Thailand bans theme park's orang-utan boxing bouts

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The Independent Online

Thai forestry officials have clamped down on ape kick- boxing matches staged at an amusement park in suburban Bangkok. Some 110 orang-utans are dressed up in boxing gloves and silk shorts and forced to spar for tourists at Safari World.

Police banned the fights and threatened to confiscate the apes after Indonesian authorities attended a weekend show and denounced smugglers for supplying the bulk of these fighting orang-utans to Safari World.

Chimpanzees in bikinis announce the kickboxing bouts with placards, and have been performing at the park's zoo stage for at least 20 years. Outraged members of the International Primate Protection League challenge Safari World's claims that the show is harmless and that the animal fights are as choreographed as American wrestling. Last week animal rights activists urged a boycott of the popular act.

The endangered orang-utans live wild only on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo, and are the largest arboreal mammals on earth. A mature male can tip the scales at 200lb (90kg). The apes' name translates as "old man of the forest" and orang-utans are shy vegetarians. Fewer than 20,000 orang-utans remain outside captivity and their numbers are dwindling. Cheryl Knott, an anthropologist at Harvard University, told the National Geographic Society recently that "the only way to get a baby orang-utan is to kill the mother".Each orang-utan is worth up to 500,000 baht (£6,600) on the black market.

"The monkey boxing shows have been ordered to stop because the animals are evidence in a law suit," Chatchai Thammavichai, a Forestry Police official, told reporters.

Safari World's general manager, Pin Kewkacha, insists that all his apes were acquired through the proper channels, or bred in captivity. Yet, under normal conditions, female orang-utans can reproduce only once every eight years.

DNA tests to determine the provenance of more than 100 apes were ordered by Thai police. Forestry police said Safari World had previously sought licences for 14 orang-utans, but wildlife officials were dubious about claims that these apes had given birth to 96 more.

The Indonesian embassy is now demanding the return of any orang-utan proved to have been born in the wild. Meanwhile, almost half of the valuable primates have mysteriously vanished from Safari World. Wildlife officers searched the zoo and retrieved just 69 orang-utans to use as evidence in their investigation of profits from the sale of endangered species.

Charges of cruelty and animal exploitation may also be pressed, animal rights activists said. Willie Smits, of the Borneo Orang-utan Survival Foundation, said: "From the genetic testing, we will be able to prove that these orang-utans cannot have been bred in Safari World." He visited Safari World last week as an official Indonesian delegate.

"I don't have anything to do with smuggling," Mr Kewkacha complained to the Bangkok Post. "I have nothing to confess."

The high-profile raid on the ape fights comes as a loss of face for Thailand in the run-up to a meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which is to be held in Bangkok this autumn. In preparation for the convention, Thailand has been promoting a "green" image in attempt to mask its notoriety as a wildlife smuggling centre.

Last week, a senior forestry official, Manop Laohaprasert, was reassigned to an inactive post at the ministry for alleged misconduct in approving the export of 100 tigers to China.