by Ayat S. Karokaro, Sri Wahyuni Adapted by Basten Gokkon
- The case of an orangutan that died shortly after its capture by farmers in northern Sumatra has highlighted the persistent problem of human-wildlife conflict and possibly even the illegal wildlife trade in Indonesia.
- The coffee farmers who caught the adult male orangutan on Jan. 20 denied ever hitting it, but a post-mortem showed a backbone fracture, internal bleeding, and other indications of blunt force trauma.
- Watchdogs say it’s possible illegal wildlife traders may have tried to take the orangutan from the farmers, with such traders known to frequent farms during harvest season in search of the apes that are drawn there for food.
- Conservationists say the case is a setback in their efforts to raise awareness about the need to protect critically endangered orangutans.
MEDAN, Indonesia — An investigation into the violent death of an orangutan in northern Sumatra in January has shone a light on the persistent problem of human-wildlife conflict and illegal trade of the near-extinct species.
Farmers in Karo district, on the outskirts of Gunung Leuser National Park, captured the adult male Sumatran orangutan (Pongo abelii) in a coffee farm on Jan. 20. The animal died about 36 hours later, with experts saying it had suffered physical abuse and succumbed to internal bleeding and suffocation.
Orangutans are a protected species under Indonesian law, and harming or killing one is a criminal offense punishable by up to seven years in prison and 100 million rupiah ($6,500) in fines. Local wildlife conservation authorities have begun an investigation into the capture of the orangutan, including the possibility that it might have been linked to the illegal wildlife trade.
“Based on X-ray results, we found a fracture on his backbone and traces of physical abuse,” said Rudianto Saragih Napitu, the head of North Sumatra Natural Resources Conservation Agency (BKSDA). He added his office is working with police and the local law enforcement arm of the environment ministry in the investigation.
Local farmers told Mongabay Indonesia that the orangutan had strayed into the coffee farm and climbed up into a stand of bamboo trees. They said they initially tried non-contact methods to shoo it away, including making loud noises and blowing smoke toward it. Setiabudi Sembiring, the owner of the farm and the first person to spot the orangutan, said it took several hours for the animal to finally climb down to the ground, which was when the group of farmers captured it.
“We used bamboo, just makeshift tools, and snared it with a rope. We captured it together,” Setiabudi said, adding they put the orangutan in a cage and brought it to the hamlet chief. They denied ever beating the orangutan.
From the hamlet chief’s office, the orangutan was moved to the Kuta Pengkih village head’s office, and from there to the Kuta Kendit subdistrict’s public health center, all in the same day. The following day, when conservation authorities and experts came to rescue the ape, they found its arms and torso covered in blood, with blood also trickling down its back.
The officials took the orangutan to the Batu Mbelin rehabilitation center run by the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, where it received intensive medical examination and care. The officials reported that the orangutan appeared to be making a slight recovery. The following day, however, its health deteriorated as its breathing slowed, and it eventually died. The medical team performed a post-mortem examination of the body, which is when they found the fractured backbone, internal bleeding and other signs of physical abuse consistent with blunt force trauma.
Conservation authorities and experts have denounced the death, saying it’s a setback in their efforts to raise awareness about wildlife protection and reduce deadly human-wildlife conflicts. At least 2,200 crimes against orangutans were reported from 2007 to 2019. Killing was the most prevalent crime against orangutans, followed by capture, possession or sale of infants, harm or capture of wild adult orangutans due to conflicts, and attempted poaching not resulting in death, such as an animal caught in a snare.
Wildlife protection and welfare campaigns have focused on discouraging the capture of these animals without the assistance of officials and experts. Conservationists have urged people to immediately contact local authorities when they encounter endangered species, like orangutans, tigers or elephants, inside human-occupied areas.
“There’s never any reason to attack [orangutans],” said Palber Turnip, an official at Gunung Leuser National Park, adding that orangutans are not known to be aggressive toward humans, and that people can just steer clear of them.
The dense forests of Karo district that serve as a buffer around the national park are home to several protected species, including orangutans. But their presence here, outside the protected area, means they’re a target for illegal poachers and wildlife traders.
Panut Hadisiswoyo, founder of the conservation NGO Yayasan Orangutan Sumatra Lestari–Orangutan Information Center (YOSL-OIC), said the incident in January was the first reported case of an orangutan being found in a human settlement in Karo. He said orangutans in other parts of Sumatra are known to stray into farms because of disruptions to their forest habitat.
Andi Sinaga of Forum Investigator Zoo Indonesia, a wildlife crime watchdog, called on authorities to look into the possible involvement of illegal wildlife traders who target orangutans that stray into farms during harvest season. He said the Karo farmers had told him that individuals claiming to be fruit buyers had wanted to take the captured orangutan, but the farmers had insisted on waiting for the local authorities. Andi said investigators should find out who those individuals were, as they might have been wildlife traders.
“Everyone involved in the case must be processed,” Andi said.
This story was reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and first published here and here on our Indonesian site on Jan. 26 and Feb. 16, 2023.