Indonesia’s orangutans declining amid ‘lax’ and ‘laissez-faire’ law enforcement

Indonesia’s orangutans declining amid ‘lax’ and ‘laissez-faire’ law enforcement

  • The widespread failure by Indonesian law enforcers to crack down on crimes against orangutans is what’s allowing them to be killed at persistently high rates, a new study suggests.
  • It characterizes as “remarkably lax” and “laissez-faire” the law enforcement approach when applied to crimes against orangutans as compared to the country’s other iconic wildlife species, such as tigers.
  • Killing was the most prevalent crime against orangutans, the study found when analyzing 2,229 reports from 2007-2019, 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.
  • The study authors call for stronger deterrence and law enforcement rather than relying heavily on rescue, release and translocation strategies that don’t solve the core crisis of net loss of wild orangutans.

JAKARTA — “Remarkably lax” and “laissez-faire” law enforcement efforts by conservation authorities in Indonesia have allowed the killing, capture and trade of scores of orangutans to persist, according to a recent study.

Indonesia reported 2,229 crimes against the three orangutan species in the country — Bornean, Sumatran and Tapanuli (Pongo pygmaeus, P. abelii and P. tapanuliensis) — from 2007 and 2019, wildlife conservationists noted in their study published Nov. 4 in the journal Biological Conservation. 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.

The annual rates of crime against these nearly extinct species during the sampled period have not declined, with the authors calling the government’s approach in general to enforcing conservation laws on preventing orangutan-related crimes as “remarkably lax” compared with enforcement for other iconic Indonesian species, such as Sumatran tigers (Panthera tigris sumatrae).

“Addressing killing, capture and trade each present major challenges because they require resources and political will to investigate and prosecute, and long-term investment and community engagement to make it worth more to people to live peacefully alongside wild orangutans without moving them or degrading their habitats,” study lead author Julie Sherman, executive director of the NGO Wildlife Impact, told Mongabay in an email.

An adult female Tapanuli orangutan. Image by Tim Laman via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 4.0).

Indonesia prohibits the illegal hunting and trade of threatened species, including orangutans. Violations are punishable by up to five years in prison and fines of up to 100 million rupiah ($6,400).

But despite the laws, the study found that official responses to crimes against orangutans focused primarily on seizures or surrenders, as well as non-regulatory interventions centered on rescue or education. In many cases where people are found keeping orangutans as pets, they rarely get punished after they’re forced to turn in the animal to conservation authorities. Observers say such impunity from wildlife law enforcement often applies to high-profile figures, such as politicians, who can afford the upkeep of wild animals like orangutans.

The researchers found that only 22 cases related to the sampled crimes against orangutans went to court, with 20 of these cases leading to convictions of 31 people involved in 60 crimes. Even then, however, the sentences handed down were relatively lenient, such as six months in jail and 500,000 rupiah ($32) in fines, the authors reported. They also found that there were instances of repeat violators showing lack of remorse over being caught.

“Indonesian authorities, like any other government, have the capacity to investigate and prosecute wildlife crimes if they dedicate the necessary resources and political will,” Sherman told Mongabay.

But the researchers found a dearth of enforcement officers, such as rangers and other government personnel with enforcement authority, in forested habitats of orangutans in Borneo and Sumatra. Indonesia has fewer than 1.9 officers monitoring every 100 square kilometers of forests with orangutan distribution and reintroduction (or 4.9 officers for every 100 square miles), and fewer than 2.1 officers patrolling every 100 km2 (5.4 per 100 mi2) of national parks with orangutans, the paper said.

These figures, the authors noted, is far below the advised global best practice for effective protected area management and for addressing poaching of targeted species, which is 3-11 officers per 100 km2 (8-28 per 100 mi2). They also noted that NGOs and communities provide supplementary support to Indonesian ranger patrols and wildlife crime investigators both inside and outside protected areas, but these groups have no authority to make arrests or otherwise enforce laws.

A rescued Bornean orangutan. Image courtesy of International Animal Rescue (IAR) Indonesia.

Indonesia currently has no conservation strategy and action plan in place, either, to guide national and subnational actions to save orangutans. Mongabay sought comment from the environment ministry on the study, but did not receive a response by the time this story was published.

“The laissez-faire law enforcement of orangutan crimes in Indonesia may stem from the government’s publicly-stated position that orangutan populations are not in decline and will not go extinct, contrary to peer-reviewed science indicating that populations of all three species are in decline,” the researchers wrote in their paper.

This refusal by the government to recognize that orangutans are in decline led earlier this year to authorities banning several foreign scientists — including Sherman and study co-authors Marc Ancrenaz, Serge A. Wich and Erik Meijaard — from carrying out conservation-related research in the country. The ban came after the researchers wrote an op-ed in a local newspaper in September that the environment ministry deemed had “negative indications” that could “discredit” the government.

“This is not only an Indonesia problem, it is a global problem,” Sherman said. “Across the world, species are declining due to habitat modification and wildlife crime, among other threats, yet many governments do not dedicate adequate resources to deter poaching, illegal trade, and habitat modifications affecting these species.”

The researchers called for the expansion and strengthening of efforts on crime deterrence and law enforcement as opposed to relying heavily on rescue, release and translocation strategies that don’t solve the core crisis of net loss of wild orangutans.

“Unfortunately, it is not possible to rescue our way out of this crisis,” Sherman said. “Preventing these killings and removals of wild orangutans is the most urgent conservation priority and requires greater strategic focus and commitment of resources from both public and private resources.”

A Sumatran orangutan hangs in a tree. In 2017, Tapanuli orangutans, which would previously have been counted as Sumatran orangutans, were identified as a separate species, with a population of around 800. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Sherman, J., Voigt, M., Ancrenaz, M., Wich, S. A., Qomariah, I. N., Lyman, E., Massingham, E., & Meijaard, E. (2022). Orangutan killing and trade in Indonesia: Wildlife crime, enforcement, and deterrence patterns. Biological Conservation. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2022.109744

Basten Gokkon is a senior staff writer for Indonesia at Mongabay. Find him on Twitter @bgokkon.

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