'Kick-boxing' orang-utans are flown home to Borneo

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The Independent Online

Forty-eight orang-utans were flown to Indonesia yesterday. They are the survivors of one of the biggest cases of great ape smuggling ever detected. Captured in the jungles of Borneo, they were found in an amusement park in Thailand where they were forced to have daily kick-boxing matches against each other.

Their sad case is just a rare visible example of the thriving black market in exotic wildlife in south-east Asia, most of which goes unseen. Officials say it generates about £5bn a year, putting the illegal wildlife trade behind only gun-running and drug smuggling in the region for profit.

Indonesia rolled out the red carpet for the orang-utans' return yesterday. The First Lady, Kristiani Yudhoyono, was there for their arrival, carrying an orang-utan doll in her hands, and flanked by officials in T-shirts that said: "Welcome home".

The orang-utan, which only lives on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, is seriously endangered. Conservationists estimate there may be as few as 60,000 left in the wild, the majority in Indonesia, and their numbers are in constant threat because their natural habitat is encroached on by man, including forest fires that are set by farmers who are clearing land for palm oil plantations.

In recent years, they have come under serious threat from the craze for pet orang-utans in Indonesian cities. Because baby orang-utans are more desirable, hunters kill the mothers and take the young. Many conservationists now fear the orang-utan could be wiped out in the wild within 10 years.

The orang-utans that were flown back from Bangkok to Indonesia yesterday are to be released back into the wild and will live in a forest reserve in Borneo.