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Call for prosecution of Indonesian politician who kept baby orangutan as pet

  • Conservationists are calling for a district chief in Indonesia to face charges after he was found to have kept a baby Tapanuli orangutan as a pet and later released it into the wild unsupervised.
  • Local media began reporting about the critically endangered ape at Nikson Nababan’s house on Jan. 26; the next day, he instructed his staff to release it in secret, ahead of an inspection by conservation officials.
  • Orangutans are protected species under Indonesian law, and keeping one as a pet is punishable by up to five years in prison; however, there have never been any prosecutions of perpetrators, who tend to be influential figures such as politicians and military officers.
  • Wildlife experts have also condemned the unregulated release of the baby orangutan: on its own, they say, it’s likely to die, and if it encounters wild orangutans, it could pass on human diseases picked up from its months in captivity.

MEDAN, Indonesia — Conservation and wildlife activists have called on Indonesian authorities to press criminal charges against a local politician found to have kept a threatened baby orangutan as a pet.

Local media first began reporting about the caged ape at the taxpayer-funded residence of Nikson Nababan on Jan. 26. Nikson is the head of North Tapanuli district in Sumatra province. He said he got the baby orangutan from someone living about 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the Batang Toru forest, the only known habitat of the critically endangered Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis). He kept the animal in a metal cage at his home for about four months, until reporters began asking about it.

By the time the provincial conservation enforcement agency, known as the BKSDA, heard about it and went to Nikson’s house to check, the district chief had secretly released the baby orangutan into the wild.

Both the captivity and the unregulated release of the animal are illegal and flout basic conservation principles. Orangutans are protected species under Indonesian law, and as such the authorities should charge Nikson with illegally possessing protected wildlife, said Kalash Niko, a conservationist with local NGO Garda Animalia.

He noted that this is a crime punishable by up to five years in prison and 100 million rupiah ($7,200) in fines. But he also acknowledged that there have never been any prosecutions of people found to be keeping orangutans as pets.

Adult and juvenile Tapanuli orangutans, photographed in the Batang Toru ecosystem. Image by Andrew Walmsley.

At the root of the problem, observers say, is that the perpetrators tend to be influential figures such as military officers and politicians. They can afford to pay for an orangutan’s upkeep — and get away with having one in the house, thanks to a culture of impunity long enjoyed by Indonesia’s elites.

“Regional leaders must give the right example to the people, especially in Tapanuli which has an orangutan species that’s already nearly extinct,” Kalash said.

Under Indonesian law, protected species may only be kept captive under off-site, or ex-situ, conservation programs that are highly regulated. This includes requiring a permit that may take months to obtain from the environment ministry, and strict continuous monitoring by the authorities.

Nikson said he didn’t have such a permit for the baby orangutan. But he said that as a district head, he had the “right” to keep the animal. (No such rights are mentioned in Indonesian national or local laws.) He said he had intended to hand over the orangutan to the BKSDA after it had reached adulthood.

Described as a new species in a November 2017 paper, the Tapanuli orangutan is already listed as critically endangered by the IUCN. Image by Andrew Walmsley.

The BKSDA found out about the baby orangutan at Nikson’s house on Jan. 27, a day after local media began reporting on it. BKSDA officials held a meeting with the district chief’s staff the next day, at which it was agreed that Nikson would hand the animal over to the BKSDA.

The following day, Jan. 29, the conservation officials went to Nikson’s house, but by then the orangutan was already gone; Nikson said he had ordered a staff member to release it in a forest near the Batang Toru ecosystem two days earlier — before he had promised, falsely, to turn it over to the BKSDA.

BKSDA officials, with the help of locals, have since been scouring the site for the baby orangutan. Though they never got to check the animal, they say they’re convinced it’s a Tapanuli orangutan, the world’s newest and most endangered great ape species, given the proximity of the site where it was reportedly captured to the Batang Toru ecosystem.

A map of the Batang Toru ecosystem in Sumatra, the only known habitat of the Tapanuli orangutan.

Experts are concerned that the baby orangutan, after having been exposed to humans for at least four months, may have an infectious disease that it could spread to other orangutans, putting even more pressure on an already especially threatened species.

“We don’t know much about the health status of the orangutans in the wild,” Fransiska Sulistyo, from the NGO Orangutan Veterinary Advisory Group, told Mongabay in a Feb. 7 interview. She added that some diseases known to be able to pass between humans and great apes might pose a deadly threat to the population as a whole.

She said her experience working with rescued orangutans at rehabilitation facilities in Sumatra and Borneo showed that baby orangutans were prone to respiratory or digestive ailments, such as cold or diarrhea. They are also susceptible to more severe and potentially fatal diseases, including tuberculosis, herpes and typhoid.

“It is highly risky to release an orangutan into the wild without understanding its health condition,” Fransiska said of Nikson’s actions.

For the baby orangutan, the worst-case scenario is that it won’t be able to survive on its own in the wild, Fransiska said. “It’s reckless to let it go by itself at such a young age,” she said.

She said another possibility was that the orangutan, accustomed to humans, would try to seek out people or human settlements. “For instance, it may enter a village in Batang Toru. And this will become a new problem,” she said.

Fransiska called on the authorities to find and rescue the baby orangutan and ensure it gets proper treatment from experts.

“This is very harrowing. Someone must be held responsible and this has to be a valuable lesson so that it won’t happen again in the future,” she said.

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Indonesia team and published here on our Indonesian site on Feb. 17, 2020.

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