A Decade of Investigations

By Cassie Freund, former GPOCP Program Director    
Since 2004, one of our core conservation agendas aims to combat orangutan poaching and trade through our Wildlife Crime Monitoring and Investigation Program. Poaching and the pet trade are significant threats to Bornean orangutans, but due to the secretive and underground nature of the illegal wildlife trade, it has been difficult for researchers and conservationists to quantify the number of individual orangutans affected each year. GPOCP’s long-term work on this issue has resulted in a unique data set of orangutan victims of the pet trade and the spatial distribution of such cases in the Gunung Palung landscape. In early 2016 we were invited to submit a research article for a special issue of American Journal of Primatology on the wildlife trade to highlight our work. Our paper, “Ten years of orangutan-related wildlife crime investigation in West Kalimantan, Indonesia” was published last month and we are excited to share our main findings here, as well as in a recent interview with BBC Earth that really brought our paper to life!
A juvenile orangutan being held as a pet. This individual was discovered during GPOCP investigations into wildlife crimes.
Photo © GPOCP. 
Between 2004-2014, GPOCP’s investigators uncovered 145 cases of orangutans being illegally kept as pets across Ketapang and Kayong Utara regencies. This is an average of 13.2 cases/year. We identified six “hotspot” sub-districts, from which over half of the cases originated. One of our main concerns was to test for evidence of an organized crime ring targeting orangutans in and around Gunung Palung, as we have reason to suspect that there is organized poaching of helmeted hornbills occurring inside of the park, and there have recently been confiscations of Sumatran orangutans in international airports in Indonesia and abroad. We did not find any evidence of this in our landscape, which is positive news and supports previous observations that most of the orangutan trade on Borneo is for the local pet market. Finally, we found that the number of cases of orangutan poaching uncovered by our investigators was highest in sub-districts with the most land under oil palm concessions. This confirmed our suspicions and anecdotal evidence that as some areas are deforested for agriculture, people have more access to previously inaccessible forests, and that this is detrimental to wildlife in those forests.
Another baby orangutan being held illegally as a pet in West Kalimantan. Photo © GPOCP.
We ended our paper with several recommendations for how to address the problem of poaching and the illegal pet trade. Indonesia has wildlife protection laws, but they are very rarely enforced, a fact that is widely lamented among conservationists and Indonesian citizens alike. First, we recommend that the laws be updated and punishments for poachers and traders strengthened. Punishments should be enforced for all offenders, including oil palm and mining companies that clear land outside of their designated concession areas, and the government employees in charge of enforcement should be held accountable. We also suggested that NGOs doing environmental education programs target the judges and lawyers of Indonesia’s judicial system to raise awareness of the importance of law enforcement for wildlife. Finally, we recommended a funding increase of $3 million annually for conservation law enforcement across Borneo; this would allow the government to hire and train additional field staff as well as to take advantage of new technologies that could streamline their work.
A wild orangutan infant with her mother. In the wild, orangutans spend their first eight years with their mother learning the ropes to life in the forest. Photo © Tim Laman. 
Orangutan poaching is a hot topic that has been covered from many angles, and our paper contributes to the growing body of knowledge on the topic. Our motivations were twofold: first, to disseminate information about our Wildlife Crime Monitoring and Investigation program, which is now in its 13th year, and second, to scientifically measure some of the predicted drivers of orangutan poaching/trade. This in turn allows conservation groups working across Borneo and Sumatra to better target their work and, hopefully, to engage with large agriculture and mining companies to find ways to mitigate the impact of their industry on all wildlife. Finally, as noted in the BBC Earth article covering our publication, we are concerned about the potential impact of the expansion of oil palm in Africa on the African great apes. For example, the projected suitable habitat for oil palm in Africa overlaps with 99.2% of bonobo habitat. We hope that the results of our paper spur conservationists working in chimpanzee, gorilla, and bonobo range countries to be proactive in engaging with industry to prevent an increase in poaching of these species in the future. Given this week’s report that 60% of primate species are in danger of going extinct, we have no time to waste!