcement. A recent case indicates that this won’t be easy. Two people were arrested by the local conservation authorities (BSKDA) near Pontianak, West Kalimantan, for killing and eating an orangutan. It came to a court case, which stirred up a lot of heated discussion. The local government got involved and the governor’s daughter weighed in. As reported in Tempo, she commented that the Dayak people are used to eating orangutans, unaware that they are a protected species, and we should therefore not victimize them. The two accused were released apparently because of some procedural error, but I assume the public and political pressure helped.

Despite frequent attention on television and in newspapers, some people indeed may not know that orangutans are legally protected. When we interviewed some 7,000 people throughout Kalimantan in 2008, most people (73 percent) responded that they knew that orangutans were protected under Indonesia’s national law, 2 percent reported that they were not protected and the remaining 25 percent reported that they did not know.

Anyway, I always thought that one of the most basic principles pertaining to the law is that every citizen is supposed to know it. For instance, if I would be loaded up on some drug and caused a massive car accident, surely the argument that, as a foreigner, I wasn’t aware that such thing was illegal in Indonesia, wouldn’t go down too well in court.

The point is that most people know that killing orangutans is illegal. So why are some politicians undermining the few law enforcement attempts by suggesting this is part of local tradition?

If Indonesia is serious about preventing the extinction of its orangutans, killings of the species have to be stopped. It would take a few dedicated groups who work with the police, judiciary, lawyers and legal experts, local media, and get political support. Effectively prosecuting a range of cases of illegal actions that harm orangutans (killing, illegal habitat conversion, illegal use of fire etc.), resulting in serious prison sentences, would quickly get the message out that killing or harming orangutans is indeed illegal and will not be tolerated by authorities. There are no better awareness programs.

I reiterate a recent call by the Center for Orangutan Protection for the Indonesian government and many local and international NGOs stop pussyfooting around the issue of Illegal killing of orangutans (and other protected wildlife). The issue is real and has to be addressed if any of these groups feign any interest in saving this close genetic relative of ours from annihilation.

Erik Meijaard coordinates the Borneo Futures initiative.