Illegal wildlife trade flourishes in Sumatra

Anne Usher, special to mongabay.com
June 10, 2013

In Indonesia, price for endangered orangutan is $200, leopard cat $25

Caged orangutan at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kadang, Aceh on the island of Sumatra. Photo by Paul Hilton.
Caged orangutan at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kadang, Aceh on the island of Sumatra. Photo by Paul Hilton.

In a chilly rain on Sunday, in a town just a few kilometers beyond the edge of a protected Sumatran rainforest, a young orangutan sat perched on a piece of plywood and grabbed the metal wires of his tiny cage.

He has sat in that cage for six months and, like more than a dozen other species on display in this “zoo” in the town of Kandang in Aceh, he has a price tag.

This packed assembly is an acknowledged front for illegal trafficking in wildlife.

“It’s a zoo, but you can buy,” said the wife of the property’s owner. The critically endangered orangutan? $200. A leopard cat? $25-$50.

A steady rotation is evident. In March, a staff member of a Sumatran conservation organization working to fight the trade witnessed a critically endangered baby sun bear on the property. About a week later, two other bears sat caged, according to the same eyewitness. None are there now.

Primates appear to be frequently traded, or simply die from lack of care. Eight months ago, three other orangutans were caged here, witnesses said, along with a gibbon that has since died. One orangutan has disappeared, likely sold. When a flood hit on May 10, locals say one escaped and another drowned.

Trade in threatened species is illegal in Indonesia, but prosecutions are rare, conservation organizations here say. As forests are increasingly cut down for plantations and mining concessions in Aceh, trafficking in wildlife is growing. According to the the Sumatran Orangutan Quarantine Centre, of 143 orangutans confiscated in the province, not a single case has been prosecuted.

In a vegetable market high in nearby hills, a bird dealer approached by this reporter listed a menu of protected species that poachers could procure with two-weeks’ notice. This included protected hornbills, orangutans and golden gibbons, the last going for $100.

Illegal sun bear held captive as a pet at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kandang, Aceh. Photo by Paul Hilton.
Sun bear illegally held as a pet at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kandang, Aceh. Photo by Paul Hilton.

On this property in Kandang, endangered species have been openly caged for about three years. But its owner, Limbat, is a wealthy man widely seen by locals as untouchable.

On Sunday, some 15 other species taken from the surrounding rainforest were on display, packed tightly in cages or tethered to trees. Near the orangutan, four pigtailed macaques sat in a two-foot by six-foot cage just high enough for them to crouch but not stand. A ditch littered with trash lay below it. Nearby, two other macaques were tethered to trees, a green cord wrapped around one’s neck.

A baby macaque lurked nearby, hiding under a tarp. Above it, concealed under a coverlet, was a tiny slow loris, listed as vulnerable in Sumatra. Ten feet away, two black binturong sniffed this visitor’s hand, while a pangolin lay curled nearby in a tight ball. In yet another cage, a large Sumatran tree squirrel paced franticly back and forth, its brown and white furry tail extended behind it.

Pangolin held captive as a pet.
Pangolin held captive as a pet at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kandang, Aceh. Photo by Paul Hilton.

Slow loris at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kandang.
Slow loris at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kandang, Aceh. Photo by Paul Hilton.

During a flood in May, a large crocodile escaped into a small lake that abuts the property, but locals soon caught it and brought it back. It now lies static in a shallow concrete pool that is just wide enough for its body, but leaving it no space to move.

Among the animals not caged, but tethered tightly to a tree, was a sambar deer. The joint above its left front hoof was broken when it was caught in a snare. It is now broken straight back - and taped that way. After nibbling at a couple lettuce leaves, it crumpled down in the dirt, alongside unlikely companions: a stork and a grey heron, their narrow legs also tied to saplings.

At one end of the property, under a tin roof rattling in the rain, Cokes and other refreshments were available for visitors. But on this particular Sunday afternoon, none came.

Caged orangutan at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kandang, Aceh on the island of Sumatra. Photo by Paul Hilton.
Caged orangutan at Limbat's 'zoo' in Kandang, Aceh on the island of Sumatra. Photo by Paul Hilton.

Editor's note: this story originally misspelled Kandang as Kadang. We regret the error.

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Anne Usher, special to mongabay.com (June 10, 2013).

Illegal wildlife trade flourishes in Sumatra.