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Illegal Orangutan trade in Thailand goes unpunished

I was informed only a week ago that 11 orangutans that were found illegally kept in a zoo on Phuket Island were not confiscated after a raid on a registered zoo. Instead the 11 orangutans were “found along the highway” and taken in by the DNP as “a donation”…

WFFT complained about three years ago about the illegal possession of 11 orangutans in a crocodile and tiger zoo on Phuket. Our investigation team had trouble at first locating all the orangutans, we had a complaint from a tourist that had seen 4 baby orangutans but one of our staff on a visit did also see some sub-adults around the zoo. While interviewing one of the zoo workers we found out that there were 11 orangutans 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 animals.

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We send an official complaint to the Department of National Parks (DNP) on the 16th of December 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 office. Two weeks went on without action and we started to call the office of the DNP 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 orangutan was found at the zoo. The officials from the DNP region 5 office told us there never were any orangutans at all. This despite the fact that we attached pictures of the orangutans 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 send to WFFT by the DNP that unfortunately the animals were not found and that hereby the case was closed. Our pictures and video however did proof their 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 WFFT and the local DNP on the matter it took 2 weeks before we were informed that all (eleven) orangutans were found and confiscated in early March.

The 11 orangutans were moved to Kao Prathapchang wildlife breeding center of the DNP and were to be returned to Indonesia, the country of origin.

I have asked the authorities on a regular bases 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 3 years now I was under the impression that the zoo would be prosecuted for illegal possession of protected wildlife and the illegal smuggling of CITES protected species. I have been informed however only a few days ago (by the provincial police office) that charges were never filed as the 11 orangutans were never found at the zoo, but instead were found “along the highway between Phuket and Phangnga without any owner present” by DNP officials of region 5. The animals were taken in as “donated” even though the pictures of the orangutans at the zoo in our complaint exactly matched the ones “found” along the road. Most worrying is that the Indonesian government, an active partner in the ASEAN community and especially a great facilitator of the ASEAN-WEN (wildlife enforcement network) is not being told the truth of the origin of these orangutans; in a letter from two years ago they (the Indonesian authorities) were told that they will have to wait for a total of 5 years to receive the orangutans back home, as the orangutans were found “along the highway” without any owner. The DNP told them that under Thai law they will need to keep these orangutans for at least 5 years now, in case one day a person will claim ownership… But we all do know who owned them didn’t we? Video’s and pictures showed they came from the zoo in Phuket city! So why is this game being played?

Case closed.
In similar cases of illegal orangutan possession in Samutprakarn province with 8 orangutans (2004), and a case in Bangkok at a safari park with 78 illegal orangutans out of a total of over 115 (2003) there has been no prosecution at all either, in both of these cases no one ever faced court, nor have charges ever been filed. We are still awaiting the prosecution and even the confiscation of 2 orangutans found in February 2012 in a wildlife trader’s house in Sraburi without much hope to be honest.

What sense does it make given the above facts to investigate illegal wildlife trade and complain to the authorities? Clearly the illegal trade and possession of orangutans that are protected under CITES, of which Thailand is a signatory, goes unpunished in Thailand.

UPDATE: This story was published in the Nation newspaper in Thailand on the 2nd of June 2012 on http://www.nationmultimedia.com/opinion/Illegal-orang-utan-trade-in-Thailand-still-goes-un-30183325-showAds1.html

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