It was a photograph that captured many hearts: an infant orangutan, enveloped in the arms of her rescuer, offering what looked like a thumbs-up gesture.
“Thumbs up.. I’m going to be OK,” wrote the Daily Mail in a headline last week that accompanied the viral picture.
But the cute photograph of the ape, a 7-month-old female named Vena, belied a dark backstory — one shared by many orangutans on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, the only places on Earth where the great apes exist in the wild.
Vena, like many of her kind, is a victim of the illegal pet trade.
The nonprofit International Animal Rescue recovered Vena last month from a village in Kalimantan, in the Indonesian part of Borneo. IAR said a villager named Bahiyah had been keeping the orangutan as a pet. The woman said she’d received Vena from a “third party” and had been caring for the ape for three months.
It’s not clear exactly how Vena ended up in Bahiyah’s home, but IAR said the orangutan was likely snatched up after her mother died or was killed. Orangutans are typically inseparable from their mothers for the first several years of their lives.
“In the wild [Vena] would be clinging tightly to her mother as she moved through the trees and would have stayed with her and relied on her for protection and care for the next six to eight years of her life,” Lis Key, communications manager for IAR, told The Dodo last week.
Although it is illegal, the orangutan pet trade — fueled in part by the palm oil industry — is flourishing in Borneo and Sumatra.
When land is deforested to make way for crops like palm oil, many orangutans ― which rely on the forests for food and shelter ― will suffer from starvation, prompting them to wander onto plantations or into nearby villages in search of sustenance. Villagers and plantation workers will often “kill the orangutan because they’re losing crops or they’re scared,” Chris Wiggs, a conservation adviser with IAR, told The WorldPost in an earlier interview. Orangutans are also killed for their meat.
When mother orangutans are killed or found dead, the infants are pried off their bodies and typically kept or sold as pets. According to the nonprofit group Orangutan Republik Foundation, orangutans are prized as status symbols in Indonesia and a number of other Asian nations, including Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan.
“Our team goes to great lengths to explain to people why they must not keep orangutans as pets,” Key told The Dodo. “As well as being illegal, it is cruel ― and once babies like Vena stop being small and cute, they become strong and unmanageable and end up in chains or behind bars... Orangutans are wild animals that belong in the forest, not in captivity.”
Every year, hundreds of infant orangutans are taken from the wild and sold on domestic and international black markets. It can be a lucrative trade, with juvenile orangutans selling for up to $45,000, according to an earlier report by ProFauna, an Indonesian conservation group.
Organized gangs are sometimes involved in trafficking the apes. In December, Thai police rescued two baby orangutans from wildlife traffickers said to be linked to a “major regional criminal syndicate.” The two orangutans were being sold for nearly $20,000, officials said.
Conservationists have called for greater law enforcement to protect the two species of orangutans ― Sumatran and Bornean, both of which are critically endangered ― from the illegal pet trade.
According to Singapore’s Nanyang Technical University Libraries, an estimated 2,000 orangutans have been confiscated or turned in by private owners in the past 30 years, but “no more than a handful of people have ever been successfully prosecuted.”
Earlier investigations in Sumatra, an Indonesian island, have shown that local politicians, senior military and police staff are often the very people keeping orangutans as pets. A 2006 CITES report concluded that 60 percent of all rescued orangutans in rehabilitation centers in Sumatra had come from such sources.
“It’s high time people realized that, if they keep breaking the law by capturing orangutans and keeping or selling them as pets, then the species will soon become extinct,” Karmele Llano Sanchez, IAR’s programme director in Indonesia, said in a statement last week. “Anyone who is offered an orangutan should certainly not buy it. They should immediately contact the authorities and report the person trying to sell it. And if people are not willing to cooperate by surrendering the orangutan, then the necessary action must be taken to enforce the law.”
The slaughter of orangutans and the illegal pet trade, combined with the habitat destruction and conversion of forest associated with palm oil, are the “biggest threats” to wild orangutans today, according to IAR.
Over the past two decades, tens of thousands of wild orangutans have been killed, maimed or orphaned as a direct result of the palm oil industry. Experts estimate that the primate could be extinct in the wild in 25 years or less if current rates of loss continue.
As for Vena, IAR hopes she won’t become just another statistic. The orangutan is currently undergoing medical care in Kalimantan. She will spend several weeks in quarantine before she is introduced to a rehabilitation center, to learn the skills she’ll need to be independent.
If all goes well, Vena may, several years from now, be released into the wild.