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Indonesian rubber farmers charged in gruesome killing of Bornean orangutan

A Bornean orangutan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Police in Indonesia have arrested two rubber farmers for allegedly shooting and beheading a Bornean orangutan whose body was discovered last month in a river.
  • The suspects claimed they killed the animal in self-defense, saying it attacked them after encroaching on their farm.
  • Wildlife conservation activists have lauded the police’s determination to catch the perpetrators and have called on the courts to be just as strict in trying them.
  • Warning: Some photos may be disturbing or graphic.

JAKARTA — Police in Indonesia have arrested and charged two rubber farmers for allegedly shooting and beheading a Bornean orangutan whose body was discovered last month in a river.

Investigators in Central Kalimantan province, in Indonesian Borneo, detained the two men, whose identities were not disclosed, on Jan. 29 at their homes several kilometers from where the body of the male Bornean orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus) was found two weeks earlier. They were described as being independent rubber farmers.

According to police, the suspects admitted to shooting the animal with an air gun and beheading it on Dec. 29, almost three weeks before the body was found. A necropsy on the body yielded 17 pellets that had ruptured the animal’s heart, lungs and stomach. The examination also showed that several of the animal’s ribs were broken.

Police display an air gun and the skull believed to have belonged to the orangutan that was beheaded and shot in Central Kalimantan. Photo by Indra Nugraha/Mongabay-Indonesia.

After killing the orangutan, the men allegedly threw the body in the river and buried the severed head. However, they later dug it up again after noticing a bad smell, and threw it in the river too, police said.

The suspects claimed they killed the orangutan in self-defense because it had encroached onto their rubber plantation, according to police.

“They tried to scare the orangutan away, but instead it went after one of them,” Pambudi Rahayu, a spokesman for the Central Kalimantan police, told Mongabay by phone. “Then the other one hit the animal with a machete.”

He added that the men were candid with police investigators about what they had done and claimed not to know that orangutans were a protected species under the law.

As part of the arrest, police seized the air gun and machete allegedly used in the killing. They also recovered a skull believed to have been that of the slain orangutan.

Police have charged the suspects with violating the 1990 conservation act. Under the specific article on killing protected animals, which include the critically endangered Bornean orangutan, the suspects could face prison time of up to five years and fines of up to 100 million rupiah ($7,000).

The headless body of the male Bornean orangutan was found floating in a river in Central Kalimantan province. Photo for Mongabay Indonesia.

Wildlife conservation activists lauded the police’s persistence in pursuing the case despite an apparent dearth of leads.

“We really appreciate the police’s hard work which has been a success,” Ramadhani, habitat protection manager at the Centre for Orangutan Protection (COP), an NGO, told Mongabay.

Ramadhani, who, like many Indonesians goes by one name, previously said there had been 10 reports of suspected orangutan deaths at the hands of humans from 2012 to 2017, but most of them were often ignored. 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).

“We feel that this time around, the police officers put in a serious effort in investigating the case,” Ramadhani said. “The police understand now that wildlife cases can affect how they are perceived locally and abroad, whether they can solve them or not.”

Pambudi of the Central Kalimantan police said there had been orders from the provincial police chief to deploy a special team for this case. “We were also helped by local people who gave us information,” he added.

Farmers in areas inhabited by orangutans often see the apes as a pest because they are known to feed on crops. However, experts say the animal isn’t known to deliberately attack humans, and will tend to avoid them whenever possible.

The use of air guns among farmers in Central Kalimantan is common, according to Denny Kurniawan, program manager at the Nyaru Menteng chapter of the Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation (BOSF).

“We once campaigned against air guns and the police raided these weapons from the cities, but for those who have them and live in remote places, it’s hard to control,” Denny told Mongabay by phone.

Pambudi said the air gun seized from the farmers was a 4.5mm model that was permitted for sale in Indonesia without a license. “They used it to hunt birds or wild boars which they also consider pests,” he said.

Veterinarians prepare to carry out a necropsy on the decapitated and bloated body of the orangutan. Photo by Centre for Orangutan Protection.

Those watching this case closely say they hope the courts are just as determined as the police to take a hard line on the killing. Wildlife crimes in Indonesia, on the few occasions that they do make it to court, tend to be dismissed or written off with a token punishment, critics say.

“We hope the experts called to testify can present solid knowledge about the orangutan, and the judges can hand down a just punishment,” Ramadhani of the COP said.

Police, meanwhile, have called for awareness-raising among farmers about the importance of not killing protected animals, in a bid to prevent similar incidents happening again.

“We will tell people to file a report with the nearest local authority if an animal encroaches into their plantation,” Pambudi said. “The report should eventually reach the environment office, like the natural conservation agency, who will take care of it. This way, the animal doesn’t get hurt.”

Conservation activists say they hope the police will continue to show the same dedication to solving other crimes against wildlife, regardless of who might be involved.

“We will demand the authorities to carry out the proper procedures if there are other such cases, especially given that such crimes often take place within oil palm plantations,” Denny of the BOSF said.

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.

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.

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

“This case could be a turning point that leads to having everyone in Central Kalimantan understand about protected animals,” he said.

He cited the 2011 slaughter of at least 20 orangutans by plantation workers in East Kalimantan province, under the guise of “pest control.” That case, he said, received global attention and prompted residents who owned orangutans and other animals as pets to begin turning them over to the authorities and wildlife groups.

Banner image: A Bornean orangutan. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

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