Mother orang-utans shot dead so infants can be traded as pets

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The Independent Online

As pets go, they don't come much more exotic than an orang-utan. With their uncannily human facial expressions, orang-utans have long exerted a fascination over people. A Hollywood film, the dire 1978 comedy Every Which Way But Loose, featured Clint Eastwood as the unlikely owner of a pet orang-utan. But wildlife organisations are warning that the illegal pet trade is threatening orang-utans - one of the last surviving species of the great apes, man's closest relatives - with extinction in the wild.

A study by Traffic, a non-government organisation which monitors trade in wildlife, found that between 200 and 500 orang-utans were traded as pets each year from the Indonesian part of Borneo. Baby orang-utans are a favourite choice as an animal companion in Indonesia. They are often dressed in human clothes, and eat the same food as the rest of the family. But the story of how they are taken from the wild is gruesome, says Julia Ng, who has been researching the orang-utan trade for Traffic.

"One villager told me he was with a group of villagers when they saw a mother orang-utan with her baby in the trees. He shot the mother immediately and she came crashing down through the trees. He knew she would attack them if he didn't kill her immediately, so he took a long knife, went straight to her and cut her head off." Most mothers are killed when baby orang-utans are taken, skewing the gender balance in the population. By the time orang-utans reach the illegal pet shops of Indonesian cities on the more developed island of Java, they can fetch up to £220.

The only surviving great ape outside Africa, the orang-utan is found only on the two islands of Sumatra and Borneo. The Sumatran orang-utan is critically endangered, with only 7,000 left in the wild. Its numbers may have been further reduced by last year's Boxing Day tsunami, which hit the northern tip of Sumatra.

With as many as 40,000 left in the wild, the Bornean orang-utan is better off. But wildlife organisations including Traffic and the conservation charity WWF are warning that the illegal pet trade is threatening to cut that population drastically within years.

Borneo, an island divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, is one of the last tropical wildernesses. Much of the interior is untamed jungle where a wealth of wildlife survives. As well as orang-utans, the dense forest is home to gibbons, long-armed apes, elephants, clouded leopards, and proboscis monkeys.

But in recent years, these jungles have come under sustained assault. Forests have been cleared to be sold as timber. Other areas have been cleared by commercial planters to make way for palm oil plantations and other crops. Often the planters start forest fires to clear areas, polluting the rest of Borneo. Private trading in orang-utans is outlawed under international wildlife treaties. Yet large numbers of them have appeared in safari parks in Thailand, Cambodia and peninsular Malaysia.

Under Cites, an international treaty to protect wildlife, trade in orang-utans is forbidden except for conservation purposes, and then only through government exchanges between zoos or other conservation centres. But according to Traffic, there is no paperwork for the orang-utans in the Thai, Cambodian and Malaysian safari parks, and there are suspicions they may have been illegally hunted and captured in Borneo.

Orang-utans are not the only ape whose survival is endangered by the pet trade in Borneo. There is a parallel trade in gibbons - a lesser ape that is a more distant relative of man. As with orang-utans, the mother gibbons are killed in order to obtain the young. In Borneo, a baby gibbon can fetch £2, and in Java £41. There are two species of gibbon on Borneo, both of which are believed to be threatened.

The problem has been exacerbated by the lenient treatment meted out to orang-utan and gibbon pet owners caught by the Indonesian authorities, according to Traffic. Those caught with a pet orang-utan are often allowed to hand them over voluntarily to rehabilitation centres and are not prosecuted. Owners have even been given official registration letters for orang-utans - pets that are, in fact, illegal.

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