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Decapitated orangutan found near palm plantations shot 17 times, autopsy finds

A Bornean orangutan in a rehabilitation center in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Indonesian authorities have found 17 air gun pellets in the headless body of an orangutan found floating in a river in Borneo’s Central Kalimantan province earlier this week.
  • The body was found in an area close to five plantations, whose operators the government plans to question about the killing of the protected species.
  • Orangutans are often killed in human-animal conflicts, and wildlife activists have slammed the authorities for not doing enough to prosecute such cases.
  • Warning: Some photos may be disturbing or graphic.

JAKARTA — Indonesian authorities have retrieved 17 air gun pellets from the body of an orangutan found decapitated and seemingly tortured in Indonesian Borneo earlier this week.

The discovery was made Thursday during a necropsy which was ordered following criticism from wildlife activists over local authorities’ decision to bury the corpse of the male Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) before a thorough examination could be carried out.

The necropsy revealed that the orangutan had been dead for three days before its body was discovered Monday in a river in South Barito district, Central Kalimantan province. Of the 17 pellets found in the corpse, 14 were retrieved from the torso, two from the back and one from the left thigh. The pellets had ruptured the ape’s heart, lungs and stomach.

The examination also showed that seven of the animal’s left ribs were broken, and there were three lacerations near the neck area. The body’s hairless state was attributed to its having been in the river for so long. There were no apparent signs of poisoning.

Veterinarians prepare to carry out a necropsy Thursday on the decapitated and bloated body of a Bornean orangutan found floating in a river in Central Kalimantan earlier this week. Photo by Centre for Orangutan Protection.

“We will follow up on these findings together with the police and the [environment] ministry’s law enforcement arm,” Adib Gunawan, the head of the provincial wildlife conservation agency, said Thursday. “Hopefully we can catch the perpetrator.”

Ramadhani, habitat protection manager at the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), welcomed the decision to probe the killing, saying that reports of wildlife deaths in the province were often ignored.

“The necropsy results have further proved that the orangutan’s death was caused by humans,” he said in a statement.

Ramadhani said there had been 10 reports of suspected orangutan deaths at the hands of humans from 2012 to 2017. Many more such incidents go unreported because the people who discover the bodies fear being accused of the crime, he said.

Of the 10 reports that were filed, only one ended up in court: In February 2017, police charged three oil palm plantation workers with the murder of an adult male orangutan that they allegedly shot, cooked and ate. Two of the men were eventually acquitted, while the third was sentenced to two years and nine months in jail and fined 10 million rupiah ($700).

“In that instance, the investigation was successful because the suspects had earlier taken pictures with the orangutan before killing it,” Ramadhani said. In this latest case, though, the lack of witnesses would make it difficult to find the perpetrators, much less ensure a trial, he said.

“But the investigators can check what the river current was like during that period to figure out the location where the orangutan was thrown into the water,” Ramadhani said.

The location where the orangutan’s body was discovered is close to at least five plantations, including oil palm plantations, according to COP data.

Operators of oil palm plantations often consider orangutans a pest because they are known to eat the palm fruit. A 2005 study by the conservation NGO Friends of the Earth found that one such company in Central Kalimantan would pay local people 150,000 rupiah (about $10) for every orangutan killed.

Orangutans captured alive can be an even more lucrative quarry. Wild-caught orangutans fetch up to 1 million rupiah ($70) in Kalimantan, but by the time they reach the major markets of Java they can sell for three times as much, according to the Orang Utan Republik Foundation.

The yellow dot shows the location where the decapitated orangutan was found in Borneo’s Barito River earlier this week. The yellow shaded areas are concession held by plantation companies in Central Kalimantan, and the red area is orangutan habitat. Image by Centre for Orangutan Protection.

The Ministry of Environment and Forestry has promised to deploy a team to join the investigation and get in touch with the plantation firms.

“Next week I will go to Palangkaraya [the provincial capital] to talk to the representatives of those companies,” Wiratno, the ministry’s director general of conservation, said in Jakarta on Thursday.

Some 22,000 square kilometers (8,500 square miles) of land in Central Kalimantan is earmarked for oil palm plantations; orangutan sightings have been reported in a fifth of that area.

The critically endangered species is ostensibly protected by law, but lax enforcement means few perpetrators ever face justice for killing or trading in these great apes. Under the wildlife conservation law, maximum prison sentences of five years and fines of up to 100 million rupiah ($7,530) can be imposed on anyone convicted of killing, trading, keeping or transporting protected species.

Ramadhani said this case presented local authorities with a chance to set a good precedent for thoroughly investigating future cases of wildlife killings.

“Hopefully they will never consider an incident like this as merely a ‘finding,’” he said. “We will continue to monitor this case, especially how the ministry handles it on the ground.”

Banner image: A Bornean orangutan in a rehabilitation center in Sabah. Photo by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

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